Business

Tuesday 20 November 2018

How McGuckian got on the pig's back

John B McGuckian, chairman of UTV, is one of Ireland's most successful businessmen, writes Charlie Weston JOHN B McGuckian is one of the wealthiest people in Northern Ireland and one of the first Catholics to make it big there.That may be why he felt it was time to give something back when the church in Harryville came under siege recently from angry Orangemen frustrated at not being able to march down Portadown's Garvaghy Road.

Although it's not his church and he is not overtly political, Mr McGuckian was one of a number of prominent Northern Catholics who turned up at Harryville to lend their support.

He may also have been influenced by the fact that three of his brothers joined the Jesuit Order.

However, the captain of Northern industry has never spoken about the Harryville gesture and it has not been reported before.

In fact, Mr McGuckian is of the view that most of what he does should go unreported. But trying to be intensely private sits uneasily with the range of businesses he is involved in all over the island.

He is director of AIB, Unidare and Irish Continental Group, has extensive property interests across the North, heads the family textile business, is chairman of Ulster Television, a former chairman of the Industrial Development Board, and was a ground-breaking proVice-Chancellor of Queen's University.

Add to that a failed bid to buy Belfast Airport, losses as a Lloyd's name and court battles with the taxman, and you begin to realise why he arouses such interest in the North.

``John B has his finger in every pie. They say he is in everything but the crib, but as far as the media is concerned he likes to keep out of the way,'' one observer of the Northern business scene noted.

But it is hard to stay out of the limelight when the company of which you are chairman and the largest individual shareholder decides to pay a special dividend and you end up with stg£1.6m out of it.

When that company is UTV and is beamed into every home in the North, being a shy multi-millionaire is a hard station.

Mr McGuckian has come a long way. The glamour of the media is a far cry from pig farming in north Antrim, where his family made its money.

The family that sired John originated in Cloughmills, near Ballymena, and his father made his money in textiles and by pioneering intensive pig-farming techniques. John's cousins, Patrick and Alastair, founded the international agribusiness company Masstock.

He was not raised with any airs and graces, and Mr McGuckian makes no attempt to disguise his unglamorous roots. ``There's a lot to be said for having an Antrim accent.''

Those who know him say he tends to play up his regional accent. ``It is a disarming accent and tends to put people at ease, but it disguises a fairly cunning business approach. His accent is part of his character.''

But his ``good ol' country boy'' persona is also resented by some business people who see him as shrewd and hard-nosed.

John B, as he is invariably referred to, was educated at a Catholic boarding school, St MacNissi's College, Garron Tower, and at Queen's University, where he graduated with a degree in economics.

At 24 he joined his father's textile business as a trainee executive. The father-son relationship was a close one.

In the family firm he is remembered as a hard worker who earned the respect of the employees. Within two years he joined the board of Cloughmills Manufacturing. Other clothing firms he owns include Regatta Fashions and Cooneen Textiles.

Mr McGuckian moved up a gear when he joined the board of UTV in 1970, following in the footsteps of his late father who had helped found the station.

He hit the headlines when he replaced the indomitable Unionist figure Brum Henderson as chairman of the broadcasting company. Mr McGuckian and former chief executive Desmond Smyth were unhappy at the management style of Henderson.

The station has been hugely profitable under McGuckian and Smyth, but the situation has come full circle with many now questioning the strategic focus of the group.

A lack of commitment to local broadcasting and timid approach to expansion has led one Dublin broker to wonder why UTV bothers being on the stock market: ``UTV has no real corporate strategy. They are very unexciting and cut costs all the time but have no strategy for new income.''

When McGuckian upped his UTV stake, he was seen as well placed if an expected takeover from Scottish Media went ahead. But takeover talk at UTV subsided when Canadian group CanWest took a 29.9pc shareholding.

What the future holds for UTV only McGuckian knows, but it is understood CanWest is anxious for greater links with Dublin-based TV3, where it is the largest shareholder.

Mr McGuckian, who will be 60 in November, may be forced by the institutions to come up with a growth strategy for UTV soon.

The Northern industrialist has had a stint as chairman of the International Fund for Ireland. This position brought him into contact with influential Americans and prepared him for his role as chairman of the Industrial Development Board (IDB).

He is no longer chairman, but in his years in the position in the early 1990s he steered the jobs agency through the embarrassment of poor results during recession to record job creation success.

``He brought a strong private sector ethos to the agency, which had been shackled by a civil service mentality,'' one observer noted.

As IDB chairman he created controversy when he lost a court appeal to the House of Lords over a tax avoidance scheme. He was forced to pay stg£400,000 and endure criticism from judges.

But McGuckian has little need to worry about tax bills.

His investments include extensive property interests with large shareholdings in Newry's Buttercrane Shopping Centre along with Foyleside in Derry and Abbey Centre in Newtownabbey.

As a director of Dublin-based Unidare, he was influential in forcing through a huge acquisition that was opposed by shareholder Dermot Desmond.

At AIB, he was one of the directors called on to resign at this year's agm over the bogus non-resident accounts scandals.

Outside his investments, his time as Queen's pro-Vice-Chancellor was notable for him setting up an equal opportunities committee there and telling a college gathering: ``There absolutely was discrimination in Queen's University.''

But the personality that has won him friends throughout his life has remained as magnetic as ever.

``He is a great raconteur, the kind of person everyone is gathered around at a party to hear him tell a joke,'' one industrialist said.

Another commented: ``He's one of those people who you are pretty sure is a warm guy. You get a warm feeling, but you don't get close to him.'' He works day and night, but is understood to be upset by suggestions that he is a workaholic.

``I would be ashamed if I saw myself as that. I believe in balance in life having friends and taking exercise,'' he has said.

He and his wife Carmel have four children two sons and two daughters. Conscious efforts have been made to avoid lavishing luxury on them just because their father is a multi-millionaire.

However, Mr McGuckian has been transferring many of his shareholdings in quoted companies into trusts for his children lately.

He lives in the same house he grew up in in the rural setting of Antrim's Cloughmills and has a second home on the banks of Lough Erne.

What spare time he has is spent skiing abroad, and watching horse-racing and hurling at home.

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