The rise of Tony O'Reilly before the great fall
From inauspicious beginnings, O'Reilly excelled in sports before taking on business, says Nicola Anderson
Published 28/06/2014 | 02:30
A SPECIAL birthday video message from President Ronald Reagan to businessman Tony O'Reilly back in 1986 said everything that needed to be said about his wealth, power and influence at what was then not even the pinnacle of his career.
At 50, the Heinz chairman was a "mere child", joked Reagan, who added: "In another couple of decades he will be old enough to think about running for public office."
"Whether on a rugby team, running an Irish newspaper chain or an international business, Tony O'Reilly has established throughout his life a remarkable record of achievement and accomplishment," said Reagan.
Almost 30 years later, this flickering birthday video is a mesmerising snapshot in time.
Now "insolvent" and having failed to secure more time to sell off his assets in a dignified fashion, O'Reilly's career – once glittering – seems irretrievable.
On paper, he had an inauspicious start – an illegitimate child in the 1930s at a time when both society and the church breathed fire and brimstone at any suggestion of impropriety.
In other circumstances, his beautiful flame-haired mother, Aileen O'Connor, might have ended up in a Magdalene Laundry. Her lover was Jack O'Reilly – a civil servant who had abandoned his first wife, Judith Clarke, broken-hearted and pregnant with their fourth child, dispatching her home to her mother.
Judith became ill following the birth in 1932 and Jack sent his elder daughters, aged just four and five, to a convent in Wales. The siblings would not be reunited until World War II broke out in 1939.
With Aileen – the daughter of a Royal Irish Constabulary policeman – Jack was finally content and they moved in together, husband and wife in the eyes of an unsuspecting world.
Their only child, Anthony John Francis O'Reilly, was born on May 7, 1936, and was lavished with love, wanting for nothing in their home on Griffith Avenue, despite the dire standards of 1930s' Dublin.
Ivan Fallon's biography of the businessman, 'The Player', tells of an early memory in O'Reilly's childhood during "the Emergency" when a Spitfire chased a German Messerschmitt plane in the skies amid a family picnic, while his mother worried that a stray bomb might spoil the bacon and eggs she was cooking.
Sent to school at the age of six, he thrived at Belvedere College under the approving eye of the Jesuits who treated him kindly.
Generally good at his studies, though with an inclination to be lazy, O'Reilly was effortlessly popular with both fellow students and teachers.
At the age of 15, he was brought into a room by the Jesuits and told of the circumstances of his birth.
Cycling home, he wondered how he could bring it up with his parents. He didn't, and at the age of 38, asked a cousin if his father suspected he knew.
"Every morning, he prays you don't find out," his cousin replied. "All of Ireland knows," O'Reilly said. "Why the hell does he think I don't know?"
Rugby was the main force in his life. In his final year in Belvedere he scored 42 tries in 21 matches – a school record.
Before one match that year, Jack O'Reilly presented his son Tony with a copy of Kipling's poem 'If', drawing special attention to a verse that O'Reilly would always cherish: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat these two impostors just the same ... Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And – which is more – you'll be a man, my son!"
"My father had always impressed on me that it's easy to win but it's hard to lose," O'Reilly said later.
By the age of 18, he made the Irish squad – too young, he realised, when he lost a front tooth in his first match. With 29 caps for Ireland, he still holds the record for the number of tries on British and Irish Lions Tours.
It was on his second Lions Tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1959 that he met his first wife, Susan Cameron, a beautiful blonde Australian with whom he had six children.
By 1989, the marriage was over and in the spring of 1991, his relationship with the wealthy Greek shipping heiress Chryss Goulandris had hit the gossip columns.
In business, his early success was oiled by butter – with the marketing success of Kerrygold where he spear-headed a dazzling rebranding of Irish produce for the British market, then mostly reliant on New Zealand produce.
In February 1963, he was badly shaken when he ploughed into a cyclist. In 'The Player', O'Reilly is quoted as admitting that his first instinct was to 'hit and run' – but the man survived. O'Reilly was fined £4 for driving with undue care and attention but, from then on, always employed a driver.
But in his business career, O'Reilly remained fearless and in 1969 became head of Heinz's British subsidiary and was president of the company by 1973, at the age of 37.
By 1991, he was making $75m (€55m) a year as the highest-paid executive in the USA.
But his business dealings in Ireland were always central, building up the blue-chip portfolio that was eventually his undoing.
In 2001, riding high on business and philanthropic success, he was knighted for services to Northern Ireland. But his title must sound like a mockery to him today, as he surveys the shards of his former empire.
The Key Quotes
"I try and treat people with whom I am engaged in any undertaking with fairness."
Mr O'Reilly explains in court papers why he was anxious to ensure equal treatment between all of his lenders.
"Unless I could be confident that my lenders would not become involved in a hasty rush to judgment, I simply would not have been in a position to dispose of assets in an orderly fashion – which I have been doing – in order to pay down my borrowings."
Mr O'Reilly explains that a promise to treat banks equally formed part of his forbearance arrangement with them.
"Whilst judicial sympathy and humanitarian concern do have a part to play, it is the duty of the court to uphold the law and to maintain a fair balance between litigants so as to achieve a fair result."
High Court Judge Mr Justice Peter Kelly on the balance to be struck when considering whether to grant a stay against the registration and execution of a debt.
"On the evidence before me, the probability is that the encumbered assets will not be sufficient to discharge the indebtedness to the plaintiff."
Judge Kelly, in his ruling, predicts that AIB may not have its debt fully discharged through the security supporting its loans to Mr O'Reilly.