Tycoon and patron who never forgot his roots

Allen McClay was born in a small rural town when some of his classmates came to school in "bare feet" and life was tough

Allen McClay was born in a small rural town when some of his classmates came to school in "bare feet" and life was tough


Allen McClay: SIR ALLEN McClay, the Tyrone entrepreneur and philanthropist who has died aged 79, created the first billion pound company in Northern Ireland.

Having begun his working life as a chemist, he founded two international pharmaceutical companies Galen and Almac.

An unfulfilling career as a sales rep for a medical firm that ultimately proved to be the inspiration for him to set up his own business in 1968. He established Galen in Craigavon, at first glance an unlikely location for what one day would become the most successful company to be created from scratch in the North and a major global pharmaceutical group.

Galen became the first Northern Ireland publicly limited company to float on the London Stock Exchange in 1997. Its success made Dr McClay one of the richest men on the island.

Not that it would have been immediately obvious to a casual observer. Allen McClay was far from the sterotype millionaire entrepreneur, although his personal fortune was estimated at one time to be in the region of £300 million. He shunned the high life, was proud of the fact he drove a modest car that had been on the road for more than a decade and enjoyed living in a modest house near where he had been born.

Following Galen’s stock market success it acquired its formal pharmaceutical rival Warner Chilcott in the United States. The acquisition began to change the direction of Galen and to some the culture of the company changed, driven by its shareholders rather than its founders’ principles.

In 2001 in an unexpected move McClay announced his decision to leave Galen Holdings. Many thought at this time at the age of 69 that McClay would retire to enjoy the rewards from his life’s work. But although he was fond of the odd game of golf and the occasional flutter on the horses, at one stage he owned a handful, McClay had other plans.

Just weeks after leaving the boardroom of one multi-national the Cookstown born entrepreneur was in the thick of it again setting up yet another pharmaceutical company, again in Craigavon. He spent millions of his own money reacquiring five divisions of Galen and subsequently set up Almac.

His rationale for acquiring the companies and creating yet another new business was simple: he wanted to look after his “family” the people who had worked for him when he set up Galen.

McClay was one of the most passionate supporters and promoters of the talents of his Almac family. He made no secret of the fact that he “loved” this family and never lost his enthusiasm for going into work every day whether it was in NI or at Almac’s US facilities.

He often joked that his employees referred to him as “a grumpy old man”. But nothing could be further than the truth. To many he was the man who had spent a personal fortune securing their futures, first in Northern Ireland and then as the company grew at its other sites.

Today Almac, which provides a range of integrated drug development services to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, employs 2,422 worldwide including 1,559 in NI. It has operations in the North, Scotland, England and the US.

In 2006 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in recognition of his services to business and charity. But in keeping with his personal motto of “Be true to your self” he never used the title – other people did, but not him. He said he accepted the honour in recognition of the hard work and success achieved by people in Almac.

Although he may have made millions from his business brilliance, Sir Allen never forgot his roots. He often referred to the wisdom of his Aunt Minnie, a school teacher, whose plain speaking and simple approach to life had been his guide throughout his life.

He was born in a small rural town and carried with him the experiences of growing up at a time when some of his classmates came to school in “bare feet” and life was tough. His modest family beginnings shaped and formed the man he became in later life.

Despite his success, he shunned publicity. and was was a natural philanthropist. His McClay Trust donated about £20 million to charitable causes in Northern Ireland.

He also believed his participation in the US/NI working group established by the US economic envoy to Northern Ireland late last year would also help in the future to secure new opportunities for people in the North. He is survived by his wife Heather.

Allen McClay: born March 21st 1932; died January 12th 2010