Friday 20 April 2018

Ivor Kenny obituary - Straight-talking business guru who was passionate about his country

Ivor Kenny, 1931 - 2016

Ivor Kenny, who died yesterday
Ivor Kenny, who died yesterday
Ivor Kenny at the launch his book ‘Leaders: Conversations with Irish Executives’ by Anthony O’Reilly. Photo: James O’Kelly
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Ivor Kenny was probably Ireland's first management 'guru' although he was regarded suspiciously by some left-leaning politicians as "the most dangerous man in the country" and as an "ogre" by some senior trade union figures.

Dr Kenny, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85, came originally from Galway and was educated at University College Dublin and the London School of Economics.

He said himself that his career was divided into two distinct parts.

For 20 years he headed the Irish Management Institute (IMI), which he took over when it occupied what is now the Russian Embassy in Rathgar, and developed it into an international organisation with headquarters on a large campus near Sandyford, Co Dublin. Along the way he met virtually all the plutocrats of Irish business as it evolved from the late 1970s to the present day, and got on so well with some that he ended up on the boards of their companies.

"The odd thing is that a lot of my good friends are people who are extremely rich, but it doesn't in any way intrude on our friendship" he told one interviewer, insisting that he himself lived rather modestly in an art-filled house in Dublin 4.

Those friends included businessmen like Michael Smurfit, Sir Anthony O'Reilly and the late aviation tycoon Tony Ryan.

The board of the Irish Management Institute of that era was like a 'Who's Who' of Irish business, with bankers like Ian Morrison and Mark Healy-Hutchinson, David Kennedy who ran Aer Lingus, former rugby player and businessman Ray McLaughlin, supermarket tycoon Feargal Quinn and many others. The organisation's annual conference in Killarney, Co Kerry, was one of the social occasions of the year for the wives and girlfriends of the new business class.

He retired from the IMI at the age of 52 to embark on the second half of his life, which took him inside the boardrooms as a non-executive director of some of Ireland's major companies - becoming, at various times, a director of Independent News & Media, the Kerry Group, Iona Technology, Smurfit Paribas and others. Over the years he brought to these companies his knowledge of Irish business and the workings of government, as well as his personal connections to many leading business figures.

Kenny could, however, be scathing about the way Ireland was run by the elected and the unelected government. He described the civil service as: "A priesthood, dangerously remote from the affected publics"; and he hadn't much better to say about An Garda Síochána at the time. He believed that the trade union movement had "colonised" large sections of the semi-state sector before the era of privatisation.

Nor did he court popularity with politicians. His targets were chosen across the political spectrum and he once wrote an article for the 'Sunday Independent' (1987) debunking the then darling of the economic intelligentsia Dr Garret FitzGerald, telling him: "You didn't turn the economy around, you reduced the increases in the loss."

He defended businesses on radio and television, maintaining stoutly that there had been no major scandals in banking during his era - although he did say, with some prescience in 2006, that this defence did not include developers, "for whom I have no particular respect".

From an office in University College Dublin, he worked with chief executives and senior management in companies "clarifying and developing their strategies". He had strong views on the subject: "The essence of strategy is to develop an arsenal of capabilities to meet whatever the future throws at us," he said in one lecture, adding: "Budgets are coffins."

Related to the Galway booksellers of the same name, he had a deep interest in writing and what made people - particularly successful people - tick. This led to 13 books, some specialist volumes like 'Government and Enterprise in Ireland', others such as 'Out on Their Own' (1991), 'Leaders' (2001) and 'Achievers' (2005) including enlightening interviews with leading business figures. These included Gillian Bowler, Dermot Desmond, Gerry McGuinness, John Teeling, Denis O'Brien, Tom Roche, Sean Fitzpatrick, Sir Anthony O'Reilly, Michael Smurfit, Ken Whitaker among many others.

Kenny's technique was simple but effective - he met his subject, usually in their homes or their favoured setting, and let the tape run. This relaxed formula among friends allowed them to talk unselfconsciously and often revealing not only about their business but also their personal lives as well.

He conceded later that in some cases "you just take out un-nice things about them" but even then what was left was highly informative and engaging.

Ivor Kenny, who died just days before his 86th birthday, was married to Maureen McMahon and they lived in Dublin 4, latterly in Leeson Village. They have five children: Dermot, Conor, Ivor, Helen and Mark. His funeral takes place today in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin.

Irish Independent

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