Dick O’Sullivan’s remarkable journey has taken him from Tralee to Punchestown via Mexico, and he’s always walked on the sunny side of the street
Published 19/04/2010 | 05:00
Dick O'Sullivan well remembers the day he first walked into Punchestown racecourse as interim manager.
The Chairman of HRI, Denis Brosnan, whom he had soldiered alongside at Kerry Group for nearly 20 years, had asked him to steady the ship at the Kildare track after in-fighting and controversy had left it taking on water at such a rate that liquidation seemed inevitable.
Punchestown, once a brilliant flagship of the seas, was sinking apace. O'Sullivan was handed a bucket and warned to beware of the disgruntled crew - most of whom, it's worth pointing out, were on the track's board, quite apart from being on board.
"Denis said to me: 'Will you go in there for six months and try to sort it out'," O'Sullivan recalls. "'It's an awful mess', he said. I said: 'Fine, I'll give it a go'. So, I came down here and I walked around the place. Honest to God, I got a kind of funny feeling. I thought: 'This is a nice place, you could make a job of this maybe'.
"Anyway, I walked out on to the track and I got talking to one of the labourers. I said to him: 'What's the story with this place?' And he says to me: 'I don't know if I should be seen talking to you; are you the new fella coming in here?' 'I am', says I. 'Listen', he says, 'I'll write it all down for you.'
"He arrived in the next day with six pages of foolscap, written in the best of handwriting and he put his finger on everything, from the problems with drainage on the track to all the division at management level. That was my beginning.
"The point is, I suppose, I've always found that if you talk to the guys at the bottom, you'll learn a damn sight more than if you're talking to too many guys around the top. There's a pile of information in people like that if you take the trouble to speak with them -- and most of them are highly intelligent."
Such a tale is typical of O'Sullivan's down-to-earth approach since agreeing to Brosnan's request less than eight years ago.
On first assessing what needed to be done to stop Punchestown leaking funds, he identified the vast amount of money that was being spent on outsourcing services, before establishing his own in-house workforce. Why pay for a consultant to tell you what's wrong when you can ask one of the staff?
However, money wasn't the only problem. The Kildare Hunt Club, which owned Punchestown until HRI stepped in with a rescue package in excess of €3m, couldn't even agree on whether or not the track was worth saving. It was a diplomatic quagmire, but O'Sullivan, 65-years-old at the time, wasn't fazed.
"Yerra, I didn't care really," he says, "because if they fired me, so what? All I said coming in here was that I was going to do my best, and stay out of the politics. I said to myself: 'Let them fight away', and they did fight, but things are fairly okay now."
'Fairly okay' evokes an appropriate amount of caution that any appraisal of Punchestown's fortunes warrants.
The legal wrangle that was prompted by a €3m loan in 1999 from the Getty family under the passports for investments scheme, resulting in the HRI bailout and a date in the Commercial Court, is old news, though the track will be tied to HRI at least until that debt is cleared.
As a going concern, Punchestown has thrived under O'Sullivan's stewardship. In his first year there he turned a profit of approximately €150,000 on the back of a €600,000 loss the previous year. He oversaw the transformation of the racecourse and its facilities into a multi-purpose event centre that hosts everything from the Oxegen music festival to Jehovah Witness conferences and the upcoming Air Show 100.
He has taken the festival from four days to five, got top-class National Hunt racing on primetime terrestrial television, and saw over 105,000 through the gates in 2008. As was the case 12 months ago, all races are sponsored this time round, notwithstanding the recent severing of ties with Betfair in the interest of "rallying round the industry."
"We have turned a profit every year," O'Sullivan confirms, "but on racing alone we wouldn't make a profit. The revenue from other activities allows us to spend the kind of money we need to promote the racing."
An old-fashioned charismatic leader, O'Sullivan's astute business brain has brought him a long way since his legend spawned in Tralee back in the '50s. The son of a creamery manager, his first job as a 16-year-old was to call the Donkey Derby that brought the curtain down on the Rose Of Tralee festival amid great fanfare.
He recollects, with some fondness: "I was mad to be a commentator, and I used to love taking off Micheal O'Hehir. When the Donkey Derby got big, it moved from the streets to the Town Park. There could be up to 20,000 people there, seven deep at the rail. There were some wild men and some wild donkeys and fierce excitement about the place. I even remember Michael Hourigan riding in it.
"And there was one fella that brought a donkey every year. He was the wildest man I ever saw, hair growing out through the cap on his head. You'd see him throwing a bottle of Guinness into the donkey -- a stallion donkey -- before the race. Sure, the donkey would get lascivious halfway round and jump on the nearest one to him, and the crowd would be roaring -- roaring!"
The distraction of veterinary college ensured O'Hehir's position ultimately went unchallenged. O'Sullivan qualified from UCD in 1963, but it wasn't until 1983 that he formed his bond with Brosnan. Their paths had crossed during the Festival of Kerry over the years, and the partnership would take O'Sullivan in a new direction.
He went from the head of Kerry Group's veterinary services division into sales and marketing, and then management. In 1995, Brosnan asked him to go to Mexico to set up a food-processing factory. O'Sullivan returned five years later having not only done that with aplomb, but having done the same in Brazil.
He had played no small part in Kerry Group's international expansion. Next stop was supposed to be a spell at pasture.
"I was 57 when Denis called me in and asked me to go to Mexico, and any kind of a thorny wire job like that is always for six months with him. Anyway, when I came home I told him I was shagged, and I was. 'Six months', he says to me again, 'and you'll be looking for something to do'. Sure enough, he rang me nearly six months to the day, and says: 'Are you ready?'
"So, I did a bit of work at the old HRI for him and then I ran Irish Thoroughbred Marketing for a while, and then Punchestown came along."
The thorniest of thorny wire jobs. Having again outstayed the six-month brief, O'Sullivan stated in 2004 that he would be gone after that year's festival. He's still there, still bringing his unique brand of positive energy to the table at the age of 73.
His wife of 42 years, Carmel, died suddenly five years ago today, and he didn't see the point in retiring then. "I think I'm afraid to retire," he admits poignantly. "I'd say I'd die if I retired, to be honest."
To the benefit of Punchestown and everyone that comes into contact with him, then, O'Sullivan keeps on keeping on.
He can't bear to listen to the end-is-nigh merchants who "peddle this doom and gloom craze and the blame game for a living," though he can't deny the current economic situation. He just tackles it with a bit more verve.
"This isn't the biggest tragedy to ever hit this country," he protests with the vigour of a man half his age. "People forget about the famine and how the country has come through other difficult times. We still have to go out and enjoy ourselves and that's the message we are trying to get out.
"One of the successes of Punchestown, if you can call it success, is that we're hungry. We've never had money here, and I think people are more switched on if that's the case.
"Driving the team here is like driving a Rolls Royce. Everyone had to take a month off without pay this year, but that meant that we haven't had to lay anybody off. Maybe we'll all have to take two months next year, but maybe we won't."
From high-spirited donkeys in Tralee, via Mexico at a time when interest rates were in excess of 100pc, the extraordinary career of Dick O'Sullivan will continue at its resplendent best throughout this week's Punchestown National Hunt Festival.
Invariably, he will be identifiable by a dapper pair of prescription sunglasses which, given the usual overcast conditions, may be a subtle means of expressing his outlook -- sunny.