Monday 18 June 2018

Obituary: Nigel O'Flaherty

Highly successful businessman in the motor trade was shy of publicity, writes Liam Collins

Michael, Ian and Nigel O'Flaherty
Michael, Ian and Nigel O'Flaherty
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

It is unsurprising that the death of Nigel O'Flaherty - one of Ireland's least known but most influential businessmen - passed almost unnoticed when he died at the age of 79 on July 9.

With a fortune based on the Volkswagen and Mercedes franchise for Ireland, Nigel O'Flaherty and his elder brother Michael (84) shunned publicity and lived their lives away from the glare of the media, appearing only occasionally in the annual rich lists compiled by the newspapers.

But as chairman of O'Flaherty Holdings and various other companies in Ireland and the US, Nigel O'Flaherty was one of Ireland's wealthy elite for much of his life and turned the initial car franchise into a conglomerate that employs over a thousand people.

"He was a gentleman through and through," said the well-known Dublin public-relations executive Don Hall, who has represented Mr O'Flaherty and the company for many years.

"The sense of loyalty and caring that he had towards all who served him in any way - employees, dealers and the like - was admirable in the extreme. In a world in which so much attention is being placed on driving shareholder value and so little focus seems to be placed on human factors, his was a standard that business people could do well to emulate."

Nigel O'Flaherty was the second of three sons born to Stephen O'Flaherty, who was a legend in the Irish motor trade for decades.

In 1950, he acquired the first franchise to assemble the Volkswagen 'People's Car' outside Germany at premises he owned on Shelbourne Road, Dublin 4, which remains in O'Flaherty ownership to this day.

Nigel's mother, Dorothy (Dot) Mabel Wilcox, met her husband while he was working in a Manchester engineering firm in the 1930s.

Nigel was born on March 21, 1937 and grew up in the idyllic surroundings of the 500-acre Straffan House estate (now the K-Club), which their father had acquired.

After his initial schooling in Ireland, he was educated at the English Benedictine public school, Ampleforth College in north Yorkshire.

The family later moved to the imposing Sherlockstown House, near Sallins, Co Kildare. After the death of his mother, Nigel O'Flaherty took up full-time residence there.

After school, Nigel stayed on in England, studying accountancy and learning the car trade from the ground up.

He was also an enthusiastic motor sports participant, particularly in rally driving and road racing. The company supplied the legendary rally driver Paddy Hopkirk, a fellow student at Trinity College with Michael, with VW cars to rally.

Following the break-up of his marriage to Dot, Stephen O'Flaherty married Tina Cosgrove, the former wife of Kildare horse breeder Maxwell 'Maxi' Cosgrove. In 1967, they had a son together, who was registered at birth as Ian Cosgrove but later had his name changed to Ian O'Flaherty.

After a serious heart attack in 1969, Stephen handed over full ownership of the family business, MDL, based in Leeson Park, Dublin, to his two sons, who had been running it for many years. This was later consolidated into the parent company, O'Flaherty Holdings, with the two brothers as equal shareholders and Nigel acting as managing director.

Ever restless, Stephen went on to acquire various Irish car franchises, including Toyota and Renault, although he never really had the capital to develop them and sold out early.

He moved restlessly between his Dublin estate, The Albany in Monkstown and villas in Portugal and later Marbella, Spain, where he was one of the first 'expats' and formed a friendship with the actor Sean Connery. He died at the age of 80 in April 1982.

By that time, Michael and Nigel had quietly and diligently build up O'Flaherty Holdings into a multi-million company with interests in car importing, distribution and retailing in Ireland, with brands such as VW, Audi, Mazda, Skoda and Porsche.

They had also established a holding company in America, which has interests in air conditioning and ventilation and lift manufacturing in Waco, Texas and a number of construction and plant-hire firms in the US and Britain.

Neither Nigel nor Michael (who lives in Guernsey) gave interviews and they have remained largely in the background while developing a conglomerate that remains tightly controlled by succeeding generations of the O'Flaherty family. It is now led by Nigel's son, Stephen.

"He was an extremely shy, modest, self-effacing and private person, whose leadership was an inspiration to all who worked with him or represented him in any way," said Don Hall.

Nigel O'Flaherty is survived by his wife Geraldine, his brothers Michael and Ian and his five children, Karenina, Stephen, Michael, Nicola and Lauren.

Sunday Independent

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