Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituary: Noel Hanlon

Ambulance builder and ex-chairman of Aer Rianta and VHI who threw away his wigs at age 70, writes Liam Collins

Common Touch: Noel Hanlon
Common Touch: Noel Hanlon

Chomping on a large cigar, Noel Hanlon would stride into Eamon Farrell's bar on Ballymahon Street, Longford, order a large brandy for himself and drinks for employees he favoured, make a few comments in a laughter-filled, high-pitched voice and then depart for dinner with his friend Albert Reynolds or some other prominent local figure.

That was Longford in the mid-1970s when Noel Hanlon was the fun-loving town plutocrat with the common touch.

In later years, through political connections and business acumen, he served for more than 20 years on the boards of state companies, culminating in a damaging disagreement with then transport minister Seamus Brennan as his decade-long term as chairman of Aer Rianta was marred by the "brandy and cigars" controversy.

His rise to national prominence was quite an achievement for a man who quit school at 16. But what he lacked in finesse made him something of a legend in more polished business and political circles, where even opponents grew to respect his adversarial style and stubborn determination.

Later in South Africa, where he died, Hanlon didn't flinch from 'telling it as it is' when he met an old acquaintance by chance in Cape Town.

The friend made eye contact with a balding figure that looked familiar and when he saw the smile, realised he was seeing Noel Hanlon without his customary wig for the first time.

"I had 22 of them (wigs)," Hanlon declared when they got talking, "and when I got to 70, I said to hell with that, and threw them all in the bin."

Noel Hanlon, who died last Saturday in Cape Town, surrounded by his family, was born in Longford on January 8, 1940. He attended St Mel's College in the town but left after sitting his Inter (Junior) Cert to work in his father's garage and filling station on the nearby Dublin Road.

There was talk that they fell out and he emigrated to Detroit to work for Ford before returning to Longford in 1960 to run the family business.

He then saw a gap in the market and in the mid-1960s, began importing van chassis and fitting them out as ambulances in an expanding factory adjoining the garage. Quite quickly, he built the business into a national success and within a decade, he was supplying 60pc of the ambulances used by the NHS in Britain and consignments of Longford-made ambulances were put to good use in conflict zones of the Middle East.

Success enabled him to drive a flash car, live in a new Georgian-style house with a swimming pool and invest in property. But he always remained a blunt if at times generous, hard-edged self-made man.

When a majority of his workers went to his father's funeral in St Mel's Cathedral, they found themselves docked a half-day's pay for their trouble. Hanlon, who had two-way glass in his office so that he could see out but nobody could see in, was ready when a group of irate shop stewards knocked on his door. "I didn't ask you to go - so you went on your own time and I don't pay you to do things on your own time," he told them.

It was a minor manifestation of the trouble that lay ahead.

In 1988, a bitter industrial dispute broke out over a rationalisation plan to stem mounting losses at the factory. Both sides adopted entrenched positions with Hanlon claiming that many of the 270 workers were part-time farmers and didn't mind striking in summer to do farm work, and unions claiming he was tearing up staffing agreements.

With production halted and mounting losses, Hanlon finally locked the doors and put the company, N. Hanlon Ireland Ltd, into liquidation with debts of £1,361,007. It was a blow to his creditors, but a bigger blow to the town of Longford which had little or no indigenous industry. Hanlon himself had other business interests, including a clothing manufacturing business in Ballymahon called Manford, although that closed in 1990 with debts of €413,425.

Despite their contrasting characters, Noel Hanlon and Albert Reynolds and their wives, Fionnuala and Kathleen, were good friends, as were their families. There were seven children in the Reynolds family and eight in Hanlon's family, seven daughters and the youngest, a son, Patrick, who now has an award-winning garage and supermarket on the site where his grandfather started in business.

Hanlon had been influential in planning the coup that unseated the sitting Fianna Fail TD Frank Carter and the selection of Albert Reynolds as the Longford candidate for the 1977 general election. He was election agent for Reynolds and although they wrecked Hanlon's car during the high-speed campaign, Reynolds was elected a TD for the first time.

Hanlon was soon appointed to the board of the state business rescue agency Foir Teoranta, (although he owned it money at the time) and a director of Aer Lingus in 1980. In 1992, he was appointed chairman of the VHI, which was almost a full-time job as two chief executives left in quick succession.

Before the fall of the Albert Reynolds' government, Hanlon was appointed chairman of Aer Rianta, the national airport authority. In 2002, there were claims that the state company had sent €5,000 in "brandy and cigars" as a gift to the minister's office some years before. Hanlon's tenure ended two years later in a public disagreement between himself and the Fianna Fail minister Seamus Brennan over his opposition to the government break-up of the airport monopoly.

"A lot of people will be delighted to see me go," he said in an interview with David Murphy in May, 2004. "I have been 23 years a state chairman. I have always stood for good corporate governance."

Others didn't think so and when he presented four departing directors of Aer Rianta with £9,000 watches as gifts in October 2004, the Labour Party was outraged. Hanlon then paid for the watches himself.

Hanlon had liquidated his investment company PNM Hanlon Ltd in 2008, leaving him with over €2.2m in cash as well as a large property portfolio. He left Longford to live in Craigavon, Co Armagh with a new partner and their young son and later moved to Cape Town.

He visited Longford last summer when he was suffering from the cancer that eventually led to his death.

Noel Hanlon, who died at the age of 78, is survived by his nine children, his wife and partner. He will be buried in Longford after Mass in St Mel's Cathedral this Tuesday.

Sunday Independent

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