Cavan-based firm has faced tough questions in recent days
The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire broke for Christmas a week early on Wednesday afternoon, when a staff member tested positive for Covid-19.
The premature end to the proceedings, which were scheduled to go on until December 17, put a halt to a bruising few days of evidence for Cavan-based multinational Kingspan, whose combustible Kooltherm K15 insulation was controversially used in Grenfell’s refurbishment.
For half a week, Kingspan’s director of technical and marketing, Adrian Pargeter, was under intense scrutiny as embarrassing internal communications detailing the company’s public relations and political lobbying efforts were submitted as evidence.
The inquiry heard that in the six weeks after the devastating fire killed 72 residents of the apartment block on June 14, 2017, Kingspan hired PR firm Portland Communications to lobby MPs ahead of hearings by the parliamentary select committee on housing which was investigating the disaster.
Portland targeted influential senior politicians such as Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and Sajid Javid for an outreach campaign, saying in its strategy document: “It’s time to get our message out to the people that matter... there is still immeasurable value in getting Kingspan’s manifesto in front of these decision-makers.”
Lead counsel for the inquiry, Richard Millett QC, suggested Kingspan had sought to “mislead” the committee on housing and “perverted” the science behind fire-safety tests. Mr Pargeter rejected those characterisations, but was forced to admit the company had created a “worst-case scenario” test for competing products to call into question assumptions about which materials had caused problems at Grenfell Tower.
The inquiry had already heard evidence Kingspan relied on outdated and incomplete test results to demonstrate its product was safe for high-rise structures. “All we do is lie in here,” wrote one technical employee to another in a text exchange seen by the inquiry.
The company has apologised for “process shortcomings” and said it did not know its Kooltherm K15 insulation was being used in Grenfell Tower.
“The inquiry has highlighted historic process shortcomings and unacceptable conduct within a part of our UK Insulation business, for which we have apologised unreservedly and which we are treating with the utmost seriousness,” Kingspan said in a statement to the Irish Independent.
“These matters do not reflect the organisation that we are or aspire to be, and significant actions have been taken and are in progress, that further underpin our commitment to fire safety and to professional conduct. We continue to support the inquiry in its work and are determined to learn all necessary lessons.”
The organisation Kingspan aspires to be is “a global leader in high-performance insulation and building envelope solutions”, according to the company’s mission statement. That aspiration is being seriously challenged by the ongoing fall-out from the Grenfell fire.
At stake is the reputation of one of Ireland’s major corporate successes, at once a local champion and an international player, a family business and a stock market juggernaut.
With its roots as a small contractor in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, Kingspan has grown in 55 years into a €14bn global leader in building materials, employing 15,000 people at 159 factories in 70 countries around the world.
That growth has made the founding Murtagh family among the wealthiest in Ireland and patriarch Eugene Murtagh the richest in Cavan.
Mr Murtagh, the founder and now the chairman, still holds about a 15pc stake. His son and chief executive officer, Gene Jr, holds a much smaller portion of the shares at below 1pc. The shareholding puts the family fortune comfortably in the billions.
Family holdings include hotels in London and Amsterdam, as well as various investments outside of Kingspan, and one of the first Teslas in Ireland, driven by Gene Jr.
With that wealth, the Murtaghs and Kingspan have done a lot to embed themselves in the local community where, despite the company’s international profile, they have kept the headquarters.
Not only is Kingspan a major employer in Cavan, but the company is knitted into the fabric of the region. Kingspan sponsors Ulster Rugby and Cavan GAA, covering both bases, and has naming rights to Breffni Park in Cavan town, linking its brand to the now-resurgent county football team.
While the persistent association of Kingspan with a high-profile mass-casualty disaster in the UK has done much to take the gloss off an otherwise well-respected company, there is little sign investors have changed their mind about it.
The share price has been on a steady climb since the Grenfell fire and only fell sharply with the broader market as Covid-19 hit stocks worldwide in March.
Shares have taken a dip following a trading update in November, but have recovered some ground during the hearings.
The inquiry comes back January 11 when ex-Kingspan employee Richard Burnley will have to complete his evidence. Kingspan is largely keeping quiet while proceedings continue. More communications from the company are expected to be brought forward, with further statements from senders and recipients.
Kingspan has said it will comment at the end of the process, which is expected around Easter 2021.