Analysis

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Maeve Dineen: Unwelcome return to spotlight for the great survivor Goodman

Published 16/01/2013|05:00

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WITH every passing day, Ireland feels more and more like an episode from RTE's 'Reeling in the Years' circa 1987. Emigrants coming home at Christmas to tearful scenes at the airport. Rioters throwing petrol bombs in Belfast. A divisive debate about abortion in Dublin and another new album from David Bowie.

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Now another dollop of unwanted nostalgia – a fresh controversy involving beef baron Larry Goodman.

Mr Goodman has been flying under the radar for some time but there was a time when he was one of the most powerful men in the country – a man so powerful, in fact, that TDs had to fly home from their holidays to attend a special sitting of the Dail to clear up the mess when his company almost went bang.

Yesterday, he made news again after horse meat was found in supermarket burgers made by Mr Goodman and others. The meat is understood to have originated at two Irish meat processing plants: Liffey Meats in Cavan, owned by the Mallon Brothers, and Silvercrest Foods, owned by Mr Goodman, as well as one UK plant.

Last night, Silvercrest said it never purchased or traded in equine product and has launched a full-scale investigation into two continental European third-party suppliers who are the suspected source of the product in question.

This seems to be another trough in Mr Goodman's career which has already been racked by massive highs and enormous lows. He'll weather this storm easily. He has faced and fought allegations of shady business practices and had his bank accounts trawled through by tribunals but he's still standing.

What looked like a career in shambles back in the late 1980s has become a multi-million euro empire, making him one of Ireland's most successful but also most controversial businessmen.

Back in the mid-1980s, Mr Goodman was one of the largest beef processors in Europe. At one stage his family controlled nearly 5pc of Ireland's GNP. But his empire began to fray following a series of revelations concerning alleged abuses of European subsidies, the export credit insurance scheme and the Monopolies & Mergers legislation.

In 1991, he was the subject of the infamous beef tribunal, set up to investigate fraud, tax evasion and the use of political influence to secure state-backed export credit insurance. However, he suffered little damage from its findings.

But what really did for Mr Goodman's empire was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. He was the single biggest supplier of beef to Iraq when UN trade sanctions kicked in. Saddam Hussein's government owed him hundreds of millions. Within days his organisation was on the verge of collapse, owing £510m to 33 banks.

He was saved by the government of the time, which acted with rare speed. He was the first, but not the last, Irish business that was essentially too big to fail. Instead of being thrown to the wolves, the banks allowed him to keep 40pc of the shares in the new company while they took the rest.

Then, in 1995, he pulled off the biggest coup of his career by buying out the banks for just £50m. In this deal, the newly-named Irish Food Processors, now known as ABP Food Group, regained total control of his beef industry assets.

The son of a sixth-generation cattle dealer in Co Louth, Mr Goodman is notoriously private. He's no socialite, although he does support a number of charities. The non-drinker and non-smoker lives a quiet life, built around his family in Castlebellingham. He is married to Kitty and has two sons who are now in the business.

ABP, which employs 7,500 people, is one of the leading beef processors in Europe.

What happens next is anybody's guess. Mr Goodman has shown that he has the grit to survive far bigger setbacks than a piece of horse meat in a burger but he is now operating in an entirely different world to the late 1980s and early 1990s. The public is far more conscious of where their food comes from these days.

He may well find that some of his biggest customers will start looking elsewhere for their meat products. If this happens, no TD can save him this time.

Irish Independent

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