Sunday 18 March 2018

Smurfit: All hail the King of the K Club

He may be almost 80, but there's no sign of Michael Smurfit's passion for business waning

Special K: Dr Michael Smurfit pictured at his house at the K Club Photo: Mark Condren
Special K: Dr Michael Smurfit pictured at his house at the K Club Photo: Mark Condren
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

It's 10.25am on the first day of the Irish Open at the K Club in Kildare and I'm just a little early for my appointment with Dr Michael Smurfit. As I wait for his arrival in one of the several reception rooms that radiate from the entrance hall of his sumptuously appointed house, I'm looking out on to the course as competitors contend against each other and with the rain, the intensity of which varies between intermittent and torrential.

Even for a man equipped with the eternal optimism and can-do attitude of a Michael Smurfit, I conclude there and then that the Irish weather is quite simply unmatched when it comes to putting a dampener - in the most literal sense - on one's best-laid plans.

For the briefest of moments, the legendary businessman would appear to share my sentiments.

It's 10.30am precisely when Dr Smurfit enters the room, shakes my hand, takes a seat and begins our conversation.

"The weather forecast said we would have scattered showers. It's been raining like that since six o'clock this morning," he says, clearly impatient with the slow and stubborn progress of the dense, rain-filled clouds over Straffan.

Unlike the weather, his mood lifts immediately with my first question on how he managed to secure the Irish Open for the K Club.

He says: "I approached the PGA two years ago and gave them three reasons why we wanted to have the Irish Open at the K Club this year. The first reason was that this would be my 80th year, the second was that it would be 25 years since the club had opened and the third reason was that it would be the 10-year anniversary of the Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup, as you know, was the highlight of the Celtic Tiger. It was right at the peak, the crowds were enormous and the hype was incredible."

So if the Ryder Cup marked the high point of the Celtic Tiger boom, would he like to think of the Irish Open at the K Club as a positive harbinger for an Irish economy that's now in the process of recovery?

While the former Smurfit Kappa chairman isn't prepared to draw such a neat or simplistic comparison, he does express his optimism in relation to the country's improving fortunes.

"Two years ago I said 'in five year's time, the Irish people will look back and say what was that all about'. We're two years into that and we're well on the way to a massive recovery," he says.

But while that may be the case, there is a cloud to the silver lining, thanks to the outcome of the recent General Election.

"What we do have at the moment, sadly, is a fair bit of political instability because of the way the election has gone," Dr Smurfit says.

"I was very surprised that Enda Kenny didn't get back in with a reasonable majority, but it's not the first time I've been surprised with Irish politics. Hopefully, the present situation will resolve itself because an unstable government is not in the interest of anybody. Hopefully, something will happen to turn that around," he adds.

And while some might believe that a man with such considerable financial resources is concerned solely with the potential adverse consequences of political instability to his own interests, Michael Smurfit is acutely aware of the impact of the current housing crisis and the urgency with which it needs to be addressed.

Asked what he thinks of the Government's decision to appoint a Minister for Housing and to establish a Dail committee to examine the issue, he suggests the Government should be looking for solutions from amongst the ranks of professional developers instead.

He says: "Having bankrupted most of the builders responsible for building things, it's best to get those people back to work, empower them again and use Nama's great land bank. I think they [Nama] are starting to release it. But we need to get people back to having shelter again. You may need a housing authority with more teeth to actually do things rather than talk about doing things."

But while the shortage in housing supply is a major issue for society and the Government, Dr Smurfit says there is a positive side to it also. "It's a symptom of success. At least people are staying here and looking for houses instead of emigrating, which has been one of the great curses we've had over the centuries. People haven't gone abroad in the past because of houses, but the danger is they might start to do so because they can't get living accommodation. That's a real danger," he says.

The paper-packaging tycoon faced down and overcame his own challenges in the wake of the economic crash. Indeed, he delayed the publication of his autobiography, A Life Worth Living, until he completed what he described in its pages as his "long and intense negotiations" over two years to acquire developer Gerry Gannon's 49pc share of the K Club, which had come under the control of Nama.

Asked how it felt to have 100pc ownership of the exclusive Kildare resort, he says: "It's a great relief to have that saga behind me. Since then we've extended the hotel by a further 70 rooms, we've a new conference centre, a new bar, and we've bought the pub in the village. We're going to turn it [the pub] into a much better venue than it was. So we've put a lot of money and time into it. The returns have yet to come, but I'm sure they will. The objective always has been to make the K Club the star of the Irish resorts. We think it's iconic and we want to keep it that way."

The decision by another icon, golfer Rory McIlroy, to "take the Irish Open by the scruff of the neck and make it into something" is an ambition which has won him the admiration of the K Club owner.

"He's a remarkable young man, Mr McIlroy. He's taken this iconic brand and turned it into something very special and I think he'll get the Irish people behind him because of what he's doing. And what he's doing besides trying to win golf tournaments with the Rory Foundation is help other people, which is really very admirable and very laudable."

Dr Smurfit is similarly impressed by McIlroy's decision to step up to the plate to represent Ireland in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio.

He says: "It was a wonderful decision and the right decision that he took because golf in Ireland is like rugby. It's a 32-county experience and representing his country at the Olympics is to be admired. I just can't understand those people that have walked away from it. Gary Player has been absolutely scathing of the South African golfers who've walked away, and rightly so. The Olympics come around only once every four years and how many times will you get the chance to win a gold medal at the greatest sporting event in the world, which the Olympics is. Nothing could be greater or finer than to represent your country."

With the Olympics due to get under way in August, Dr Smurfit will be supporting Rory McIlroy from a considerable distance as he celebrates his 80th birthday. Asked how he intends to mark the occasion he says: "I'll do what I've done for my 50th, 60th, and 70th birthdays.

"I'll take some friends on a cruise across the Mediterranean. Sadly a lot of people who were at the celebrations for my 70th are no longer around. But I've got 13 grandchildren who will be with me, so it will be very much a family affair.

"Prince Albert [of Monaco], who was here with me at the K Club yesterday, might be a guest but we'll see.

"It clashes with the Rio Olympics and he's on the International Olympic Committee, but if he can come, he will come," he said.

Sunday Independent

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