Pioneering marketing man in US who never forgot Irish roots

Michael J Roarty

Michael J Roarty: Considered a pioneer in sports marketing

Michael J Roarty: Considered a pioneer in sports marketing

Sat, Apr 27, 2013, 06:00

Seldom in the annals of Ireland’s relationship with the United States has an Irish America worn a shamrock on their sleeve with quite the same passion as Michael J Roarty.

This life-long commitment was recognised when he was declared Irish American of the Year in 1992. Two years later he became only one of a handful of Americans before or since to be invited to march as grand marshal for the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin.

Roarty’s Irish pedigree was rich. His mother came from Mayo and his father from Donegal. He was born in Detroit, although the family returned to Ireland to try to make a go of it before returning to the US, where Roarty was ultimately to make his mark, becoming one of the most senior executives at Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser beer.

It was at the St Louis-based company that he spent a glittering 43-year career, which culminated in his elevation to head of marketing. Considered a pioneer in sports marketing, he was named the sixth most powerful man in sports. He was inducted into the America Advertising Federation Hall of Fame in 1995.

Anheuser-Busch produced many of America’s most iconic advertising using their famous Clydesdale horses, while another campaign for Bud Light featured a dog called Spuds McKenzie who became an instant American idol. Under Roarty’s leadership, Bud sponsored every conceivable sport, from World Cup soccer to Nascar motor racing.

Among other accolades that came his way was his appointment as a Knight of Malta, president of the Ireland-US Council for Commerce and Industry in which role Roarty served for nine years as well as being invited on to the taoiseach’s economic advisory board in the US.

During his time at Anheuser-Busch Roarty was key in driving Budweiser sales through the roof. At the height of his influence, sales more than doubled from 35 million barrels in the 1980s to more than 80 million annually a decade later. At one point half of all US beer sales were Budweiser.

If Roarty had not made it in business he could have had a career in entertainment. He was a raconteur and wit without parallel and his timing was impeccable. His friendships with politicians and celebrities opened countless doors. At the Anheuser-Busch annual wholesaler events, he frequently shared the limelight with the likes of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, but was never out of his depth.

In the year that he was grand marshal of the Dublin parade, he was a guest of Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show and had the audience in the palm of his hand with a series of rapid-fire Irish stories that both poked gentle fun at us and displayed deep affection at the same time.

He helped Ireland in every way he could. On one occasion when it was suggested he give $5,000 to a particular charity in Ireland he frowned and upped the figure to $100,000.

Three decades ago he also was responsible for Anheuser-Buschs campaign “Know When To Say When”, which set out to encourage responsible drinking.

One of Roarty’s proudest achievements came in 1986 when he collaborated with his fellow Irish-American colleague Dennis Patrick Long, who was then president and chief executive of Anheuser-Busch. Together they decided to sponsor the Budweiser Irish Derby at the Curragh. That year’s classic, won by HH Aga Khan’s Sharastani, was the richest race anywhere in the world.

Each time he came to Ireland, Roarty was accompanied by his wife Lee, to whom he was married for more than 58 years. He is survived by Lee, his son Seán, daughter Mary and four grandchildren.