The tycoon spent his life wanting more of everything and it led to his downfall, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
One of Tony O’Reilly’s most impressive traits is his vitality. During a half century of business, he displayed a gargantuan appetite for work, which included three decades of commuting to Ireland at weekends to oversee his portfolio of investments while climbing up the greasy pole of American corporate life as chief of Heinz, a Fortune 500 company, during weekdays.
Instead of playing golf at the weekends, writes Matt Cooper in his exhilarating biography, The Maximalist: The Rise and Fall of Tony O’Reilly, he played “Celtic Monopoly”.
A key to O’Reilly’s drive was he enjoyed the heck out of doing business. He was “a deal junkie” and he loved the brands he worked on, which included a media empire, the lustre (in his eyes) of Waterford Wedgewood’s gilded products and, of course, the chutzpah and cachet that taking over the reins of an old, dynastic US business (as a non-family member and a non-American) implied.
“He also described himself as a very private person,” says Cooper. “Certainly in recent years he has been very private. There was an interesting line which came from one interviewee along the lines that O’Reilly didn’t draw a distinction between work and fun.
“He found work to be fun, the whole intellectual thing about running a newspaper business, running the food business, running table-top [brands]. The reason he kept talking about his businesses was that he found these things to be very, very interesting, and that made it fun for him.”
The obsession with business inevitably had a cost on his family life though. Cooper notes that he hardly ever had a romantic meal alone with his first wife, Susan, a beautiful blonde Australian who he pursued while visiting Sydney on the 1959 Lions rugby tour (jettisoning his Dublin-based fiancée, Dorothy Connolly, in the process). Every dinner in their house in Pittsburgh, where the headquarters of Heinz is based, seemed to be open house where friends and associates mingled with them, their six children and his parents when they were in town.
Of course the entertainer O’Reilly — who could sing and play the piano to performance standard — also just loved the company, or an audience for his mimicry and polished anecdotes. People were swept up willingly by his magnetic personality, including a woman in Ireland who he saw regularly for over a decade during his first marriage. His charisma found its stage in boardrooms and the legendary soirees at his 750-acre pile at Castlemartin in Co Kildare, which had a phone box for business calls installed beside its swimming pool in the 1980s. The parties at a marquee beside the manor held about 300 guests. Invitations arrived in the post inviting one to “supper” or a “dinner dance” and usually came printed on cards embossed with the Castlemartin crest. Guests mingled with Hollywood celebrities like Paul Newman and Gregory Peck and British political royalty like Gordon Brown and a Who’s Who of Irish high society, although Charlie Haughey was always a conspicuous absentee.
The gatherings were formulaic — the food unimaginative, the lounge-style jazz music and old crooners’ classics predictable — but O’Reilly lapped up the attention. It was his court.
“He has an extraordinary way of making you feel like you’re an important person although at the same time you always remember your place as well,” says Cooper who worked under him for a decade as editor of The Sunday Tribune.
“An awful lot of people at his parties in Castlemartin worked for him. Your material wellbeing depended on whether you were in favour or not. If you were a politician you had reason to be there for benediction; if you were excluded you were on the outside. The fact that he controlled so much of the media meant people had so much to worry about his influence over that. If you were a businessperson, who wanted to be doing deals with him, you wanted to be in his presence. If you weren’t there it meant you were going to lose out to somebody else.
“That’s the nature of the power an exceptionally wealthy businessman tends to have.”
Cooper adds: “He is very, very generous in many respects. He’s good company. He’s funny. He tells stories. He mimics people. He’s entertaining. He’s also very interesting because he has an enormous range of things he is interested in — or certainly was interested in. There’s not a dull moment when you’re in a room with him.
“An awful lot of powerful people have this thing because of the position they have reached and the fact so many people are dependent on them gives them additional power. More people are attracted to them.
“I remember somebody saying to me that there is a danger— if you’re working for him — you become almost seduced by it and you become a groupie to an extent, but I jokingly like to say: ‘Yes, I may have smoked, but I didn’t inhale.’
“If there is a clue to what made O’Reilly run through life it is to be found in his youth and a family secret. He was born in 1936, coincidentally the same year as two of Ireland’s other business titans, Michael Smurfit and Tony Ryan. (Cooper makes a choice summary of the different way they experienced anger: O’Reilly spoke slowly; Ryan was volcanic, Smurfit, spiteful.)
O’Reilly’s father skipped through life like a character from a John Buchan novel. He was born John Patrick Reilly in Drogheda, Co Louth. He joined the Irish civil service in 1925, passing his entrance exam with the use of a false name — an older brother’s, as he was too young to join himself. He also began adding the prefix “O” to his surname.
While posted in Wicklow, he fell for a young woman called Judith Agnes Clarke, whom he married while she was six months pregnant, a scandalous state of affairs for a couple in the Ireland of 1928. She had three children in quick succession while her husband carried on a life of Riley, seducing a fellow student, Petite O’Hagan, when he went back to university to study law. Their fling ended, however. O’Hagan informed Judith — who may well have confronted her about the affair — that she was joining a nunnery; which she did, although she died within a year from a brain tumour.
