Opinion: Lessons from an era when the bottom line wasn't everything

The former Irish Sugar Company factory in Carlow.
The former Irish Sugar Company factory in Carlow.
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I had occasion lately to spend a day or two in Carlow. I went there to meet people who had worked in the sugar factory and to explore the contribution it had made to the town and the region. Everyone I met was fulsome in their praise of the factory and there is no doubt its contribution to Carlow and the South East region was immense.

By all accounts it was a humane and generous place to work and there is a recognition of the huge legacy it left in terms of skills, businesses and social infrastructure.

These semi-state or publicly owned companies left huge legacies that are only now being recognised after the companies are gone or swallowed by the python of privatisation.

Indeed if you look at some of the crises currently facing the country, particularly in relation to housing and apprenticeships, companies like the Irish Sugar Company had a handle on these issues years ago.

Long before the concept of 'Corporate Social Responsibility' was conceived of Carlow Sugar Factory was practicing it. Two of its managing directors, MJ Costello and Maurice Sheehy, were firm believers in the company becoming involved in the community beyond the factory gate.

Between 1947 and 1968, the factory actively supported the development of three housing estates in Carlow. Former worker Joe McDonnell explained how it came about, "An independent committee known as the Utility Housing Committee' applied for the planning permission.

"The company provided the land, the drawings and the engineering supervision. In the earliest scheme in 1947 the prospective owners provided labour in the building of the houses," Joe explained. Grants were provided by the local authority and the national government with the remainder provided by Co Council loan

"In our estate, built in 1968, the houses cost €3,200 each," Joe said. "Of that €250 was a local government grant, €250 came in the form of a government grant and the remainder was a Co Council loan taken out over 35 years."

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He recalls that just when his estate was about to be handed over there was a hold up in the Co Council grant leading to a delay in the new owners moving in to their homes. The then managing director of the Sugar Company, Maurice Sheehy, paid the builder and the houses were handed over. The workers repaid the Sugar Factory when the grant from the council came through.

Can you imagine anything like that happening today? I don't think so. Even among the 'cool, life-work-balance' companies that pride themselves in being laid back, worker friendly all decked out in T-shirt and jeans.

These havens of informality would be more likely to hide behind skyscrapers of policies and procedures before involving themselves in the social well-being of their workers beyond the water cooler. Most certainly they would not be in the habit of providing bridging loans to workers' housing associations.

During one of my meetings with the men in Carlow, a former worker reminded me that the purpose of public companies such as the Sugar company was not to make profit, it was to provide a public good, and this they did. They provided work, skills and social cohesion, a concept that is far broader than the narrow focus on the bottom line.

Since the era of Thatcher the concept of the public good has taken something of a battering. A central tenet of the Iron Lady's philosophy - that there is no such thing as society only individuals - has informed a lot of public policy since. To paraphrase the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, the rot set in 'as societies with markets evolved into market societies.'

Another major contribution to the social and economic well-being of the country on the part of these companies was the wealth of skills they handed on through their commitment to apprenticeships and the training of their workers. Such commitment to training and apprenticeship is regarded as core to the sustained success of Germany.

Finally, it is remarkable how many of the founders and drivers of these companies were deeply involved in the struggle for independence and the foundation of the new state. These were people who literally put their lives on the line for the public good in the course of the struggle. They were committed to the creation of a better world so their focus was much broader than the bottom line and bonuses. They were servants of the public good rather than careerists.

It is too much to expect that revolutionary zeal will survive more than a generation, neither can it be expected that methods and models of work from another era will be appropriate for today. However, real evolution and development builds on what is best. We could do well to revisit what was best in those companies that laid the foundations for modern Ireland.

From guerilla warfare to the boardroom

Among those who swapped the bandolier for the boardroom was MJ Costelloe, managing director of the Irish Sugar Company from 1946 to 1966.

Born in Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary in 1904 his godfather Thomas MacDonagh was one of the signatories to the 1916 Proclamation. He served as intelligence officer with the No 1 Tipperary Brigade of the Old IRA during the War of Independence.

In 1922, at 18 years of age he was made Colonel Commandant in the National Army and after the Civil War was sent for training in the US.

On his return he was involved in the foundation of the Irish Military College becoming Commandant. During the 'Emergency' he commanded the Army's First Division charged with defending the south coast.

In his time, the Sugar Company grew and expanded. He was responsible for naming the beet harvest the "Beet Campaign' and in his time Erin Foods was born.

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