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The fall and rise of Goodman's empire

PROFILE: Nick Webb looks at the life and career of Ireland's top beef baron Larry Goodman, the walking definition of a self-made man

LIKE much of his business, beef baron Larry Goodman has been through the mincer. Sometimes deservedly and sometimes not. But why is he still considered by some to be the bogeyman of Irish business?

In a career that has been racked by massive highs and enormous lows, Goodman has faced and fought allegations of shady business practices and had his bank accounts trawled through by tribunals but he's still standing.

The farmers have stayed loyal to him, he hasn't let them down. The cheques have arrived when he said they would. High-profile members of the business community have rowed in behind him. The McCann family (of Fyffes fame) helped bankroll the audacious reconquest of his beef empire from the banks. The late and hugely respected Bernie Cahill acted as Goodman's chairman, a role now taken by former Telecom Eireann man Ron Bolger. Goodman's company is now one of the biggest and most successful in the state. Surely it's time for a rethink on the Goodman condemnations?

The turnaround in his fortunes has seen the Louth man's coffers fill up substantially. In the last year, Goodman's ranking in newspaper rich lists has soared. The Sunday Tribune estimated that Goodman was the 27th richest person in the country, with a net worth of ?230m, while The Sunday Times put his wealth at ?150m, which would make him the 45th richest. Whichever figure is correct is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Goodman's wealth has almost doubled over the past 12 months.

Goodman now owns 100 per cent of Irish Food Processors (IFP), through British-based Parma Investments. Latest accounts for the year to March 2001 show that he was in line for a handy ?14m dividend from the company, after a 60 per cent hike in pre-tax profits to ?33.5m. The figures show that turnover at IFP increased to a whopping ?915m and the company reported an operating profit increase of 43 per cent, rising to ?41m, before taking a one-off BSE-related hit of ?16.6m.

Things certainly seem to be flying, both at the intensely private company and for its equally secretive owner. Earlier this year, it emerged that Goodman's company had won the lucrative ?21.25m contract to supply beef burgers to Burger King in Britain. The contract will be filled by two Goodman subsidiaries, Wessex Foods and Silver Crest Foods.

The beef chopping-up business is not the Louth man's only earner. His farm also makes money. Goodman owns a valuable 700-acre farm in in Castlebellingham. It was reported that his farm picked up £164,046 in arable aid in 1998, with a further £168,288 coming in under a beef scheme the same year.

Last year, it emerged that Goodman, DCC's Jim Flavin and a number of other Irish business people had splashed out stg £20m in a joint venture with Green Property to buy a stg£246m Fleet Street property with Goldman Sachs installed as a tenant.

He has, in fact, proved himself quite an astute property dealer at one stage he coughed up £10m for a 50 per cent stake in Dublin's Setanta Centre and also splashed out £10m for a slice of the huge Airways Industrial Estate to the north of Dublin. Other property plays included the purchase of the buildings that house National Irish Bank's HQ and the Industrial Credit Corporation. He has also bought up businesses in Brazil, part of a malting company in Australia, and some properties in London.

Goodman's connections with Fianna Fail have put him squarely in the media spotlight over recent years. He was a regular donor to the party, handing over tens of thousands of pounds of donations over the years. This has led to considerable controversy, given the support his companies have received from various Fianna Fail-led governments.

He has also had close ties with Deputy Liam Lawlor, the TD once serving as a non-executive director in a Goodman company. This caused a humdinger of a row in 1989, when the Public Accounts Committee, which Lawlor was chairing, was investigating Irish Sugar a company Goodman was actually trying to buy at the time. By this time, Goodman had become a political target and he was thrust into a damaging campaign, from which he was never going to escape unscathed.

Goodman has a mule-like stubbornness. It probably got him into the family business earlier than would have been expected. Son of a sixth-generation cattle dealer in County Louth, the 15-year-old Goodman refused to return to school in Dundalk after a bout of truancy, because the Marist Fathers had previously made him kneel in front of the class as an act of apology.

His first business was collecting sheepgut to sell as sausage skins, but even here it quickly became clear that he was pretty damn good at wheeling and dealing. He began to make money, replacing his motorbike with a natty red sports car. In 1966 Goodman bought his first abattoir, and also paid £31,000 for former Irish Olympic hammer-thrower Dan Coyle's operation at Ravensdale near Dundalk.

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Goodman wasn't necessarily innovative but he was brutally efficient. He bought up failing meat plants, sending in the storm-troopers, slashing costs, all the time staying totally focused on the bottom line.

He also knew the importance of good workers. The management teams he installed were made up of top accountants. (The current Greencore boss David Dilger left Woodchester to head up Goodman's Food Industries aged just 31. It caused headlines when an advert seeking his successor offered a salary of £100,000.)

Goodman himself is a divil for the work. It has been said that: "Larry's idea of relaxing is working an 80-hour week rather than 100 hours." But his work stood him in good stead. By the mid-Eighties, he had become the largest processor and exporter of beef in Europe. At one stage he was controlling (through a private company whose only shareholders were himself, his brother Peter and his wife) nearly 5 per cent of Ireland's entire GNP.

But Goodman was flying closer and closer to the sun. His empirewas beginning to fray, following a series of revelations concerning alleged abuses of EC subsidies, the export credit insurance scheme and the Monopolies & Mergers legislation. A World In Action TV show in 1991 led to the beef tribunal, set up to investigate fraud, tax evasion and the use of political influence to secure State-backed export credit insurance.

But what really did for Goodman's empire was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. He was the single biggest supplier of beef to Iraq when UN trade sanctions kicked in, with devastating effect. Saddam Hussein's government owed him £170m. An Irish government examiner was appointed to the firm and in 1992 Goodman International finally collapsed, with debts in excess of £500m.

Goodman continued to run the business, but the 33 banks which together were owed close on £300m actually owned it. Then, in 1995, Goodman pulled off one of the biggest coups of his career.

With the support of a US venture fund and a group of investors, including the Fyffes McCann family, he bought the company back for just £30m. In a marathon struggle, Goodman turned the business round and if last year's accounts are anything to go by, his rejuvenated company could soon be challenging for the title of largest private business in Ireland.

Earlier this year, a long-running dispute with Paschal Phelan over the ownership of Master Meats was partially resolved. There was also the bizarre case of a £20m payment that had been frozen in a Cyprus bank account since 1990. Goodman won that one too and the money (with interest, now thought to be closer to £40m) was released last year.

Unlike many in the top echelons of the business world, Goodman is no socialite, although he does support a number of charities. The non-drinker and non-smoker lives a quiet provincial life, built around his family in Castlebellingham. Goodman, who'll be 65 in September, is married to Kitty and has two sons.

Prominent trade union boss Mick O'Reilly is reputed to have challenged Goodman to try living on £90 a week like many of his employees. "But I do," retorted the multi-millionaire.

Despite his quiet life, Goodman certainly doesn't do without. His 700-acre estate at the palatial Branganstown House near Castlebellingham is thought to have an indoor and outdoor swimming pool. His Victorian mansion, bought in 1971, is said to have been decorated with some of the finest antiques from London and Dublin's major auction houses. Large security gates prevent unwanted visitors.

His favourite means of transport include a £10m Cessna jet, a Bell helicopter and a top-of-the-range Mercedes, although he's not averse to an early morning jog. It certainly helps his stamina and if Goodman's rollercoaster career shows us anything, it's that only those with staying power survive.

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