Business Irish

Saturday 21 July 2018

Obituary: Ivor Kenny

He gave Irish management a truly professional focus, writes Brendan Keenan

Visionary: Kenny’s timing in setting up the IMI was perfect
Visionary: Kenny’s timing in setting up the IMI was perfect
Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

Back in the Sixties, Irish management sucked. And if it does not suck quite so badly today, a lot of credit must go to Ivor Kenny, founder of the Irish Management Institute,who died last week at the age of 85.

Not that he would have used words like that. His style was more that of the old song - accentuate the positive while trying to eliminate the negative. It could sometimes make him look too admiring of successful executives but his influence was long and far-reaching.

It seems fair to say that when he launched the Institute from his home, after formal education at University College Galway and the London School of Economics, the very concept of management barely existed in Irish business and industry that was still emerging from the protected era of the 1950s.

His timing was perfect, as managers recognised the need for a more professional approach and relevant education and qualifications for themselves and their staff.

The IMI expanded, first in what is now the Russian embassy in south Dublin, then to an impressive, purpose-built campus in Sandyford, on the outskirts of the city.

The 1970s and 1980s were the Institute's glory days, only slightly hampered by the public finance crisis of the latter decade, as a new generation of Irish managers launched a succession of fast-growing companies.

Its annual conference in Killarney became a legendary social occasion for both delegates and business journalists and attracted a string of eminent foreign speakers.

It was also something of a golden era for semi-state companies, particularly Aer Lingus, while Irish banks were also emerging from the 1950s' straitjacket and discovering the merits of lending on exotic things like mortgages. Both were represented on the board of the IMI.

Private business was characterised by charismatic chief executives like Sir Anthony O'Reilly, the late Tony Ryan and Dr Michael Smurfit.

All were friends of Ivor Kenny and he, in turn, in most of his 13 books, stressed leadership as the key element in business success.

Success required the willingness and ability to embrace change - something which Irish society undoubtedly finds difficult.

To do that, one needs "a strong and decisive leader", he wrote, or at least a leader who builds a team that shares the company vision.

Such views helped develop the modern cult of the chief executive, with men such as these - and the occasional woman like Gillian Bowler, founder of Budget Travel - becoming media celebrities in their own right.

More recently, management analysts have begun to downplay the role of the boss and concentrate on the team but Kenny himself also argued that autocracy was not the way to run a successful business.

He had other fairly radical ideas, being particularly critical of rigid adherence to company budgets, which he thought took up far too much management time that could be better spent on planning for the company's future.

He took a stricter line on government budgets and government performance. His description of An Garda Siochana as a "self-reinforcing priesthood," came from a former head coach of the Garda Boat Club, but reflected his experiences of trying to improve Garda management, which included membership of the Conroy Commission as it studied garda pay and conditions.

Such views earned him what may be his best known epithet, and one he enjoyed, as "the most dangerous man in Ireland", as coined by Workers' Party leader Tomas Mac Giolla. He himself disputed that there was any such thing as a 'new Right' in Ireland. Later events seemed to bear out his opinion.

Kenny was aware of the failings of modern capitalism, saying its deepest problem was its "estrangement from moral values", which left business people unable to defend themselves against hostile ideologies - of which he saw state socialism as the most dangerous.

Presciently, he warned in 2006 of the risks from the rapid expansion of state spending, criticising former finance minister Charlie McCreevy's dictum that when you have it, spend it. He saw that the flood of foreign capital into the country posed a danger but, despite his position as the ultimate insider, seemed not so aware of the risks being taken by the banking system in handling those floods.

Kenny retired from the IMI more than 30 years ago and became a senior research fellow at UCD. He continued his writing and served on several boards, including that of Independent Newspapers, as well as being chairman of Smurfit Paribas Bank. His advice was sought by major international companies: advice which he described as helping managers see more clearly what they already know.

Ivor Kenny married Mary McMahon and they had five children, Dermot, Conor, Ivor, Helen and Mark.

Sunday Independent

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