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Obituary: Tony Barry, former president of Ibec and business insider central to the worldwide success of CRH


Tony Barry. Picture by Fennells

Tony Barry. Picture by Fennells

Tony Barry. Picture by Fennells

From a family of Cork ‘merchant princes’, Tony Barry, a grandson of the founder of Barry’s Tea, went on to become a central figure in the creation of Ireland’s largest company, CRH, and a prominent insider in the country’s business community.

Jimmy Culliton and I were talking one day about who might fill the bill as his number two (in CRH) and I had met Tony Barry in Cork. He seemed to me a very solid, efficient man,” CRH founder Tom Roche later told management guru Ivor Kenny.

“I suggested to Jimmy that he bring him up from Cork. He has since proved himself. He is all the things I thought he was at the time: solid and reliable and clever. Thank goodness that worked over very well.”

Tony Barry went on to become chief executive of the company from 1988 to 1994, and then chairman until 2000. Following in the footsteps of Roche and Culliton, he was instrumental in turning the Irish quarrying and concrete business into an international conglomerate.

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Barry was an independent-minded man and recalled when he was with the John A Wood firm in Cork getting a “kick up the transom” from Tom Roche, when he departed from group policy by replacing Ford trucks with “fresh-to-the market” Hinos, imported into Ireland from Japan by the legendary businessman ‘Pino’ Harris.

“He had the good grace and generosity to admit subsequently that the decision was right,” Barry said later. “It also showed, at a very early stage, the willingness to delegate in a business that demands a significant degree of local autonomy to succeed.”

Although CRH is now an international firm, its past is not without controversy  over such issues as Glen Ding wood in Co Wicklow and illegal dumping. But these controversies have been overshadowed by its enormous growth, particularly in the United States.

Anthony Dermot Barry, was born in Cork on January 19, 1935. His father, also Anthony, was a Fine Gael TD and Lord Mayor of Cork, while his grandfather of the same name founded the famed Barry’s Tea.

The brand still remains in the hands of another branch of the family. Elder brother Peter was a Fine Gael grandee, deputy leader of the party and served as tánaiste and foreign affairs minister in the governments of Garret FitzGerald.

Tony was a more retiring figure, gave few interviews when running CRH and largely stayed out of the limelight. Few who saw him at mass in Blackrock Church, Co Dublin, on a Sunday with his wife Delia, would have any inclination that he was one of the country’s most prominent businessmen.

Tony Barry, who has died at the age of 85, qualified as a civil
engineer at University College Cork in the 1950s and worked in Africa, Australia and India, before returning to Cork in 1964 to join John A Wood Ltd, a local quarry and cement business.

When it was taken over by the Roadstone group, which eventually merged with Irish Cement in 1970 to become CRH, he came to the attention of senior management. As chief executive in 1988 he spearheaded its expansion  particularly in the United States, which now makes up a considerable portion of the company’s value.

As well as his role with CRH, he went on to become a director and later deputy governor of the Bank of Ireland. He was also chairman of Greencore and a director of DCC and the mining company Ivernia West.

He served on the boards of Co-Operation Ireland, Cork University Foundation and the Children’s Medical and Research Foundation. He was president of the Irish business lobby Ibec from 1996 to 1998 and in later years a prominent member of the Irish Academy of Engineering.

It emerged in 1999 following tribunal investigations that, of the 15 directors of CRH, eight  including Tony Barry  held offshore accounts with Ansbacher bank in the Cayman Islands, opened at the instigation of another director, Des Traynor. 

Barry explained at the time that these accounts were opened for the benefit of his adult children  “the source of these funds was fully disclosed and after-tax income”, he added.

Tony Barry, who died in Dublin on October 28, is survived by his wife and four children.