Tuesday 20 February 2018

Ambition no match for this semi-state monolith

Emmet Oliver

Jimmy Tolan is just the latest in a long line of VHI chief executives from the private sector who've tried to shake up the semi-state, which suffers from an ageing customer base.

Mr Tolan, an accountant, is more used to the world of big quoted companies than the often shark-infested waters of the semi-states. However, during his three years at VHI, he improved its financial position and pressed the government to introduce a risk-equalisation scheme that could put the company on a firm footing.

Other chief executives from the private sector who tried to transform the VHI include Oliver Tatten and Vincent Sheridan. While both had fleeting success, the company keeps on defying those who try to "fix" it.

Mr Tolan is believed to be financially comfortable after working for many years at a senior level in Fyffes, the fruit importer and distributor. His decision to leave the private sector in 2008 surprised many.

Mr Tolan initially had big ambitions for the VHI, even talking about the company expanding overseas and offering financial products beyond just health insurance.

Mr Tolan's accessible and approachable personality made him ideal for explaining to the public why providing healthcare to an ageing population is so costly. While he clearly never enjoyed it, Tolan performed reasonably well when the company had to explain why it was putting up premiums.


He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish business from his time at KPMG, is superb at sizing up numbers, and he would have been ideal for the VHI if the company had been privatised, as was promised by the last government.

He led almost all of the major buyouts Fyffes did between 1993 and 2007. These skills would have been useful to the government in a privatisation scenario, but the arrival of Fine Gael and Labour into government earlier this year ended this prospect.

He will have no problem landing a lucrative position in the private sector, although another option open to him is to join an insurer, even one prepared to compete with VHI.

A passionate football fan, Mr Tolan has a wide network of friends in Irish business and will be highly sought after.

The disclosure that he had a difficult relationship with a leading minister will most likely enhance his reputation in the private sector.

Irish Independent

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