Saturday 20 January 2018

Relatively speaking it's rarely only about money

Family feuds can bring all sorts of breakages to the surface once private rows end up in court

Don't all families fight sometimes? Siblings Ben Dunne and Margaret Heffernan. Asked
about his relationship with his sister, Ben answered: 'Normal'
Don't all families fight sometimes? Siblings Ben Dunne and Margaret Heffernan. Asked about his relationship with his sister, Ben answered: 'Normal'
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Take an iconic Irish brand, add in the second-generation family behind its success and you have at least some of the ingredients for a family feud.

A succession of such families has ended up embroiled in public and damaging litigation over the years. It was the first thing Judge Brian McGovern recognised when the dispute involving the Kerry-based Kilkenny Group came before him last week.

Melissa, Greg and Marian O'Gorman in 2014 at the Kilkenny shop on Nassau Street Photo: Kieran Harnett
Melissa, Greg and Marian O'Gorman in 2014 at the Kilkenny shop on Nassau Street Photo: Kieran Harnett

Kilkenny, originally Kilkenny Design, emerged from previous disputes among the seven children of Christy Kelleher, founder of the Blarney Woollen Mills. The first led to daughter Freda Hayes leaving to found the Meadow & Byrne chain and after a further split in the family her brothers took ownership of Blarney Woollen Mills, while Marian O'Gorman emerged with the Kilkenny brand and its flagship store in Nassau Street, Dublin.

The company behind Kilkenny Group, Clydaville, had a turnover of €30m, €17m in shareholder funds and made more than €1m in profits, according to its last accounts.

Now after being ousted from the company, Greg O'Gorman has mounted a High Court action against his mother, Marian, saying that she had summarily torn up a Family Business Partnership in June 2016 - as a result of which he had lost his job and a promised share in the business.

It was "very undesirable" for the O'Gormans to have their family dispute aired in public and they should consider mediation, said the High Court judge. But Rossa Fanning SC, for Greg O'Gorman, said that because Marian O'Gorman had a "history of acrimonious disputes" this was unlikely to solve matters and asked that her other children, Christopher, Melissa and Michelle, be included as 'notice parties' in the forthcoming action because their interests might be affected.

So what is it that tears families apart?

While on the surface it might seem to be about money that is rarely the case. In many such disputes, typified by the warring members of the Dunne family, there was already so much money available to them all so it couldn't be just that simple.

"When there's a battle between family members it's not just about the item on the official agenda, it's about all the painful experience we had in the family that nurtured us," said one psychologist. "It's the force of the resulting pain that causes the bitterness that erupts."

The family battles between Ben Dunne and his sister Margaret Heffernan for control of the Dunnes Stores retail empire defined an era in Ireland. The acrimony between the two led to the McCracken Tribunal, which established that Ben Dunne had given three cheques totalling £210,000 to the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who replied, "thanks a million big fellah" when accepting them.

This in turn led to the Moriarty Tribunal and the shredding of the reputations of a fair cross section of the Irish business community.

Nearly 15 years after airing their dirty linen in public, Ben Dunne, who went on to found a successful chain of gyms, was asked about his relationship with his sister.

"Normal," he answered.

The battle for control of hotelier PV Doyle's empire pitted his three daughters - Eileen, Anne and Bernadette - against their brother David over the running of their flagship hotel group, which included iconic Dublin hotels, The Berkeley Court, now demolished, the Burlington Hotel, The Westbury and others.

After working his way to the top of the group, David Doyle left "to pursue other interests" because of tension in the family. He returned as managing director and when differences resurfaced again attempted to buy out his three sisters, an offer they refused.

In a statement issued in 1997, it was announced that he had been voted out of office as managing director and replaced by his younger sister, Bernadette.

He was later paid an estimated €40m for his share in the hotel group.

Despite the acrimonious nature of his departure, the Doyle family fought their own battles in their family setting. Although some detail leaked into the media they had the good sense not to go legal - which not only saved them a lot of money, but also shielded them from the courtroom warfare that almost always destroys family relationships into the future.

The tragedy of family feuds was probably best illustrated in recent years when the warring pub family, the Comans, ended up in the High Court with the elderly Pat and Mary Coman pitted against all but one of their sons over the family empire, which started with a pub in Rathgar, Dublin and developed into a large-scale bottling and drinks distributions business.

Pat Coman was an old style patriarch who mixed family and business and when his sons attempted to keep them separate, the relationship broke down irretrievably.

"We have lost everything we valued, we have lost our fatherhood and motherhood," Mary Coman almost sobbed in the witness box, describing how she and her husband were "outcasts in sections of the family" and excluded from some normal events grandparents would expect to attend.

Although their very public dispute was characterised by bitterness and rancour, it is said that afterwards the family found a form of reconciliation, despite the scars inflicted during the feud.

Over the years various attempts have been made to help businesses come to terms with family succession, but a recent survey by the accountancy firm PwC shows that half of Irish family businesses have no plan in place and are ill prepared for handing over to the next generation, even when they have good intentions of doing so.

There is some irony that after being down this road before the O'Gormans developed a 'Family Constitution' in which Marian O'Gorman held the shares in the Kilkenny Group.

According to her son, Greg, she repudiated the 'O'Gorman Family Business Partnership' in June 2016 leading to the present dispute.

Now, given what we've heard in the preliminary round, Judge McGovern's concerns about the family's affairs becoming the subject of public wrangling seem highly likely to be justified.

Sunday Independent

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