Sir Tony O’Reilly obituary | Business

As Ireland’s best known and most flamboyant businessman, Sir Tony O’Reilly, who has died aged 88, was instrumental in changing the image of his country from that of a commercial backwater into one of a booming “Celtic Tiger” economy. Never notably self-effacing, he once said: “The Irish in many countries concealed their identities. I got the Irish to be rather proud of the Irish.”

But the career of the titan who had once been Ireland’s richest man and a sporting hero ended in failure when, in a demonstration of hubristic over-reach, he was pursued through the courts for debts which, in spite of the sale of his houses and art collection, he was unable to pay, and he was declared bankrupt in 2015.

His achievements, in business, as first non-family chairman of Heinz, and in promoting Irish culture and working for peace in Ireland, were undeniable. His business contemporaries acknowledged him as one of the creators of modern Ireland. His ventures included a media empire that dominated the Irish press and for some years controlled the Independent newspaper in the UK, and oil and gas interests, as well as the Waterford Wedgwood china and glass company into which he and his brother-in-law were estimated to have sunk £400m before it went into receivership in 2009. Their losses sucked him dry and his fortune unravelled as the banks demanded repayment of his borrowings.

His earlier career as a rugby player encompassed 29 caps for Ireland; a record, still-standing, for the most tries (37) by a British Lion; and a final summons to play for Ireland at the age of 33, delivered at 2am in Annabel’s nightclub in central London. It was the stuff of a Boy’s Own story.

O’Reilly was born in Dublin, the son of a civil servant, Jack O’Reilly, who became inspector general of customs. The fact that Jack was not married to Tony’s mother, Aileen O’Connor (he had left his wife, Judith, and four children, but was not divorced), was only revealed to Tony by a schoolteacher, and he kept the knowledge secret for years afterwards. His parents married after the death of Jack’s first wife. Educated at Belvedere college, a private Catholic school in Dublin, O’Reilly studied law at University College Dublin, qualifying first and third in Ireland in the two parts of his final professional exams.

Tony O’Reilly playing for Ireland against England in the Five Nations Championships in 1970. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

But it was sport that marked him out; he was the redheaded pin-up boy of Irish rugby. A powerful three-quarter, first capped at 18, he was immediately picked for the British Lions (now the British & Irish Lions) in 1955 and played in all four tests against South Africa. The following year he scored four tries for Ireland against both France and Scotland.

In 1958 he went to work in England as a management consultant before moving back to Cork to an agricultural products business. In 1962, as general manager of the Irish Dairy Board, the charismatic O’Reilly demonstrated his marketing skills with the launch of Kerrygold butter; a huge success, particularly, as he himself conceded, since precious little butter was made in County Kerry. His brand focus remained constant, although his detractors claimed his most successful brand was himself.

His next move to the Irish Sugar Board brought him to the notice of the American Heinz company. They made him their UK managing director and in 1971 moved him to the US headquarters in Pittsburgh, where he became the company’s president in 1973, chief executive in 1979 and the first non-Heinz family chairman in 1987. It was a rare success for a non-American, and drew both on his business achievement and charm.

His leadership of Heinz lasted for 20 years, during which time its value multiplied 12 times. But sales fell in the early 1990s. In 1994 he took a cut to what was one of the most generous salaries in the US, amid accusations that his multifarious interests were taking his eye off the ball and doubts about his corporate governance. Although the company was then restructured and stabilised, O’Reilly regularly featured among BusinessWeek’s top five chief executives giving shareholders worst value for their salaries. Commentators pointed to the deal that allowed him to pursue his personal business interests in Ireland while employed by Heinz.

Tony O’Reilly handing the deeds of Cape Cornwall, bought by Heinz for the UK, to Margaret Thatcher with Dame Jennifer Jenkins, of the National Trust, right, in 1987. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Starting with Irish politicians such as Jack Lynch, and moving on from the Heinz family, he revelled in a huge circle of powerful friends in business, politics and show business, although some detected beneath his ebullient drive a desire to be liked that reflected an underlying insecurity.

Many of his famous friends would join his boards and charities, and this sometimes drew accusations of cronyism. His directorships included Mobil, Bankers Trust and the Washington Post. He was heavily involved in the Republican party and was even considered as a possible secretary of commerce under George Bush Sr.

But O’Reilly judged he would never leave a great mark on American life and refocused his interests in Ireland, where he had bought into a series of enterprises before leaving for Pittsburgh.

In 1973, he had put more than £1m into the Irish Independent newspaper company, becoming executive chairman of Independent News and Media (INM) in 2000 with a controlling stake. He built up a dominant position in the Irish press, with stakes in nine of the 12 leading titles, before his investments in the rival Irish Press Group were labelled “abuse of a dominant position” by the Irish Competition Authority in 1995. He enjoyed the influence. Venturing into oil exploration, he told Forbes magazine: “I have close contact with the politicians. I got the [exploration] blocks I wanted”.

