Lifestyle

Wednesday 17 September 2014

The heiress who turned her back on family fortune

When Caroline Murphy controversially quit construction giant Murphy Group this week, she claimed she was only following her late father's wishes.

Heiress Caroline Murphy
Even after becoming one of Britain's richest men, her father shunned publicity and the high-life.
A building damaged during the Blitz

Her father built one of Britain's biggest construction groups after hitch-hiking across Ireland as a 15-year-old to take the boat to London.

Now Caroline Murphy has walked away from the multi-million pound company that bears her family's name, after failing to persuade her fellow board members to turn it into a workers' cooperative.

Those unfamiliar with the story of John A Murphy might wonder what the self-made, multi-millionaire would have made of his daughter's plan and her decision to give up her role as vice chairman of Murphy Group – a role he appointed her to several years before his death, aged 95, in May, 2009.

However, Caroline Murphy is convinced her late father, a hard-driving businessman who employed thousands of Irish immigrants in the decades after World War II, would have approved.

Ms Murphy's proposal would have seen Murphy Group's 3,500 staff given shares in the company and a major say in how it was run, creating a direct-democracy, worker's co-operative similar to a successful Spanish model.

The company board, and, it is said, her mother and two brothers, were against the idea.

And this week, the 31-year-old walked away from the €300m family business, indicating that she still intends to sell her personal 20pc stake, €48m worth of shares, to staff at peppercorn rates. In this way she still hopes to give staff a significant say in how the group is run.

Explaining her decision to quit after eight years with the group, Ms Murphy, a union activist, gay rights campaigner and advocate against sexual violence, said her father's decision to make her the main director of the company had been his "long-held wish", made "with confidence and strength".

"My father established the company to provide opportunities to migrants arriving in the UK, mainly from Ireland," she said.

"He believed his colleagues deserved his respect and loyalty. It was a great source of joy for him to see people learn, grow and fulfil their potential.

"But most of all, he was proud to have created a workplace where barriers to progression were few.

"The natural extension of my father's values, in my view, is the development of the Murphy Group into an employee-owned structure," Ms Murphy said.

"It is the people working within this company that have created its success, and I believe that the future of his legacy is best entrusted into their capable hands."

Ms Murphy's vision for the group, which comprises seven companies including J Murphy & Sons, Murphy International, Murphy Homes and Murphy Pipelines, was inspired by a visit to Spain to study the Mondragon group, a workers' co-op that operates grocery shops, car factories and local banks.

The heiress wanted Murphy Group to be run along similar lines, as a direct democracy workers' co-operative, giving employees the right to vote on key decisions, granting extra shares to long-time staff and giving lower-paid workers benefits such as price-breaks on stock.

Her vision for the group was radical, but not unheard of, even in the UK. The John Lewis Partnership, which comprises 35 John Lewis department stores and 269 Waitrose supermarkets, is employee-owned.

All 76,500 permanent staff are partners, sharing the profits and getting a say in company matters.

The group has an annual turnover of £9.8bn (€11.8bn) and was the third largest private company in the UK in 2010.

And as her radical vision suggests, Caroline Murphy is also not your usual company director.

A committed trade union activist, the 31-year-old has also been a vocal advocate for gay rights and plans to marry her long-term partner later this year, now that same-sex marriage has been legalised in Britain.

She has campaigned on behalf of the Travelling community and for an end to violence against women and children.

Ms Murphy is currently studying for an MA in Violence Against Women, having talked about her own harrowing experience of being raped and the nervous breakdown and suicide attempts that followed.

"I get flashbacks," she wrote in her personal blog of that traumatic experience. "One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for me was over-activity, over-working.

"I wanted to work 16 hours a day to keep myself occupied."

Her father John A, who got his start repairing bomb-damaged runways for the Royal Air Force and then began to build his vast personal fortune on the bomb-sites of London in the post-war construction boom, was always his own man.

In some ways, almost a caricature of the hard-nosed Irish emigrant made good abroad.

Even after becoming one of Britain's richest men, he shunned publicity and the high-life, employing a "press officer" (who would identify himself only as 'Mr O'Connor') whose job was to give a flat "No" to any media requests.

Called "secretive" and a "millionaire recluse", he believed in instilling his values in his children, who all worked with the group as teenagers.

His daughter Caroline could be said to have inherited more than the family money, showing the same maverick spirit that drove her father to quit Kerry as a 15-year-old boy and build an empire across the Irish Sea.

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