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O’Reilly: Businessman, Villain and Hero

On his retirement from INM Tony O'Reilly has achieved much

Sir Anthony O’Reilly (Tony O’Reilly) retired as Chairman of Independent News and Media (INM) on his seventy-third birthday on May 7th, after a fractious spell with fellow shareholder and telecoms billionaire, Denis O’Brien. His role as Chairman has now passed to his son Gavin who had been chief operating officer. Gavin is the only remaining O’Reilly family member on the board and O’Brien will take three seats on the reduced board of directors, ending the era of O’Reilly. Worse, INM shares are down by 85% in the last year and according to the Daily Telegraph as Village went to print, traders were predicting it would be forced into administration before the end of May as talks between shareholders and bond-holders collapsed.

O’Reilly steps down from INM after nearly fifty years of gilded business achievement that has ended with a difficult couple of years.

One-time-redhead O’Reilly was brought up in the leafy Northside Dublin suburb of Glasnevin where his family lived on Griffith Road. He was educated at Belvedere College where he was an incipient renaissance man; he played soccer, cricket and tennis, and was an altar boy and enjoyed amateur dramatics. Apocryphally he would sell his lunch to the highest bidder at break-time. At the age of fifteen, O’Reilly allegedly found out that his father, John, had another family of four with his estranged wife Judith. O’Reilly’s parents married in 1976, shortly after the death of John’s first wife. His most renowned extra-curricular activity was rugby where he excelled; and he went on to be a world-class centre for Ireland, the Barbarians and the Lions. Eamon Dunphy has famously drawn attention to his splendid “melon-like buttocks”, dating from that period. At the same time he was beginning a gentleman’s education, studying philosophy at UCD, but he later qualified in the law, although he never practised, except to become chairman of white-shoe law firm, Matheson, Ormsby and Prentice.

After a brief time at Sutton’s coal and oil merchants in Cork, O’Reilly, who had earned a doctorate in agricultural marketing from bleak Bradford University, took a (for then, glittering) job at An Bórd Bainne as general manager in 1962 and developed the Kerrygold brand, one of the very first truly Irish brands. In 1966 he joined the Irish Sugar Company as Chief Executive and became involved in business dealings with food company HJ Heinz & Co. An accident around this time and an alleged conviction for careless driving did not deter Taoiseach Jack Lynch from offering the prodigious O’Reilly a post as Minister for Agriculture. O’Reilly declined. By 1973, he was president of Heinz and that same year he purchased a controlling share in Independent newspapers when the titles had a turnover of c.€12m. He was promoted to chief executive at Heinz in 1979 and became the first non-family chairman of the company in 1987. O’Reilly remained at the helm of Heinz until 1998 increasing the company’s value twelvefold (from $908 million to $11 billion before a few fallow years; and during that time continued to build Independent Newspapers (now Independent News and Media) with operations in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. He built INM into a €1.5bn going concern but over recent years the group has struggled with excessive debt and unprofitability.

O’Reilly and INM deserve credit for running the London Independent newspaper even though it has lost money consistently since his bought it in. It is one of the world’s great challenging papers. Whatever one may think of the Sunday Independent – which is tattle-ridden and often appears to indulge nasty vendettas – and the Irish Independent, they are also both clever products and it is likely that in the absence of O’Reilly they would have veered considerably down-market. Nevertheless Bertie Ahern’s favourable treatment in the titles over the years may well have something to do with the legislation he introduced in 1994 reducing the restrictions on tax exiles, such as Tony O’Reilly.

O’Reilly’s retirement from INM closes an important chapter for one of Ireland’s most successful sons. He was for a long time pre-eminent in a group of self made men who became rich in the 1970s – men such as Barney Eastwood, Tony Ryan, Lochlann Quinn, JP McManus and John Magnier – they were the first group since Irish independence in 1922 to make themselves rich and (mostly) hold onto their money. However, he had has his share of controversy, particularly when Rennick’s Manufacturing made a payment of IR£30,000 to Ray Burke in 1991. The payment was a contribution to Fianna Fáil received by Burke in 1989 from Rennick’s which is a subsidiary of the Fitzwilton Group, controlled and chaired by O’Reilly. It emerged later that Burke had agreed to most of the central terms sought by Independent Newspapers for the operation of the Multichannel Distribution Service, a television relay licences service, though no connection is established and Fitzwilton stated that Tony O’ Reilly, was “absolutely not” aware of the £30,000 contribution intended for Fianna Fáil, and that he was not aware that the payment had been made by way of a cheque payable to “cash”. Through administrative ineptitude the tribunal failed to comply with the requirements made by law for it to pursue this issue and we may never know what happened. Around this time, O’Reilly who is famously gregarious dropped off the media and gossip lists; and he seldom figures in the press now. Village appears unique in marking his INM retirement, perhaps because the media are fractiously divided as to whether he is hero (in which case unfortunately there is little good news for them to publish at the moment) or antichrist; and because serious criticism sometimes fetches the author in trouble in the columns of the Sunday Independent. For whatever reason O’Reilly is largely unknown to people under thirty.

