'Bankrupty king' honoured by Irish
AWARDS SKETCH: IRISH AMERICA opened its arms and welcomed US billionaire Wilbur Ross into the fold in spectacular fashion last Thursday.
But it wasn’t the Irish communities of Boston, Chicago or New York who took him in, as you might expect.
Rather, it was in the unlikely setting of Palm Beach, Florida, in the well-known Breakers Hotel, where the American Ireland Fund chose to honour the man dubbed by Fortunemagazine as “Mr Distress” (because of the types of investments he makes) with a business leadership award at its 20th annual Emerald Isle Palm Beach Dinner Dance.
It was as fancy a setting as Irish America – or just plain America – has ever seen.
Part-time home to Rod Stewart, the Estée Lauder family and even (on the weekends) Wilbur Ross himself, Palm Beach is where the money is – even after Bernie Madoff cleaned a lot of it out.
Its manicured streets are lined with shops such as Chopard, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Chanel. You will not see a KFC or a McDonald’s – Starbucks had to fight its way in – and for those seeking palms or beaches, it does not disappoint.
The sumptuous Breakers Hotel is right on the sea front and is on the US National Register of Historic Places.
“Such affection for Ireland is not unusual in this part of the world,” said Paul Gleeson, Ireland’s consul general for the southeastern states.
“Irish is the number one foreign ancestry claimed by people in Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas, and no one would instinctively think of those states as hotbeds of Irish America.”
Among those who turned out were former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, Brown Thomas and Selfridges owners Hilary and Galen Weston, Tina O’Flaherty, widow of the so-called “Volkswagen King” and former K-Club owner Stephen O’Flaherty, and Howard Cox of Greylock Venture Capital (early investor in Facebook and LinkedIn, and director of Stryker, the medical company that employs more than 2,000 people in Ireland), to name barely a few.
Several other wealthy Irish Americans were there, and more than $500,000 was raised for charity.
Ross, a diminutive but sturdy-looking character, seemed at ease mingling during pre-dinner cocktails under the frescoed ceilings of the Breakers bar, a camera crew in tow.
Although only a recent addition to the list of Irish household names, the 74-year-old is well used to the spotlight in the US after making his name over several decades as a “vulture investor” and “the king of bankruptcy”, by restructuring failed companies in steel, coal, textiles and car parts.
Guests were treated to music by Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, and a message from Taoiseach
Enda Kenny, whose face beamed from a giant screen as he congratulated Ross on being the “King of the turnaround” (the turnaround is the part that you hope comes after the bankruptcy) on his award.
“Wilbur, it was wonderful to see you again in New York last week,” he said, referring to the Invest In Ireland conference organised by Bill Clinton.
“As always, we greatly appreciate your good advice and wise counsel.”
A graduate of Harvard and Yale, Ross (who, in line with the Palm Beach tradition of not wearing socks, shuffled around in expensive slippers) took to the podium after a bejewelled Hilary Weston introduced him as “a white knight, riding to Ireland’s rescue”.
But Mr Ross made no mention of his business leadership in his address.
Rather, he gave a rundown of the 229-year history of the Bank of Ireland – his latest investment. After 10 minutes, he had made it as far as 1801.
He never quite made it to July 2011 when he sank more than €1 billion into the bank as part of a larger consortium of investors.
He did not expect the reaction that followed his perceived endorsement of Ireland’s largest bank, which he later described as “Ireland’s least terrible bank” (praise indeed).
“We’re not used to being rock stars,” he laughed. “We’re not U2.”