Billionaire businessman with a passion for farms and horses

Sat, Sep 29, 2012, 01:00

EAMON CLEARY:It seems fashionable these days, at least in academic circles, to talk about global Ireland and the global Irish.

It is an expression that is eminently suited to billionaire businessman and benefactor Eamon Cleary, who died at his Kentucky horse stud on September 21st after losing a six-month struggle with cancer. Farms and horses were two of the great interests of his life.

He was born on August 28th, 1960, in Co Monaghan, near Ballybay, "just up the road from Patrick Kavanagh's place".

He left school at 11 to work on his father's farm.

But it was the world of business that proved an irresistible attraction.

Cleary was apprenticed to a blocklayer at the age of 15 and went on to start his own building company at 17. Within three years he had added a courier service and a firm selling reinforcing and pre-cast concrete products. And some 10 years later he had developed one of the largest agri-supply companies in Ireland, which he sold in 1991.

By 1996 he had moved to New Zealand, which soon proved to be his land of opportunity. Within a decade, by focusing on dairy farming and domestic and commercial development, he had rapidly acquired substantial investments in agricultural land and commercial property in the North and South Islands.

Such dealings, though not always free of local controversy, nevertheless provided the means for expanding internationally. To Ireland and New Zealand were soon added business and commercial interests in Australia, eastern Europe, Argentina, Chile, and, latterly, the United States.

Doubtless there are other ventures that time will reveal, as it might eventually reveal the extent of his wealth - for Eamon Cleary was a disarmingly private man in public. He was possessed of a quiet charm and razor-sharp intelligence while being exceedingly deft at handling the media.

Moreover, because he travelled lightly, his headquarters became wherever he was. And his office was invariably his mobile phone. Cleary did not attract attention and he felt no need to.

The words "executive" and "chief executive" were not in his vocabulary; designer suits and personalised bling were not his style. "Simple", he was once heard to remark, "is good".

So it might be interpreted as out of character that Cleary chose to endow a named Chair of Irish Studies at New Zealand's leading research University, the University of Otago, whose main campus is in Dunedin. But to draw such a conclusion would be to ignore his gratitude to New Zealand, his pride in his Irish heritage, his respect for education and his willingness to provide opportunities for the youth of New Zealand. The University of Otago has been drawing students from all over the country since it was founded in 1869.

His endowment proved revelatory of him in a number of ways.

There was the quiet dignity when then president Mary McAleese graciously acknowledged his generosity by officially launching the chair when she accepted an honorary degree from the university during her state visit to New Zealand.

There was the shrewd investment, because like so many of his enterprises the chair has proved successful. Otago now has an Irish Studies program that offers a Minor in Irish Studies in the Bachelor of Arts as well as a strong post-graduate programme. It is also a resource for renewing local Irish pride. Its reach has been global in that it has drawn students from Ireland, Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States.

Over the years people came to know a man who took great pride in his children and who was keen to see them fulfil their ambitions; who was an unobtrusive listener warmly hospitable and not ostentatious and whose sense of bemusement at the follies and foibles of the world masked a keen mind that prized frugality even as it delighted in the cut and thrust of negotiating the big deal.

He is survived by Catriona and by his children Sorcha, Bernard, Triona, Eibhlin, Aoife, Sinead, Eamonn and Oonagh.

Eamon Cleary: born August 28th, 1960; died September 21st, 2012