Monday 14 October 2019

'When friends are down, I'm there to help, if I can, I will'

The charming Michael Smurfit is done with making money, now it is all about making memories, writes Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

It's early evening in the playboy paradise of Monaco and I'm sitting across from Dr Michael Smurfit in the cool, shaded bar at the city's exclusive Meridian Hotel.

I had ordered the wine but sheepishly pushed it to one side when the man who is allegedly famed for his daily dose of Petrus declined alcohol, saying "it's way too early in the day for that".

So now we're both sipping water. With a simple sandwich costing €30, I figure it's a blessing in disguise.

A dry meeting isn't the most ideal environment for this sort of tete-a-tete but I decide to take a risk. We are in casino paradise, after all.

Do you still enjoy sex, I ask, waiting for the shrill screech of a chair being swiftly pushed back.

No matter what stuffy business writer has interviewed the septuagenarian, I know it's the question they all secretly wanted to ask.

To his credit, whilst most men half his age would shuffle uncomfortably in their seats at the question, it doesn't unnerve him one bit.

"I have never talked about my sex life except I can reveal to you that I am healthy," he replies with a playful glint in his eye.

"Though I wouldn't be a fly-by-night person."

Now I'm feeling old, like I'm not down with the lingo.

"What's that?"

"You know, a one-night-stand type of person. I have never been turned on by that. And I've had many an opportunity over the years."

This mega-rich playground of super-yachts and Lamborghinis is a world away from the gloom of back home. As someone advised me before leaving: "Make sure to look a million dollars, and even at that, you'll still look cheap."

Outside, on pavements lined with palm trees, young women in tight, white, almost see-through pants totter alongside wrinkly faced, oily-haired men.

Designer stores Chanel, Cartier and Hermes are their favourite hang-outs and the fun of it all isn't lost on the charming millionaire.

"The joke down here is that there are three reasons women like you – money, more money and a lot of money," he laughs.

He is in relaxed form and appears far different to the man we are used to in the stiff pictures of the business pages back home.

Dressed in a black and white sports jacket and aviator-style sunglasses, he fits in perfectly with the luxury surrounds.

"You haven't escaped the bevy of beautiful women yourself," I muse.

Quick as a flash, he hits back: "Well, I wouldn't want to be going with an ugly one, would I?"

By his own admission, he has "one heck of a lifestyle".

So how then can he be sure they are with him for the right reasons and not because of what he has?

There is a long pause.

"I suppose there would be some element of somebody being with you for what you have, there would have to be, at this stage of one's life. Early on they wouldn't be, it was just pure love," he says.

"Some of the people I see around here, very attractive women with small, fat, greasy men, I don't think for some reason they are with them because they are good looking and handsome and tall. So there must be a certain amount of financial involvement."

I wonder if it bothers him, but he says – in his own life – things are different.

"I can see through that pretty quickly," he claims.

In fairness to him, he is delightfully charismatic, good-humoured and makes one of the most interesting conversationalists I've ever come across.

"Put that in your piece, will you?" he quips.

There's a reason he gets the women. His current girlfriend is a woman named Yana Melnikova, a statuesque Russian beauty in her 30s. They have been together for a decade.

"Yana is a character. She has got a real spunk about her."

She has a passion for show jumping, and at one stage Dr Smurfit employed Olympic medallist Cian O'Connor to train her.

Marriage is not on the cards. His reaction to a child in the full throes

of a tantrum nearby also tells me that children certainly aren't either.

He stops the interview, and sits in silence before getting up and waving his hands at a window. He gesticulates to a woman with several children hanging out of her to quieten down the misbehaving youngster who is now crying in tones only the dogs in the designer handbags can hear.

"Absolutely ridiculous," he says sitting back down, "that wouldn't happen with mine, I can tell you."

He has been there, done that and has the grandchildren.

Time is precious to him now. It is something that, despite all his wealth, he can't get back.

It's little wonder then that of all his worldly goods – the €53m super-yacht, the art collection worth more than €50m, the homes all over the world – his most treasured possessions are his memories.

At his 70th birthday party, he dressed in a white suit with tails, spats, a bowler hat, cane and gloves and sang for his 120-strong audience of close family and friends.

"Thanks for the memories," he sings me a few bars. On the night, Bill Clinton, Denis O'Brien and Prince Albert were among the well-wishers featured in a video montage of his life.

"That was a big moment," he recalls. "It was called 'the celebration of a legend' – a surprise party."