O’Reilly married his first wife, Susan Cameron in 1962. They had six children together, including triplets and he now has more than twenty grandchildren. O’Reilly and Cameron divorced towards the end of the 1980s but remained on good terms. O’Reilly remarried Chryss Goulandris a Greek shipping heiress who was said to be worth more than O’Reilly at the time they married.

O’Reilly has made a number of investments with the Goulandris family, most notably in Waterford, now Waterford- Wedgewood. In 1993 he led a rescue bid and became chairman but on January 5th, 2009, parts of the Group, including the main Irish and UK operations, were placed in receivership. O’Reilly and his wife’s brother Peter Goulandris have lost hundreds of millions of Euro, including €60m in the last year alone in the company which lost €260 million in the two years up to March 2007. While it is easy to criticise them for bad management, it is also the case that they appear to have made honourable efforts to save this important Irish company and its workforce. In 2001 O’Reilly headed the Valentia Consortium, whose backers included international financier George Soros and the US Investment Bank Goldman Sachs. Valentia bought Eircom for €3bn after a fierce bidding war. O’Reilly was quoted in Time Magazine in 2007 on Eircom as saying, “it’s dead so far as a growth vehicle for voice is concerned. And you know, it would be a 3% to 4% gradual decline, and you can do everything with your mobile, can’t you? You’re going to shave with your mobile next. Soros and I made quite a bit of money, so we can’t complain. My job is to get them back into mobile”. For the public it was notable that Eircom failed to invest in infrastructure, including broadband infrastructure – very significantly to the detriment of the national interest.

O’Reilly’s principal residence is in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. This enables him to avoid paying Irish tax, which makes it difficult to maintain he is a genuine philanthropist or progressive.

O’Reilly and his wife are estimated to be worth around €1bn, down, according to the Sunday Times “Rich List”, by around a third in the last year or so.

Tony O’Reilly is a man of some considerable culture and style and a brilliant raconteur. He owns a mansion in Normandy, beside the castle where William the Conqueror planned the invasion of Normandy in 1066. O’Reilly also owns a house on Fitzwilliam Square, another in Glandore and the Castlemartin Estate in Kilcullen where he keeps cattle and bloodstock, and through which he claimed €37,126.71 in farm payments between October 2007 and October 2008. The farm is a home to prizewinning Charolais heifers.

O’Reilly owns an internationally renowned art collection which began with By Streedagh Strand, a Yeats painting which he purchased for STG£9,500 in 1972 to hang in his new office in Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh. According to the author John Burns O’Reilly’s interest in art, “appears to have been projecting an image of himself as a man of culture”. Monet’s Portrait which he bought for STG£16m is said to form the centre-piece of his collection. O’Reilly has supported a wide range of not-for-profit projects in Ireland and continues this work. He was a pioneer in this field in Ireland. In 1976, he co-created The Ireland Fund (now known as The Ireland Funds) with friend and fellow Pittsburgh businessman Dan Rooney. The mission of this organisation was to foster connections between Americans of Irish descent and the country of their ancestry. The Ireland Funds have been a leading voice for constructive change throughout the island of Ireland and have raised over $300 million to support thousands of worthy causes which promote peace and reconciliation, arts and culture, and education and community development. The Ireland Funds attempts to address prejudice, exclusion and inequality, and is reaching out to those untouched by recent economic gains. In recognition for his work O’Reilly was knighted in 2001 for services to Northern Ireland. It didn’t hinder his elevation that he also had donated the land around Land’s End in England to the British government. O’Reilly at one stage instigated a venerable committee to investigate the possibility of bringing the Olympics to Ireland, under the tutelage of Gay Mitchell, then mayor of Dublin. O’Reilly has donated millions to educational institutions over the years; the O’Reilly Institute was opened at TCD in 1989, to house the computer science department. The O’Reilly Hall, funded in large part by Sir Anthony, was opened at UCD, Belfield, in 2004 and in 1998 he established the O’Reilly Foundation which supports a programme of scholarships to provide world-class educational opportunities for outstanding young Irish scholars to undertake post-graduate education in their chosen field. In September of 2000 a library named after O’Reilly’s parents, John and Aileen, was opened at DCU to which he donated “a substantial personal gift”. In 2004 he donated STG£4m to a new library at Queen’s University to be named after him, which is due for completion this year. Buildings associated with him are characteristically architecturally distinguished.

Tony O’Reilly’s contribution to Irish culture and society over the years has been significant. He has been a pioneer. And while he has not remained untouched from bad publicity or avoided some poor choices, he remains one of Ireland’s most inspiring, successful and apparently largely honourable self-made individuals. He generally does not grant interviews and is said to be very much a family man these days, finally taking it easy, or at least easier.