Bringing home the 'fighting Irish'
Martin Naughton’s far-reaching passions include Irish-America, the values that kept Glen Dimplex out of the global financial mire, and the value of bringing 35,000 fans of American football to Dublin, in league with Don Keough
WE NEVER quite understood them, those Irish-Americans. Giddy as toddlers while touring “God’s own country”, with their guileless questions, their insatiable thirst for the land of The Quiet Man, the search for roots that inevitably led them up some godforsaken boreen and to bemused cousins 10 times removed.
They were just as disconcerting on their home turf. They actually meant it when they said “drop in”. And they were embarrassingly hospitable, bringing out the treasured Waterford Glass and Irish linen while the children performed a solemn hornpipe in traditional Irish-dancing costumes, followed maybe by an awkward stand-off about American funding for the IRA, over a glass of Jameson.
They looked like those cool Americans from the sitcoms – but ones that seemed hell-bent on reminding us of everything that was uncool about us. We shared a gene pool, but the cultural gulf seemed as wide as the Atlantic.
It’s no wonder that a sharp, free-ranging mind such as Martin Naughton’s was always fascinated by Irish America. Early on, when an American said they were Irish, Naughton learned not to ask excitedly whereabouts in Ireland; too literal. “Being Irish means you belong to the clan. It’s what you feel. They feel Irish. The big question for them is – are you one, two or four generations? And they say it with pride.”
He says this with undisguised affection, as one who confesses that he has always had a love affair with the US. But Martin Naughton didn’t get where he is today by indulging in sentiment. As a young businessman 40 years ago, he loved the American can-do spirit and the concept that “the business of America is business”. He encouraged his sons, Neil and Fergal, to get their primary degrees in Ireland and their postgraduate degrees in the US; they did so, in Columbia, Stanford and Harvard. And through it all, he recognised the massive economic potential of the diaspora for the Irish economy. If it sounds a tad commercial to delicate Irish ears more accustomed to addressing the diaspora in reverential terms of lighted candles in windows, we probably need to get over it.
It’s the conjunction of the diaspora and a forthcoming American college football game that has us sharing salmon and prawns from Carlingford, boiled potatoes in their skins and some delicious white wine from Lochlann Quinn’s “lake”, as Naughton jokingly calls it, in the boardroom of the grey, rather functional Glen Dimplex headquarters in Dunleer, Co Louth.
A cynic might suspect he has another agenda, but with 10,000 employees and a global company worth €2 billion, of which Ireland comprises less than 2 per cent, Martin Naughton hardly needs the publicity. Plus, as he puts it in his unreconstructed Dundalk accent, “an unknown enemy is hard to destroy, so the less the competition knows, the better”. At 72, he has a legacy to burnish, of course, but his customary aversion to interviews and determination to keep the business private suggests that any soaring ego is under control.
In fact, the only sign of anything soaring in this building is the enormous model of an albatross that hangs incongruously over the heating and cooking appliances in the showroom/lobby (he is fascinated by the bird, which has the largest wingspan of any), and the breathtaking multiples of Glen Dimplex earnings ratcheting up during a gallop through the company’s 40-year history on a 20-minute video.
But he’s a man with good reason to gloat, a rare one who faced down the corporate sirens of the boom. “We don’t really do recessions,” he says. He ensured that his company had the funds to survive two recessions. It has carried no debt for 10 years. He had no truck with cross-guarantees, so his personal ventures – some of which were unsuccessful, such as an involvement with the Irish Glass Bottle debacle – never become entangled with Glen Dimplex. Integrity is a company watchword: if his wife, Carmel, wants a Glen Dimplex product, she has to buy it like everyone else. And it’s just silly, in his view, to live abroad for tax reasons.
An interview he gave The Irish Times in late 2010, a week after the troika entered Ireland, elicited some trenchant views from him that produced “a huge postbag”, he says now. “And not all of them were positive. But they mostly were.” Back then, he suggested the Dáil should be halved in size and that questions should be asked about the need for a Senate and a standing army. He believed that Ireland had “plenty of politicians and very few statesmen”.
He also had a lash at ordinary people and their sense of “entitlement to everything”, unlike his parents’ generation with their self-reliance and enormous sacrifices.
Two years on, he seems a lot more sanguine, or perhaps just more determined to be positive. “I think we’re much harder on ourselves than other people are. This is not a unique situation here . . . But I never liked the ‘Celtic Tiger’ as a phrase. I thought it was arrogant and I used to go mad when I heard ‘We’re the richest country in the world, therefore we can do this or that’.”
Among the big hitters in corporate Irish-America, he says, “the attitude to Ireland is that we dropped the ball, but it’s always said in a way of regret more than anything else . . . And I think genuinely there’s now a sense of respect that we’re getting our act together, taking the medicine without rioting in the streets and burning down buildings. I think we’d be regarded as very mature about how we voted in the last referendum, ie to carry on doing what we’re doing. But we’ve gone down the greasy pole a fair old bit all the same. I would like a faster pace of action, but we are on the right track.”