He's a very confident man. Some call it ego. But the fact is he has simply lost the old Irish affliction of not being able to accept a compliment or talk about achievements with pride.

It wasn't always the case.

His latter teenage years were spent in a sanitarium, struck down with TB. When other boys were finding their feet, socialising with the opposite sex, he was battling a near fatal disease.

He passed the time reading tomes about mergers and acquisitions in his hospital bed. The works of Jim Slater and Jay S Walker could be found among the lotions and pills on his bedside locker.

When he emerged, he was overweight and under-confident, and immediately threw himself into his father's business.

It wasn't until fate led him to cross paths with a young hairdresser called Norma that his life turned around in more ways than one.

Was she the first woman he ever loved? "Oh yes. Absolutely. She was and still is my favourite person in the world."

Norma fell in love with him before he earned his trappings of wealth.

"I was a young whippersnapper over in London. I remember the first night I ever had a lager and lime and asked the best pair of legs in front of me to dance and that was the end of that!"

The first time he ever ordered a bottle of wine, he was also on a date with Norma.

He remembers every fine detail about the night. Right down to what his beautiful new girl ordered from the menu – Dover sole.

Not knowing anything about wine, he tried to hide his inexperience by ordering the dearest bottle on the list.

"I was trying to impress her," he concedes, looking off into the distance as he pictures the pair again, young and in love, at that little table downstairs in Dublin's Gresham Hotel.

"And it turned out to be a dessert wine," he adds. A Chateau Yquem.

When I research it later, I see Dr Smurfit knows how to impress.

He didn't just order the dearest one on the menu. He ordered the most expensive dessert wine in the world.

They eventually settled on a Portuguese bottle called Mateus Rose. And for the rest of the courtship, he says: "I wouldn't go to a restaurant unless they had Mateus Rose because that was all I knew."

It sounds familiar. "Is that the same wine you drink today?"

"No, no, no, no, no, Ma-Teus Rose," the wine connoisseur pronounces slowly. "You are talking about Petrus?"

"Oh," I say, blushing.

"And this is another fallacy about me – that I drink Petrus every day. I probably have Petrus once a year if I'm lucky, and it's only bought for me by somebody else because they think I like it because the newspapers have it that I like it," he says.

Future dinner companions take note.

There's also another untruth he wants to clear up.

"People think I came down here to avoid taxes. The reason I came here was because I didn't want to bring my second wife to Ireland."

"That's very noble of you," I say.

"It was Norma's place where she had grown up. And her friends were there. So she's able to be Mrs Smurfit, the only Mrs Smurfit in Ireland."

He bats away the idea that tax exiles should come home because, he says, "there aren't that many of them", and he believes there is no need for a wealth tax because it already exists, just under a different guise.

"If you have people paying money to the State for the value of their house, what else would you call it?"

With close friends like Bernard McNamara having gone to the United Kingdom, he is vocal on the subject of bankruptcy.

"In Ireland, the laws are archaic. It is just ridiculous in this modern day and age. Why would you keep someone bankrupt for that many years? That's like a jail sentence. But I am not for people who are hiding things away from their creditors. When you owe money, you owe money. You have got to pay it. And there are one or two people doing that.

"That's why Bernard, who I am very fond of, has to be careful not to be tainted with the same brush," he argues.

On current banker salaries, he says bankers deserve every penny they get, "because you won't attract talent to run the banks even the way they are, without paying realistic wages and conditions of employment".

"What about Richie Boucher's salary?" I protest.

"Or Michael Fingleton's million-euro pension?"

"Maybe that is the only thing he has left," he counters.

Does he feel sorry for the position his old friend is in?

"I feel sorry for anybody who has got caught up in this terrible tragedy. And there's not just him, there are many."

Have they remained in contact?

"I keep in contact with anybody I have ever known in good times and in bad times. I'm not a fair-weather friend. I am not somebody who jumps on somebody's grave. And when they are down, I am there to help. And if I can, I will. If that is by word or deed, then be that what it may."

That hangs in the air for a moment.

"Has anybody asked you for your help financially?"

"Well, if they did, I wouldn't tell you," is the simple reply.

I enquire about the famous dinner he held at the K Club to which he invited both Michael Fingleton and Michael Lowry.

"These are private dinners. I am entitled to have whoever I want in my home. As far as I know, there is no law against that. And if one person has got a different opinion of them than I have, they are entitled to their opinion, as I am to mine."

