Ignominious end to career of Ireland’s first business superstar

Sir Anthony O’Reilly faces key High Court judgment relating to €195m debts

Sir Anthony O’Reilly has been seeking to cut a deal with his lenders since 2012. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sir Anthony O’Reilly has been seeking to cut a deal with his lenders since 2012. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fri, Jun 27, 2014, 07:20

It was British politician Enoch Powell who said that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.

It’s a quote that could be applied ot the business career of Sir Anthony O’Reilly, who today faces a key High Court judgment relating to his €195 million debts.

O’Reilly was born in Dublin in May 1936 to Jack O’Reilly, a civil servant, and Aileen O’Connor. The couple pretented to the outside world to be married, but Jack had been married before, with children. Tony wouldn’t learn of this for some years.

O’Reilly was educated at Belvedere on the northside of Dublin. While he didn’t excel academically, he developed a flair for sport, playing rugby, cricket and soccer. He shot to public prominence in 1955 when he was selected to play for Ireland against England in the then Five Nations championship. His dashing performances as a winger earned him a call-up to the Lions tour of South Africa that year, where he scored 16 tries in 15 matches.

O’Reilly would earn 29 caps for Ireland and score a record number of tries for both the Lions and the Barbarians. Yet he never played in a team that won a cup or a championship.

He returned to Ireland to take up a role in Cork but his big break came two years later when appointed as the first general manager of Bórd Bainne. He launched Kerrygold, the first premium branded butter product the State had produced, something that he often referred to it as his biggest success.

In 1966, then taoiseach Jack Lynch persuaded him to take over the Irish Sugar Company, which was State owned. This would bring him into contact with US food giant Heinz for the first time with O’Reilly travelling to Pittsburgh to persuade them to partner with Erin Foods, which was struggling at the time.

In 1969, Heinz poached him to run their UK business, beginning a successful 30-year association with the American company.

His career could have taken a completely direction at the time as Jack Lynch sought to persuade him to remain at home, suggesting an appointment as minister for agriculture via a Taoiseach’s nomination to the Seanad. O’Reilly was drawn to politics but decided to join Heinz.

In 1962, he married Australian Susan Cameron, whom he had met in Sydney on a Lions tour. They had six children born in the first four years of marriage.

They would establish homes in Glandore in Co Cork, Castlemartin in Co Kildare and in Pittsburgh. The marriage broke down in the 1980s and they divorced. O’Reilly would find love again with Chryss Goulandris, a New York-born, Greek shipping heiress, with a passion for horse breeding.