Monday 23 October 2017

Smurfit -- the Celtic Tiger who sailed through the storm

Plain sailing: Dr Michael Smurfit.
Plain sailing: Dr Michael Smurfit.

To some of those in attendance it must have seemed like all the country's troubles -- the economic crash, the banking meltdown and the tribunal scandals -- had never happened. Perhaps the end of the Celtic Tiger bubble had all been a bad dream.

Michael Smurfit was hosting a party in the sumptuous surroundings of the K Club for Prince Albert of Monaco and his fiancée Charlene. There in the new Thai restaurant, like ghosts at the feast, sat Michael Lowry and Michael Fingleton.

In the eyes of polite society and the ordinary taxpayer, both of the tycoon's friends are disgraced figures. Lowry has been censured by the Dail after the damning Moriarty Tribunal report, and "Fingers'' Fingleton is persona non grata for his role in our banking collapse.

But Dr Smurfit obviously saw no reason to shun his pals now. Asked to respond to the uproar over the elegant soiree with the prince and the two Micks, his spokeswoman in Monaco merely stated: "Dr Smurfit does not wish to comment. It was a private affair.''

More than most of the country's super-rich, the yacht-owning Smurfit has somehow sailed through the crisis without suffering major damage.

Of course, there has been the odd squall along the way. The K Club, in which he has a half share, is losing money and his partner in the venture Gerry Gannon is in NAMA. But the most recent Sunday Independent rich list showed that the Smurfit family fortune still stands at €335m.

As a retired tax exile living in Monaco, Smurfit obviously feels no need to pander to Irish public opinion, or else he is oblivious to it.

One acquaintance of the businessman defended his invitation to two of the bogeymen of Irish public life: "Mr Lowry and Mr Fingleton have not been convicted of anything. You or I may not choose to ask them for dinner, but Dr Smurfit is entitled to meet them if he wants.''

While other tycoons have kept a low profile, in retirement he has seemed set upon leading the life of an Septuagenarian Playboy in Monaco.

Having moved on from his spectacularly successful cardboard empire, Dr Smurfit gave a remarkably candid speech to the Trinity College Philosophical Society in 2007.

He reportedly told students of his life in Monaco: "I'm building a boat, chasing young girls and having fun for a change.''

The twice-divorced tycoon said it was a case of catching up on lost time, as the half century he had given his company had cost him dearly.

"Unfortunately, my work cost me two marriages, but I have six wonderful children and I'm still friendly with my two ex-wives.''

When he married for a second time to a Swedish air hostess, Birgitta Beimark, his first wife Norma made just one request of him -- that he live abroad. That was why he chose Monaco.

Since the end of his second marriage, he has been linked with a number of glamorous young women, including Yannah, a Russian lady variously described in gossip column dispatches as "gorgeous'', "leggy'' and "enigmatic''.

Smurfit, a legendary party-giver, certainly likes to kick off the decades of his life with a certain panache. For his 60th birthday he brought 100 friends on a cruise around the Mediterranean, dressing for the main party in an exact replica of the uniform worn by General Patton at the Battle of the Bulge.

His 70th birthday bash was by all accounts just as spectacular. He chartered a luxury yacht and this time the party in the Med -- which included fingers Fingleton, Bill Cullen and builder Sean Mulryan on the guest list -- went on for a week.

On that occasion he had to hire the boat -- complete with marble-lined bathrooms and a golf simulator -- in order to accommodate 120 guests and servants.

His own yacht, the Lady Ann Magee, may be smaller, but it is no less opulent. Available for hire for just €180,000 a week, it sleeps 12 and includes a Jacuzzi, sauna and a full-width "master suite'' with mirrors on the ceiling, private study, and his and hers dressing rooms.

Noting that even some of Monaco's richest plutocrats had been forced to sell their big boats in the recession, Smurfit said: "It is just wonderful to own a yacht.''

When the Leinster rugby team was at a training camp in nearby Nice a couple of seasons back, Smurfit invited them on board for a party.

Bernard Jackman, the Leinster hooker, told me he was suitably impressed after stepping on board.

"He was a very hospitable host. It certainly gave us an insight into how the other half lives. Prince Albert came to the reception, which was of great interest to the female members of my family who read Hello! magazine.''

As Ireland's Honorary Consul, Smurfit enjoys a certain local eminence in Monaco.

As well as putting in a few hours as a voluntary government representative, he still has many business interests, including the K Club, and shares in a variety of companies.

Financial headlines from the CNBC business channel flicker across a large screen in his office.

He boasts of his youthful vigour, telling a recent visitor: "I am the same fitness as I've always been, same weight as 30 years ago, same shirt size, same waist size. I work at it two hours a day, walk around Monaco one hour a day and I also ride a bike."

Having accumulated a fortune, and built up what was originally his father's small box-making business into an international behemoth, Smurfit sometimes displays a certain other-worldliness.

The lover of fine wines, who famously always has his own decanter next to him at dinner, once said: "I've never been to a pub in my life except to take my parents home.''

His enormous wealth has inured him from some of the mundane necessities of everyday life.

He admits to being technologically illiterate and confessed: "I have great difficulty in sending a text message, I've never used a computer in my life and don't ask me what ATM means.''

If you have the riches of Michael Smurfit, there are always others in the background who can perform these humdrum chores. But nobody should suppose that the box baron built up his empire without a certain hard-headed practical streak.

Towards the end of his career he admitted that he still went into supermarkets to scrutinise the bottom of boxes. "If I find it's one of ours and I don't like the look of it, I'll contact somebody and give them a bit of hell."

His manner can be brusque, particularly with journalists asking unwelcome questions.

One senior Dublin executive said: "I've seen grown men cry when they've got a tongue-lashing from Michael Smurfit."

Despite this formidable reputation, Smurfit seems to command loyalty, particularly from his senior lieutenants, who stayed with him for decades.

In welcoming his two friends, Fingleton and Lowry, to his court during the visit of Prince Albert, Smurfit may have taken his renowned loyalty to an extreme.

But whether he is entertaining his pals on his yacht or popping over to his Kildare mansion with its underground swimming lagoon, the uproar is unlikely to worry him unduly.

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