Caroline Murphy and the Murphy Group - one woman's construction empire

She’s the heiress to a family fortune, a trade unionist and gay rights campaigner. And just a couple of weeks ago she turned her back on the family business in a dispute over her attempts to turn Murphy Group and its 3,500 employees into a workers’ co-op. As Caroline Murphy prepares to hand workers her £40m in shares, Michael Clifford reports.

Caroline Murphy

CAROLINE Murphy moved with grace and ease among the Murphy men at her father’s funeral. It was May 2009, and all had descended on John Murphy’s native Cahirciveen in Co Kerry to pay their last respects to a man who was known to thousands as simply, “The Boss”.

He had left south Kerry an illiterate, penniless teenager, and spawned a construction empire conservatively worth over €350 million.

In his lifetime, the green vans of J Murphy and Sons had become as much a feature of London streets as red post boxes. The arc of his life closed when he died at the age of 95 at his home in Hamstead, London.

Caroline was the chief mourner at the funeral. Her father had anointed her as his successor two years earlier when he appointed her as deputy chairperson at the age of just 24. In the patriarchal world of construction — and particularly London Irish construction — this was a remarkable departure. But then, by all accounts, Caroline Murphy was a remarkable woman, and her father had spotted her talent at an early age.

At the funeral, she was among her own, the immigrants from Kerry and beyond from whose ranks her father had never strayed. She may have grown up with a sliver spoon well within reach if required, but she moved easily among the generations of Murphy men, many of whom had begun their working life with a shovel and little else, just like her father.

Those who met her were impressed. Word rippled around the gathering that John Murphy’s legacy looked to be in safe hands.

Within months she suffered what she later described as a breakdown.

“I just hit a brick wall running. Really hit it,” she later explained. “I was engulfed by familial, legal, personal and work-related problems, any one of which would have taken every last ounce of my physical and emotional strength to handle. Yet they all came together. They crashed through the ceiling on top of me, and I was pinioned underneath, rendered powerless and immobile from the weight and the pressure, and incapable of helping myself to find a way out.”

Some speculation had it that there was a family fall-out over John Murphy’s will. Murphy had long ensured that all his personal and business affairs were kept well out of the media, and the family has continued that strategy.

She eventually recovered, but her life took a complete new direction. Her involvement with the family business came to an end 10 days ago when she announced her resignation from the board. She wanted to turn the multi-million pound business into a worker’s Co-op, to be owned by the 3,500 employees. Her fellow board members — principally her mother, bother and half brother — didn’t share her enthusiasm for dispersing the wealth. She felt she had no option but to resign.

Her “exit statement” read: “My appointment to deputy chairman by my father John Murphy, was a decision he made with confidence and strength. He chose that same moment to publicly announce his long held wish for me to take over the running of the family business.

“My father remains a great inspiration to me. I was delighted to have seen the company grow in strength during the years I worked, embedding his values into the structure of the Murphy Group. I was proud to see those efforts recognised independently too, when I was named as one of the top five private business women in the UK.

“The natural extension of my father’s values, in my view, is the development of the Murphy Group into an employee-owned structure. It is the people working within this company that have created its success and I believe the future of his legacy is best entrusted into their capable hands. I have been vocal in my belief that leadership of this business must include those working on the ground if it is to continue to deliver for the clients who have placed their trust in us over the years.

“Taking into account the direction of the board’s interests, the current structure holds no space for me to develop this process further.”

She has said she is committed to selling her stake in the group — believed to be worth around £40m — to workers for nominal sums.

'RICH KID SYNDROME'

For those beyond the immediate orbit of the secretive family, the development has come as a major surprise. Some see it as “rich kid syndrome”, but Ms Murphy has, over recent years, shown a major commitment to the rights of workers and minorities. She has become particularly active in areas such as gay rights and the plight of Irish Traveller women.

Her family was reported to be upset at her proposal. Others who knew John Murphy are sceptical as to whether he would have shared his daughter’s vision.

“I’d say he’d be turning in his grave down there in Cahirciveen,” one said. Another expressed a similar opinion. “John Murphy was a hard man but good man to work for if you worked, and he never lost the run of himself with money. But giving it all away? I don’t think he’d have gone for that.” Neither source was willing to go on the record as a time when the Murphy family is obviously experiencing difficulties.

Ms Murphy could claim, with some authority, that she knew her father better than others and that her vision of how the group should develop is in line with her father’s.

There is little doubt but that she was the apple of her father’s eye. She was born when John Murphy was 69 and married for the second time following the death of his first wife. Her mother Kathy is a former nurse, whom Murphy met when she was attending to his first wife during her final illness. The family is completed by Caroline’s bother James, who is two years her junior.

LEGENDARY

John Murphy’s ascent is the stuff of legend among the immigrant community in the UK. He arrived in London in the late 1930s, and began to assert himself during the Second World War when he worked at clearing snow in what was then London Airport.

He quickly branched out on his own, and showed his entrepreneurial potential. It was during those early years that he adopted the name John, even though he had arrived in London under his baptismal name of James. In later life, he claimed that he took his father’s name so that if he died in the Blitz his father back in Kerry could claim his accumulated savings from a London bank.

