Successful entrepreneur and brilliant mentor for Iona

Kevin Melia: June 7th, 1947 - June 17th, 2014

Kevin Melia: taught the worth of valuing the workforce and of cohesion in a multinational and multicultural environment. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Kevin Melia: taught the worth of valuing the workforce and of cohesion in a multinational and multicultural environment. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Kevin Melia, who has died in his adopted home of Massachusetts aged 67, was a phenomenally successful Irish entrepreneur who used his experience in the US to help a wide variety of Irish enterprises.

This included spending time on the Ireland-US Economic Advisory Council and the Economic Envoys to Northern Ireland US Working Group.

Born into a family of 11 children in Ashford, Co Wicklow, his parents, Richard, a driver with Wicklow County Council, and his wife, Mary, had modest resources, but in Kevin they had a brilliant son.

He made such an impression at De La Salle school in Wicklow as a teenager, that, as Paschal Burke, a fellow-pupil, put it, less talented students who were his contemporaries recall being upbraided with the challenge from their teachers that “you’ll never be another Kevin Melia”.

Taking first place

On leaving school, he qualified as a cost and management accountant by studying at night, taking first place in Ireland in his finals and joining the then newly established Digital Corporation in Galway in 1973 after a spell in Tourmakeady, Co Mayo with Gaeltarra Éireann.

He rose to become a vice-president for corporate affairs before moving, in 1989 to Sun Microsystems (now Oracle) as chief financial officer.

It was there, in 1993, that he came to know Chris Horn, and his colleagues at Iona Technologies, who were struggling to stay afloat financially and in whose technology Sun had become interested.

Melia, then in the process of going out on his own with Manufacturing Services Ltd, (MSL) which was to become a global player in computer parts manufacturing, became a non-executive director, and subsequently chairman, of the ground-breaking Iona.

He brought it on to the Nasdaq in 1997, when it was valued at $250 million, and then, after a tumultuous time during the crash of the dot-com bubble and the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001, when the shares became almost worthless, he rebuilt the company, selling it eventually for $162 million in 2008.

Horn said this week that Melia had been throughout “a stabilising influence ... unifying the board, especially when there was disagreement”.

‘Wonderful mentor’

In an article for this newspaper earlier this week, Horn commented that Melia had been a “wonderful mentor” to him, teaching the worth of valuing the workforce, and of cohesion in a multinational and multicultural environment.

Another business figure to pay tribute was John Conroy, chief executive of the financial services company Merrion Capital in Dublin, whose board Melia joined in 2010.

A board member with Melia of both Iona and Eircom, Conroy described as “absolutely rigorous” his approach to the direction of the companies in which he was involved.

At Eircom “he did a very important job after the IPO in 2008 in retaining the integrity of the company”.

At DCC, which Melia joined at a time of turbulence for that firm also in 2008, he was seen, Conroy said, as someone whose presence on the board “gave a lot of confidence to outside investors”.

Apart from his reputation for rigour, another reason for this was Manufacturing Services Ltd’s success with over a dozen plants worldwide, including a facility in Athlone.

Melia was honoured in 2001 in Massachusetts by being named the “Ernst & Young manufacturer of the year”, in New England.

He later became a managing partner of a major Boston investment fund, Boulder Brook Partners and chairman of other prominent US companies, including the Vette Corporation.

Gaelic football

Melia loved Gaelic football, and won two senior county medals as a centre-forward with Rathnew in 1970 and 1978 respectively.

He later sponsored his old club (he had earlier played with Ashford) during its “golden period” of eight consecutive Wicklow senior county titles in the 1990s and in 2001, when Rathnew also won the All-Ireland club championship.

He was married to Ann Lally, who survives him, with their four children, Seán, Ryan, Coreanna and June, and by his sisters, Phyllis, Rita, Myra and Patricia.