News Martina Devlin

Monday 1 September 2014

Inside the court of Sir Anthony O'Reilly

To view O'Reilly's career from perspective of his insolvency is a mistake

Published 28/06/2014 | 02:30

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Tony O'Reilly at the Waterford Wedgwood AGM in 2006.
Sir Anthony and Lady O’Reilly at an Ireland Funds gala in 2007
Tony O’Reilly with former Irish rugby captain Karl Mullen, who was also his rugby coach in school in Belvedere.

Late one Saturday night, a 'Sunday Independent' reporter was retrieving the Lotto results from a fax machine when the phone rang. He didn't make it back up the long newsroom in time, but the caller rang again several minutes later.

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Sir Anthony O'Reilly – or "your chairman" as he introduced himself – was on the line, ringing with a query from Castlemartin House, his mansion and estate in Kildare. "Nobody seems to answer the phone round there," he said, a note of concern in his voice. "There's only a skeleton staff on Saturday nights," replied the reporter. A brief pause. "And which particular skeleton am I speaking to?" asked Tony O'Reilly.

Such examples of his sense of humour and wit are legion. As are stories about the parties he threw – legendary both for their hospitality and the cross-section of guests.

At one, I remember passing through a room where a Faberge egg sat on the mantelpiece. The objet d'art was not in a glass case, but rested there for anyone to touch and admire. Or drop. Later, in the garden marquee, I walked by a cluster of people in gales of laughter. At their centre was our presidential-looking host recounting a rugby story. He was no Great Gatsby, watching festivities from afar. Instead, he liked to mingle, and not only with the A-list.

Were we beguiled at his Camelot court? Blinded by his charm, and the glamour of his trappings? There is no denying it was pleasant to be on the invitation list. And he had no need to include people such as me: there was no obvious benefit to him. Yet he spread his net wide.

Equally, many Independent News and Media employees who have watched their pensions collapse are inclined to wonder whether he didn't milk the company dry, just as he squeezed Eircom. The INM board was overly large and over remunerated, and he paid himself handsomely.

On the other hand, a great number of jobs were provided, and working conditions were good for most of the period he led INM, from 1973 to 2009. The benefits were shared.

The man we know variously as Sir Anthony, Dr AJF and Tony O'Reilly was possibly Ireland's first billionaire. He was a Renaissance man, from rugby star to business tycoon to philanthropist. But the financial crash has seized his fortune and dimmed his Midas touch.

Now 78, his star is in decline, his landmark businesses lost, his trophy homes in the process of a sell-off to meet debts for which AIB is pursuing him through the courts. However, none of those reversals ought to detract from his triumphs. His legacy remains an enviable one, above all as a benefactor.

Even if he achieved nothing else in life but set up the Ireland Funds, what a magnificent endowment that has been. It performs stellar work for Ireland, North and South, helping a range of charities since its foundation almost four decades ago. It also channels money to Irish groups abroad.

To view his career from the narrow perspective of his insolvency is a mistake. Tony O'Reilly was a trailblazer at a time when inspirational people were thin on the ground in Ireland: he has made a significant contribution to Irish life, not least because he showed others what could be achieved. Perhaps his DNA contains a characteristic which is both a flaw and a strength, however: a driving urge to succeed, and keep on succeeding, rather than say enough.

By nature, he is an optimist, which explains his attempt to save Waterford Wedgwood with personal cash when others would have walked away. He and his brother-in-law Peter Goulandris pumped €400m into the company. That proved to be a turning point in Mr O'Reilly's fortunes. He had hoped for state aid, or assistance from the banks, but was disappointed. A close associate said he regarded Waterford as an iconic brand that ought to be preserved. He lost out spectacularly. Of course, the people who truly lost out are the workers whose jobs and pensions vanished.

The Waterford Crystal connection tapped into his enduring love: Ireland. He invested in Irish companies, although it must also be noted that he is tax resident in the Bahamas. Possibly, his business empire might have endured if he had channelled less money towards Ireland and more into outside ventures – the Australian and South African arms of his media group have returned some value to him, for example.

He inspired loyalty, and staff – from his driver to his PA – stayed with him for decades. He never forgot old friends, many of whom were the beneficiaries of his kindness if they fell on hard times. He bought cars for some, and a house for a former teacher who left the priesthood. Often, his driver delivered packages containing cash to help people through a rough patch.

But he is no saint, and is somewhat vain, as his acceptance of a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 2001 highlights, although it also helped his British business interests.

A new photograph of the chairman was sent into the INM library every year, for use in stories – always in his trademark blue shirt with white collar.

Every time a horse race was sponsored by one of his companies, photographs of him and his second wife, shipping heiress and racehorse trainer Chryss Goulandris, appeared in his newspapers. I sometimes wondered how much of it originated with him, and how much sprang from subordinates attempting to second-guess his wishes.

But he contributed a huge amount to Irish life, from fostering links with the North, to setting up the Wexford Festival Opera.

Generous to friends, and those he admired, he invited Nelson Mandela to his house in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, giving the statesman space to finish 'Long Walk To Freedom'. He brought both Mr Mandela and Bill Clinton to Ireland to deliver lectures.

He didn't only interact with dealmakers and celebrities. Fond memories of childhood summers in Sligo sent him back to Rosses Point, where he chartered a yacht, hired a jazz band and invited sundry cousins and friends on board. He enjoyed entertaining: it gave him pleasure to share his good fortune.

By nature, he seems to have been a dreamer who liked to support the dreams of others. To that end, he set up scholarships, two a year for 13 years, via the O'Reilly Foundation, allowing gifted students to study abroad. He gave away more than €1m in total for the duration of the programme; John Kelly, professor emeritus at UCD who oversaw the scholarships, said they made "an enormous contribution".

It was not in his nature to think short-term, and he sank a fortune into oil and gas exploration – it hasn't come to fruition, but who knows in the future? He invested heavily in lecture halls or libraries at seats of learning ranging from Trinity College to his alma mater UCD, and from Dublin City University to Queens in Belfast. Belvedere College, where he went to school, has also been on the receiving end of his generosity.

Today, we overlook how extraordinary this was. Marketing was his forte, and in the early 1960s, as general manager of the Irish Dairy Board, he developed the Kerrygold umbrella brand for Irish export butter. It has stood the test of time.

When Heinz saw him in action, he was poached, and wound up as chairman. Giant American companies don't hand out top jobs to duffers, no matter how charming.

He could have stayed in the US but flew between the US and Ireland, developing an Irish portfolio of businesses through his investment vehicle Fitzwilton, established with Vincent Ferguson and Nicholas Leonard in the early 1970s. There was a genuine desire to invest in Ireland, even as he epitomised the jet-set lifestyle of a global businessman, flying between his mock Tudor mansion near Pittsburg, his Castlemartin estate, his holiday home in Glandore in west Cork, his 'off-shore' property in the Bahamas and a castle in Deauville, France.

That first time I laid eyes on Tony O'Reilly, he looked every inch the billionaire. But his career trajectory is that of a man who wasn't interested in being on the Rich List for the sake of wealth alone: his ambitions were broader, and more inclusive. So when I hear him compared to Icarus, who soared too close to the sun, I remember this: while Icarus fell, at least he flew.

Martina Devlin

Irish Independent

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