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Rise and fall of a plutocrat

Detractors and admirers of Tony O'Reilly, Dr AJF or Sir Anthony, depending on your preference, would agree that his life has been a sprawling, swashbuckling epic of Shakespearean proportions with the tragic denouement that he lived to see the global empire turn to dust.

The Maximalist, and surely the great marketeer who created world-renowned brands would have found this title jarring (although it comes from a quote of his own), rose from the wonder boy of the rugby pitch, to golden boy of H.J. Heinz in Pittsburgh, to middle aged plutocrat presiding over a global media empire to, tragically, the reclusive figure he has become today.

"The desire for more spurred him on continually, and he chased down all that was possible, every experience, every accolade, every cent. In that frenzy of seeking, he found that it was quite possible to want too much" concludes Matt Cooper in this exhaustive tome on the life of the former 'owner' of what is now Independent News & Media (INM) and a separate and personal fiefdom encompassing holding company Fitzwilton, various explorations companies, most notably Atlantic Resources, Eircom, and Waterford Glass among many others.

Readers hardly need to be reminded that he hobnobbed with great men, Taoisigh, successive US Presidents and British Prime Ministers or that he appointed his sons, his admirers and friends from his sporting days to the boards of his various companies. Such loyalty, while commendable, contributed to his spectacular and very public downfall as he squandered an emperor's ransom in the supreme self confidence that he would always triumph and that that no price was too high to pay for something you really wanted.

In the old days in the Sunday Independent, I recall a sub-editor dropping a piece of copy (a typed up story) on his desk and saying loudly "there are too many f…… facts in this." The paper's success and sales were based on the Aengus Fanning principle that opinion was sacred and stories were 'fact fluid' to borrow a more recent term. Matt Cooper needed that sub-editor to cut some chunks from this 564 page epic.

The best parts of this book are the opening scene-setting chapters and the harrowing descriptions of it all falling apart as the legendary O'Reilly charm fails to persuade a reluctant government to guarantee a loan to save Waterford Glass, and fails to placate the growing power of telecom billionaire Denis O'Brien at INM.

As a 15-year-old schoolboy, Tony O'Reilly was told by the priest in Belvedere College that his father Jack and mother Aileen were not married, as his father had abandoned his previous wife and four children.

"Susan [his first wife], along with other friends, came to believe that the shock of the revelation became a motivation for him to strive harder, to prove himself, to achieve more than anyone else. He wanted people to know him for his abilities rather than his perceived shame" says Cooper.

The mid-section of the book would have benefited from more analysis of O'Reilly's compulsion to borrow vast sums, which lasted until his mid-70s (when he borrowed €300 million from a consortium of banks) and less about mundane minutiae of various business deals. Did he really need all those acquisitions, the Monet painting, the $2.5 Losotho 111 diamond engagement ring for his second wife Chryss, not to mention the most expensive "calling card" in history, the London Independent which accumulated vast losses and contributed greatly to his demise, because it showed that he was prepared to put his own ego (and shareholders' funds) above business reality?

In The Maximalist Cooper is also excellent at exploring how O'Reilly came to have a dual life, holding the three top jobs at Heinz (with a pay packet in 1991 of $75 million) while still running his Irish-based international empire, which was often in crisis.

With relentless energy he criss-crossed the globe, constantly searching for deals and social standing. Castlemartin, his Irish estate, became the focus of a Gatsby-like social scene, with O'Reilly at the centre as the Sun God.

Independent Newspapers, which he acquired through diligent research and the momentous good fortune explained in the book, became the 'cash cow' which funded the empire and the ambition of the press baron to become Sir Anthony - a British title a previous owner, the much reviled William Martin Murphy, turned down.

It isn't until page 376 that his young nemesis and fellow billionaire, Denis O'Brien, enters the picture. Their bitter struggle for the newspaper group, in which Mr O'Brien is now the majority shareholder, was the stuff of corporate legend and lurid headlines based on what was a viciously personalised corporate battle. Journalists, addicted as we are to drama and feuds, are described as "clueless" by Mr O'Brien, for believing that there was personal animosity due to their earlier titanic struggle for control of Eircom and Mr O'Brien's insistence that the O'Reilly newspapers had been used against him.

Cooper is particularly good on the demise of Ireland's 'Renaissance man', as he and his brother-in-law Peter Goulandris shovelled money into the black hole of Waterford Glass. There is also something reminiscent of King Lear in his sons Gavin, Cameron and Tony Jnr going to meet their father to tell him to desist from putting more money into Waterford Glass, and when he failed to receive support from his sons when the board of INM finally lost confidence in him and he was forced not alone to stand down as CEO, but to leave the board entirely.

As INM slipped out of family control, his wife Chryss, at one time said to be as independently wealthy as he was, tried to save the last vestiges of his reputation by "indicating that she would deal with IBRC (former Anglo Irish Bank) on her husband's behalf" according to Cooper. Tragically for him, the bank was nationalised within days of a deal and later AIB swooped in to ruthlessly tear the last vestiges of his business reputation to shreds with its repeated insistence that he was now "insolvent."

This is a thorough and dramatic account of a life that encompasses sport, business, media, speculation, and family drama, all centred on the enormous ego of one talented though tragically flawed personality. The end is indeed tragic for a man who once had it all. "He disappeared into near-seclusion as his legendary self-confidence evaporated and he no longer wanted to see anybody" says Cooper. O'Reilly was also plagued by ill-health which made it impossible for him to attend important family occasions, such as the funeral in London of Susan, his first wife.

In many ways, the real tragedy is that Tony O'Reilly appears to have valued himself on his financial accomplishments rather than his achievements, which in sport, business and social generosity (including the Ireland Funds) are probably unparalleled in a modern Irish plutocrat.

Liam Collins

the maximalist: the rise and fall of tony o'reilly

by matt cooper

gill & Macmillan


Sunday Independent