How decency was Anthony O’Reilly’s Achilles heel
Paying off your debts is a curiously old-fashioned thing to do. A little like entertaining your staff at your own home
Published 29/06/2014 | 00:00
Though there seems to be a healthy amount of schadenfreude around the circumstances in which Tony O'Reilly finds himself, it's fair to say that even his detractors are a little bit taken aback at how far he appears to have fallen.
Before Denis O' Brien, Tony O'Reilly was our colossus astride the world stage. He was a billionaire before such things were commonplace. As the boss of Heinz, he showed the Yanks how to do business - he even invented Kerrygold, and with it the now accepted notion that a country with grass like ours can sell food at a premium. And, of course, the sun never set on his media empire.
And even as things crumbled around him - his media empire gone, his dream of an Irish luxury brand gone, along with hundreds of millions of his own cash, and even his oil exploration seeming to run dry - no one suspected he was actually broke. And the phrase that echoed around last week, among both his friends and his enemies, was: "How did it come to this?"
In case it's not obvious, I should declare my interest here. I worked for Sir Anthony for many years. In many ways, he took me off the streets. Having messed around for a few years, I found myself doing a post grad in journalism and Anne Harris started giving me work based on an unsolicited article.
Despite the fact that I came out of nowhere with neither business, sporting nor family connections, Sir Anthony and Gavin O'Reilly were always encouraging and supportive of my career here. For an organisation that was characterised as riddled with nepotism, I always found they took you as they found you and you thrived based on hard work and, dare I say it, merit.
I should also mention that I even made the cut for Castlemartin one year. It was 2008, and already O'Reilly was battling the other major shareholder in the Indo group. The year before that, his stake in the company was worth a billion and he earned €30m in dividends. The following year, he would step down from the company. But that night, despite the barbarians at the gate, there was an extraordinary spread under a marquee attached to the house. He was a great host and, as I remember, he introduced me to Baroness Jay and encouraged me to dance with the wife of Brian Mulroney. He introduced me to the latter poor woman as one of our great writers, which she took to mean something other than what he meant, and she began to rhapsodise about her love of other great Irish writers. And when we'd both had enough, Sir Anthony seamlessly cut me off and waltzed her away somewhere else.
At a certain point that evening, the good wine, which had been flowing freely, was cut off, the O'Reillys ascended through the French doors to the house with a select few, and it was time for the rest of us to go. Of course, we now know that these beanos for the staff at Castlemartin were all wrong and just more of his hubris. But at the time, you felt appreciated. And you felt like he had a touch of class. And it was certainly democratic. As the lowliest of help, we sat with Gavin and his new partner for dinner that night; Gavin, who always just acted like one of the lads on these occasions, never lording it over anyone.
I suppose it felt like they wore it well.
Not that I am under any illusion that Tony O'Reilly was perfect. As is the case in Waterford, plenty of my friends and my colleagues around here will blame him for their decimated or non-existent pensions. And he certainly took a fair whack out of this company in the good old days, but then so too did all of the shareholders. He clearly overextended this company to build his worldwide empire, and there was clearly ego and hubris at work there.
But then, what businessman doesn't have ego and hubris? Without ego and hubris, what companies would be built, what empires would be built? If it was down to modest, risk-averse people like you and me, everyone would work in the civil service.
And he is hardly unusual in having got into unsustainable debt in recent years. Look at how much SME debt in this country is in arrears right now. And any entrepreneur I have ever met has been rash on some level. They have to be. They are a particular animal - survivors. Indeed, O'Reilly seems to have behaved a lot better than many other debt-ridden businessmen in terms of how he has approached his paying back of debt.
He has been dutifully selling off his life's work for the last four years and paying down debt with the proceeds. Heinz, Landis + Gyr, even his stake in this place, the final part of which is on the block now should anyone want it. Unlike most guys in this position, O'Reilly is selling all his homes and possessions too. You could argue that this is because he has to, but you have to admit there is something old-fashioned and classy about this. He's not even clinging on to the graveyard where his parents and grandchildren rest.
What could be a humiliation, and what is no doubt seen by many as a humiliation, is being conducted with a quiet dignity that you don't see much of these days. Even Judge Peter Kelly was moved to commend Sir Anthony for the way he was facing up to his debts, and the fact that he wasn't disputing he owed them. Compare it with the average bust developer that Kelly sees, trying every way to get out of paying anything back and frantically trying to hang on to whatever holiday gaff they can or squirrelling stuff off to the wife, and Sir Anthony looks good. No doubt his own wife will not see him short.
So how did it come to this? How did a man we all thought had plenty of cash underneath it all end up seemingly broke? The answer, in one sense, is probably simple - events, dear boy.
But in terms of what Tony O'Reilly's Achilles heel was, well, it is probably fair to say that Tony O'Reilly's major flaw as a businessman was sentiment. He wasn't Buddhist enough. He got too attached, even when things stopped making financial sense.
That was certainly the case with Waterford Wedgwood. As the value of his stake in the Indo was collapsing, O'Reilly and his brother-in-law poured hundreds of millions of their own money into trying to save Waterford, and with it, O'Reilly's dream of a great monument that would last long after he was gone, a great worldwide luxury brand coming out of Ireland.
I have to admit some sympathy here too. I share O'Reilly's view that a country with the kind of narrative of craftsmanship and powerful creative myths that we have, stories that people buy all over the world, should have a luxury brand that capitalises on these myths. O'Reilly was too attached to that dream, to the point that he poured good money after bad. Obviously, he did it thinking he would make it back someday and create a great legacy, but mainly he did it because he couldn't let go.
He was too attached to the Indo also. Even when it became plain to see he couldn't win, he hung on, sinking hundreds of millions into it. You could argue that he didn't see in time how the internet would change this business. But what newspaper has managed this transition? Did the music industry manage it? Are TV and movies going to do it?
At least Sir Anthony didn't pay a half a billion for MySpace like Rupert Murdoch, or €50m and change on a property website, like the Irish Times. And, of course, there was debt too. This place took on debt at a time when debt was a good thing, and everyone should have it, and then, suddenly, debt was a bad thing.
Look, you can dismiss all this as someone sucking up to their old boss, and trying to do a favour for someone who did a lot for them. And there probably is an element of loyalty to how I see all this.
But the real reason I feel the need to say all this is because I think there are plenty who will give you the other side of the story, and you know it already. O'Reilly aside, I always think it's sad when men do extraordinary things in their lives, and then, towards the end of their careers, it all falls apart, and that then is seen as the final result. It ends in failure, therefore, it was all a failure.
I feel sorry for them, sorry that they will probably never have the chance to get back up there, which is what Sir Anthony would have probably done if this happened to him at 50. But I suppose I'm sentimental myself. You'd hate to be reflecting back towards the end and not be able to see any of the good.
In the meantime, Tony O'Reilly can console himself with the fact that he went out with a touch of class, endeavouring to pay his debts in an era when guys like him don't do that any more. It's a curiously old-fashioned thing to do, a bit like entertaining the staff at your home.