He looks back on the boom years in visible disbelief.

Developers like Gerry Gannon "had their private jets and helicopters but they flew too close to the sun too quickly. Very few had what I would call drop dead money – a reserve, like I always had."

He recalls the height of the madness when bankers would throw money at him.

"I could have borrowed any amount of money really that I wanted. With no personal guarantees. I remember one bank executive came to me and said, 'you're not doing any business with us, I'll offer you €100m'. They said, 'we want to get you on our books'."

He declined the offer.

Although one of the country's most successful businessmen, he says the Government has never sought his help on matters of economic policy. Still, that doesn't

stop him having staunch views on everything from Nama to the EU.

On Ireland's bad bank, he marvels at its "huge overheads" and believes its future is an uphill battle: "History will show that Nama was a mistake."

He goes on: "They have taken all the low-hanging fruit off the tree already so the real difficulty for Nama will be going forward."

One Irish industry he tips for the future is oil – and the Providence drill off the coast of Cork.

"I am very confident we'll discover gas and oil in this round of exploration. There is more than an even chance that we are going to be in a financially stronger position in, say four or five years from now, because of what we are doing with oil and gas."

He comes back to Ireland every few weeks to his home in the K Club. It is here that he experienced one of the highlights of his life.

Indeed, when the Ryder Cup was held there in 2006, he was very emotional on the final night.

No one knew it at the time but he had good reason to be. From the day he started out and joined his then impoverished father Jefferson Smurfit in business, one memory was the catalyst for his determination to make it to the top. For Michael Smurfit, it came in the exclusion of his father from membership of a golf club.

"The drive started when my father was turned down from being a member of a golf club and he struggled to become accepted."

He looks angry yet determined, retelling the story as he relives the promise he made to his father, pointing into the air as if his father is standing before him again:

"I said, 'I'm going to make you accepted; I'm going to put your name in lights'."

His father is by far the most dominant and inspiring figure in his life. His eyes well up at times as he talks about him with fondness but in the next breath, with honesty at how tough he could be.

When I ask if he ever told his father he loved him, he says, as if caught off guard, "I didn't love my father 'til my 30s."

That bond didn't come until after he married Norma. Though ironically his father had protested against his son marrying Norma because she was Jewish.

"Her parents wouldn't go and my parents wouldn't go so that was a great wedding," he recalls.

He says he only fully grew into himself when he "gained financial security for my family". By that time, he was in his 40s.

It's notable that his own financial independence came at the same time he was able to develop an emotional bond with his father.

He pulls out his phone and shows me the screensaver: an old black and white photograph of his parents as they celebrated their engagement.

"They are never far from me," he says.

His voice breaks as he recalls the moment his father died.

"That was one of the lowest points of my life. He was only 67," he says.

It was just three years after his retirement, when he had just begun to enjoy what he worked hard for.

Michael Smurfit is an old softie at heart. He gushes over the love shared by Howard Kilroy – the man who was his second-in-command in the Jefferson Smurfit Group – and his wife Meriel.

"I love being in their company because they have been bonded forever. Just seeing that type of relationship endure over a long period of time, 30, 40 years, it's fabulous. A rarity nowadays," he says.

He puts the breakdown of his marriages to his years spent immersed in work. At that time he was the first man in Europe to own a private jet.

I ask what it was like. He shrugs, and replies: "It was just a tool. I hardly ever ate and I never took a drink on the jet."

"No parties?" I ask.

"It was all business, business, business. No small talk. Preparing for the next country, the next review, the next acquisition."

By the time he was ready to retire and enjoy life, "of course then they went and took it off me", he says.

Does he ever get lonely?

"That's something you learn to live with. When your own family is grown up, they all have their own lives and their own children and I don't want to be a burden on them."

These days, he is far more of an emotional person. He cries at movies and with his children and grandchildren, he describes himself as the "cuddly, kissy type".

"I am very affectionate with my kids. We kiss and hug and say I love you and miss you. It's different to my father's time."

At one point during the interview, he gets a call from one of his grandchildren, Alexander, who is keen to meet up and as we wrap up, he tells me of his joy at being taken by his son Tony to the FA cup final in Wembley.

He is done with making money. Now is the time to make a few more memories.

I tell him it was a pleasure and that I would love to see him again when he has more time.

If he's this charming on the water, he's well worth a bottle of the good stuff.

Irish Independent

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