O’Reilly internationalised his ambitions, buying into newspapers and broadcasting in South Africa (where he courted Nelson Mandela), Australasia and the UK. In Britain he bought shares in the loss-making Independent in 1994, describing it as his “calling card”. INM built up more than 200 newspaper and magazine titles and 130 broadcasting outlets. An international advisory board that included the actor Sean Connery, former rugby stars and North American and UK politicians gathered at top locations twice a year.

Tony O’Reilly at the Independent News and Media printing plant in Newry, Northern Ireland, in 2007. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

But when the share price collapsed to a few cents in 2009, O’Reilly found himself under bitter attack from a rival Irish billionaire, Denis O’Brien, who, after objecting to the group’s coverage of his business, had built up a stake in INM almost equivalent to O’Reilly’s. He demanded sales of assets, including the Independent newspaper.

In 2009 O’Reilly stepped down in favour of Gavin, the international advisory board disappeared, and O’Brien nominees were included on a smaller main board, replacing some O’Reilly family members. Assets were sold and in 2010 the Independent was purchased by the Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev.

O’Reilly was also hurt by the failure of Waterford Wedgwood in 2009, which cost him his billionaire status. He saw his purchase of the old-established company, Ireland’s biggest private employer, in 1993, as the start of a conglomerate of famous brands. He was widely praised for supporting Irish traditional industry, and poured in huge sums of money before its ultimate failure.

Other ventures had mixed success. His industrial holding company Fitzwilton, established with friends in 1970, started as a stockmarket favourite, and was intended to emulate Hanson. But it was only saved by a fire-sale of its investments in the mid-70s, just as O’Reilly was taking up the reins at Heinz. It was later taken private. In 2005 he made millions from the consortium that bought and re-sold Eircom, the former state telecommunications company, but his Irish oil exploration was a failure, in which shareholders lost millions and O’Reilly most of all.

He was stung by criticism that he had abandoned Ireland for the US. “Cut him and he bleeds green,” said one business associate. He himself said: “Every time I achieve something or fail to achieve something, I feel the weight of being a representative of the hopes and aspirations and dreams of Irish round the world.”

In the US in the 70s, he established and energetically promoted the Ireland Funds, specifically to foster “peaceful and fruitful coexistence in which both nationalist and unionist identities are mutually respected”. Conceived as a counterbalance to Noraid, which raised money for the IRA, it brought together leading Catholic and Protestant Irish-Americans and has raised more than $500m for community projects. In the 2001 New Year’s Honours list, O’Reilly received a British knighthood for his work for peace in Ireland.

Famously described by Henry Kissinger as “a modern renaissance man”, O’Reilly contributed generously to the arts and academia from his own pocket, as well as through the O’Reilly Foundation, with major donations to Irish universities, including the O’Reilly Hall at University College Dublin; the O’Reilly Institute at Trinity College Dublin; and a new library for Queen’s University Belfast. Other sponsorships included the O’Reilly theatre in Pittsburgh.

His social life was energetic, and he had homes in the Bahamas, France, the US, Dublin and various parts of Ireland, including a classical mansion, Castlemartin in County Kildare, where he entertained guests including Kissinger and the Hollywood actor Paul Newman.

But in later years the fortune of an increasingly reclusive O’Reilly drained away. Although he had once been worth nearly £1bn, the collapse of the Irish banks revealed just how overstretched he had become. As they pressed for repayments, he had to use the proceeds of his holding in the smart meter company Landis and Gyr to halve his €70m debt to the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (the IBRC, which in 2011 took over the bankrupt Anglo-Irish Bank). Then in 2014, AIB (the Allied Irish Banks) successfully sued him for €22m.

He sold his Irish estates, including his beloved Castlemartin, “with 750 acres of the finest stud land in Ireland”, and made other disposals. A year later, the bank was still pursuing him for €14.3m and the court was told that O’Reilly was bedridden in New York after a back operation. His bankruptcy was declared in the Bahamas, where he had residence, in 2015 and he was finally released from it in January this year on the basis that the whole of his property had been released for the benefit of his creditors.

Insult had been added to injury when Sabina Vidunas, whom he had employed as his personal assistant and nurse for 15 years, sued him for refusing to honour promises to provide her with shares supposedly put into trust for her. It was a sad postscript to a remarkable life during which O’Reilly made a major contribution to a modern Ireland whose emergence he seemed to symbolise.

In 1962 he married Susan Cameron, an Australian pianist he had met on a Lions tour, and they had three sons and three daughters, including triplets. After their divorce, in 1991 he married Chryss Goulandris, of the Greek shipping family, with a fortune that exceeded his own, and a shared interest in the turf which included her own horse-breeding stables.

She died last year. O’Reilly is survived by his children.

Anthony Joseph Francis O’Reilly, businessman, born 7 May 1936; died 18 May 2024

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