Judith, meanwhile, had a fourth child, which led to her hospitalisation for a year, owing to a perforated appendix. Her mother and aunts took on the job of rearing her four children while Jack took up lodgings in the Dublin house of a retired policeman from Co Roscommon and promptly fell in love with his landlord’s 22-year-old daughter, Aileen.
The lovers struck out on their own, holing up in a house on Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge, Jack having abandoned his first family. Their only child, Tony, was born on 7 May 1936. They stayed unmarried; an astonishing position for a couple living in Éamon de Valera’s fundamentalist Catholic Ireland (although they finally wed in 1974, a year before Dev’s death); amazingly, too, notes Cooper, whether it was hid or tolerated, it didn’t impede Jack’s progress in the civil service.
Young Tony had a carefree childhood, doted on in particular by his mother, until the bombshell of his parents’ marital status was revealed to him by the priests at his school, Belvedere College, in 1954, and that his father had run out on a wife and four children, his three half-sisters and a half-brother. He was 15 years old. He cycled home and apparently never broached the subject with his parents. Their “mortal sin” made a bastard of him in a State that, according to the Legitimacy Act of 1931, meant he couldn’t inherit his father’s assets if he died without leaving a will. He was a second-class citizen.
It must have been devastating for a man who took such pride in social status, famously insisting that people address him as “Sir Anthony” after he was knighted in 2000. A measure of how deeply the news jolted him was that he kept the secret from his wife, Susan, until years after their children were born. The 1970s had dawned before he spoke about it to his parents. Susan, and others in O’Reilly’s circle, reckon the shock of the revelation to him while he was a teenager contributed to his enormous ambition, that he constantly wanted to achieve more, to prove to the world that he was better than everyone out there, “to be known for his abilities rather than his perceived shame”. Perhaps it is a simplistic reading, but there is merit in it.
“I was very struck by the fact that he didn’t confront his parents about it, that the conversation only took place over 20 years later, that he withheld it from his first wife,” says Cooper.
“[It was unusual] that O’Reilly ended up having this privileged middle class existence — Belvedere College schooling and all the rest of it — when his father was in a position, which might be commonplace now, but was almost unique for 1940s and ’50s Ireland, to have abandoned a family and set up a new one, and to be facilitated in that by the Jesuits. It was a remarkable thing.
“Without engaging in amateur psychology, he must have been very aware of all that, of what happened to other people [who defied Catholic Church doctrine]. He was an intelligent man who was well able to follow what was going on in Irish society at the time, and although not religious was very, very interested in the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland.”
In the end, O’Reilly flew too close to the sun. His luck ran out. He got bogged down in a nasty, debilitating fight with Denis O’Brien for control of Independent News & Media (INM).
Cooper tells it in thrilling detail. At one stage in 2009, while O’Brien was holidaying in Ibiza, he took a break to phone Gavin, who had been installed as chief executive of INM. He threatened him, saying if he wanted a fight, “I will destroy you and your father and I will go after everything.”
On another disastrous financial front, O’Reilly kept gambling. He kept pumping money into Waterford Wedgewood to such an extent that when the global recession bit in 2008 — only a few years after independent experts had declared him a bona fide billionaire — he couldn’t breathe for debt. He had borrowed €300m by the end of the millennium’s first decade.
Eight banks and one fund hunted him down for their money, AIB doing so with particular relish. Their relentlessness forced him to sell off his assets, including his beloved Castlemartin and an art collection once valued at €150m. Friends say his self-confidence is shot. When Cooper asked Finance Minister Michael Noonan if he had any sympathy for his plight, he replied, “No”.
There is poignancy to his predicament. He has been a near recluse for the last five years, and has distanced himself from his children. He fell out with his son, Gavin, INM’s deposed chief executive, who O’Reilly partly blamed for losing control of the corporation. O’Reilly didn’t attend Gavin’s second marriage in London in December 2012. He never replied personally to his son’s wedding invitation, sending a note of apology to his new wife, Christina Grimm, instead. Cooper’s catchy title, The Maximalist, is taken from a 1999 press interview quote by O’Reilly who vowed that he wanted “more of everything”. It proved his undoing. “You can’t have it all,” says Cooper. “Ambition is a very useful thing. It’s good for individuals and it’s probably good for society, but there are times when you have to know your limits.
“Here’s a contradiction — I would have thought he would have learned that from his career as a rugby player — while he had great [personal] success on the British & Irish Lions, he didn’t have success with the Irish rugby team; there were limits as to what he could achieve.
“There are times when you have to know your limits, to say, ‘This is enough for me. I can’t do more.’ ”
Matt Cooper’s The Maximalist: The Rise and Fall of Tony O’Reilly is published by Gill & MacMillan. It costs €24.99.
The IRFU told him to bring his own clean white shorts, towel and soap for his international debut against France at the old Lansdowne Road in January 1955. He was only 18 years of age, and acquitted himself well enough during the Five Nations to attract the attention of the British & Irish Lions selectors. At the end of the season, he was drafted onto the Lions’ touring party that was headed to South Africa. The tourists hadn’t won on down there since 1896, but managed to tie the test series 2-2.
O’REILLY, MANDELA AND MEN
O’Reilly could charm nearly everyone
TONY AND BERTIE
Another key advisor of Ahern’s said she was “social ambition on steroids”.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved