Thursday 22 June 2017

Alex Spain

A family man, whose business and sporting achievements were the cornerstone of his life, by Rory Egan

There are few enough people in the Irish business world that could combine the roles of young, dynamic driver of deals, safe steward through rough times and wise and thoughtful counsel -- all at the same time. Alex Spain, who died last Tuesday, was one such man.

A brilliant, yet thoughtful person, Alex shunned the limelight whenever possible but inevitably rose to the top of whatever venture he found to be his next project.

Born on October 1, 1932, the second of six children, his father, also Alex, was an obstetrician who went on to become Master of Holles Street. Alex would later become the vice-chairman of the Holles Street board for many years, one of a number of times his career crossed his father's path. His mother, Eibhlin, was also a remarkable woman in her own right being the first woman to qualify as an architect in UCD. She later owned and ran a very well regarded antique shop in Ranelagh.

He excelled in school, going first to Willow Park and later to Blackrock College where he won two Junior Cup and two Senior Cup medals as well as captaining both teams and a Leinster Schools team. In 1980 he became President of Blackrock College Union.

To an outsider, it would seem that success came easy to Alex but that would be to underestimate the tenacity, focus and drive that he gave every task he set himself.

He earned a first class honours Bachelor of Commerce degree from UCD while also holding the role of Secretary of the Rugby Club in the year they arranged the first colours match against Trinity.

He captained the side the following year. He would become part of the only father-son combination that would both captain UCD in rugby and subsequently become president of the club years later.

It was no surprise to anyone that he came first place in Ireland in his Chartered Accountancy exams and he was immediately offered a partnership in Forsyth and Co, the accountancy firm that he articled with. He knew that the firm was too small to tender for the more complex work that the emerging Irish nation was beginning to compete in and so was the brains behind the merger, in 1969, with Kennedy Crowley and became Niall Crowley's right hand man, building a dynamic relationship based on mutual respect.

In 1972, Alex was instrumental in a merger of their firm with Stokes Brothers and Pim making the legendary Stokes Kennedy Crowley, or SKC, as it was known throughout the country and beyond. Alex was to succeed Niall Crowley as managing partner and in his time he almost doubled the staff numbers overtaking Craig Gardner as the biggest accountancy firm in Ireland and SKC would later become the firm we now call KPMG.

To describe Alex Spain through his many successes in business would be to do him a great disservice. He was first, and foremost, a family man having married Maureen Murphy in 1958. Together, they raised six children -- Alex, John, Catherine, Brian, Justin and Elizabeth and a subsequent 13 grandchildren. He liked nothing more than the family holidays in Dooks, Co Kerry, where he spent so much time with them as they were growing up. He never brought his work home with him and family time was sacrosanct in Alex's eyes.

Apart from rugby, golf soon became his passion and he joined Milltown Golf Club where he became Captain at the age of 40, he joined Portmarnock and then Dooks Golf Club where he became president. Pride of place, however, went to his membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews, Scotland, one of the rarest privileges in the golfing world.

Alex looked for new challenges when he finished his double term of managing partner of SKC and it wasn't long before the government asked him to take on the loss-making B & I ferry company. This was possibly his greatest achievement as union problems had beset the company.

Alex had great faith in the vast majority of the people he was working with and, through persuasion and tough decision making, he turned the company to profitability in a matter of years. It was later sold to the Irish Continental Group and continues to perform well.

Among many other achievements, he was a director of DCC for 30 years, a director of Larry Goodman's Food Industries, chairman of National Irish Bank and president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants at the extraordinarily young age of 42.

Alex did all this without being rude, arrogant, unkind or ostentatious, something that many businessmen and women of today think of as prerequisites of powerful positions.

Those who worked with him found him to be loyal, interested and above all a rock of reason and he achieved all that he did through hard work and a belief in considered, rational decision making.

Alex Spain was a gentleman and he battled his final illness with the same dignity and commitment that were the cornerstones of his character. He will be missed by anyone who knew him well and his legacy will be hard to emulate and may never be surpassed.

Sunday Independent

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