He wasn’t the only member of his family to prosper in the brutal world of post-war London construction. His bother Joe joined him there after a spell working in An Gárda Síochana in Dublin. Joe’s baptismal name was John, but with his brother already claiming that, the real John became Joe when he got off the boat.

After a number of years, the brothers split their operation and thereafter became known by the colour coding of their plant and transport vehicles. John was the green Murphy, Joe the grey.

Much later, Joe became embroiled in the Mahon Tribunal following a dispute with a former employee of his, James Gogarty. Gogarty, who had served with Joe in the gardaí, alleged that he was involved in paying a bribe of £30,000 to Ray Burke on behalf of a Murphy company, JMSE. Joe Murphy’s son, Joe Jnr, was the main focus of Gogary’s ire, and became a key witness in the tribunal. At one stage the tribunal moved to the Channel Islands to interview Joe Snr, who was in poor health. He died in Guernsey in 2000.

SCANDAL

Meanwhile, despite his enormous success, John Murphy had trouble of his own. Corporate manoeuvrings in the 1970s saw him forced to sell most of his companies, and he also became embroiled in a tax evasion scandal in which two former managers were jailed. He regained control of the group, and went on to oversee major expansion in the UK, and right across Europe and back in Ireland.

On a personal level, he knew tragedy through the premature death of his first wife. There was also family strife when he fell out with his own son John, prompting a dispute that led to legal action. The case was settled, but not before a major rift developed between father and son. John Jnr predeceased his father.

His other son Bernard relocated from London to Kildare, from where he worked at a corporate level in the group’s Irish interests. But it was John Murphy’s only daughter whom he regarded as the one who would carry his torch. While still a teenager, Caroline worked on building sites and went on to study for a degree in Civil Engineering in Bristol University.

A family friend remembers her as a young teenager. “She was extremely bright, no doubt about that.”

She had inherited her father’s appetite for hard work. Just as Murphy was prone to show up on his sites at 6.30am right into his nineties, so his daughter threw herself into it in the shallows of her working life.

“I’m someone who has possessed a drive and a work ethic that is restless, relentless and all-consuming. Once upon a time, I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for four years, as director of a major company,” she told a gathering last year.

Then her world came crashing down. She retreated from frontline engagement with the firm in the months after her father’s death. She underwent a major reassessment of her life, emerging with a whole new quiver of priorities. No longer was she focused on carrying her father’s legacy into the future, or certainly not in a conventional manner.

Among the causes that she began to espouse was that of workers. In particular, she spoke out against blacklisting in the construction industry, a practice whereby lists of workers were shared among companies who didn’t want to employ anybody who might be regarded as vocal on matters like safety.

Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Caroline invoked her own background.

“As an immigrant my father was turned away from accommodation in London by the sign ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’. He was excluded from workplaces in this city with notices that ‘No Irish Need Apply’. Barring people from work on the grounds of race was wrong then, just as it is wrong now for the brave workers who have raised their voices to make building sites safer for everyone.”

Her stance was admired, particularly in union circles, coming from a director of a firm, whose family shareholders were paid a dividend of €30m in 2012. By then, she had taken a back seat on day-to-day involvement in the firm. Currently, she is studying an MA on violence against women and children.

Gay rights is another of her projects. She is reported to be set to marry her long term partner later this year now that same sex marriage is legal in the UK.

The break with the family came on foot of her admiration for a form of co-op she observed in Spain. The company is effectively run by the workers and includes among its businesses grocery shops, car factories and local banks. She visited the operation and was highly impressed.

“On the day we visited, their supermarket workers had just taken a decision — this was people stacking shelves, working on the tills — to work longer hours for no pay increase,” she told the London Times last week.

“That was what they voted for because they understood the competition, the environment their chain was operating in and they could see it was the right decision.”

She said her philosophy in these matters was informed by a wish to empower “voiceless” people.

“My dad’s view was that you can only wear one pair of shoes at a time,” she said. “People have always had their say within the business but that was very much in the gift of my father, or in my gift. I wanted it not to be in anybody’s gift.”

She has described the split with the family business as “amicable”, although no comment is forthcoming from the company on the matter. The Murphy approach to PR was best summed up by one industry insider who said that Murphy employs a PR company to say “no comment”.

In London, Caroline Murphy’s move has generated considerable news. It’s not everyday somebody who is dubbed a “construction heiress” decides to give it up for a socialist ideal.

POLITICAL CAREER

One line of speculation is that she may be considering a future in politics. She has links with the British Labour party and her youth and background would be regarded as excellent attributes for a political career.

Any phone call from Labour leader Ed Milliband requesting her services will resonate with irony within the family. Back in 1992, when the IRA blew up the City of London, prime minister John Major phoned John Murphy, after being told Murphy was the only man capable of repairing the damage in a speedy manner.

If his daughter were to embark on a career in people rather than bricks and mortar, it would represent a road less travelled in a family that has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a rural outpost of south Kerry.



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