Declan Kelly: Divisive Tipp man with ‘sharp elbows’

Profile: Brother of Labour's Alan Kelly has gathered admirers and enemies with his upfront style

Declan Kelly speaks at a Global Citizen event in New York, in 2019. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images.

Declan Kelly speaks at a Global Citizen event in New York, in 2019. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images.

 

Declan Kelly, the Tipperary-born public relations star adviser, who has resigned as chair and chief executive of  global strategy company Teneo,  has divided opinion in his homeland and also in the US, where he is mostly based, for many years.

Mr Kelly's resignation over allegations of drunken and inappropriate conduct at a Global Citizen charity event. He had already left the board of the charity because of  the allegations.

As founder and chief executive of the huge global corporate advisory firm Teneo, perceptions of Kelly’s brash and uncompromising style won him many admirers but also, it seems, some enemies.

Months before his resignation and departure from  the board of Global Citizen for drunken and inappropriate conduct towards “some women and men” at an event, Kelly’s reputation was under attack online.

In December, the businessman’s previously-glowing profile on the open source website, Wikipedia, was “vandalised”, notes by the site’s editors suggest.

Career

His entry up until then had been almost hagiographic. But in the lull between Christmas and New Year, an anonymous contributor who appears to be from the US inserted a raft of personalised slurs targeting Kelly and his record in business and philanthropy. Kelly has for years been highly prominent in Irish America, but his entry was edited to suggest he now has “West British” notions.

He was derided with a raft of other apparently defamatory statements, while his entry was also changed to accuse him of being a “boozer”. Kelly acknowledged on Thursday he behaved inappropriately while “inebriated” but says he is now “committed to sobriety” and receiving treatment. His Wikipedia page has also been cleaned up.

Kelly is the son of a Tipperary small farmer and a brother of the Labour party leader Alan Kelly. He began his media career on local papers in his home county in the 1980s before moving to the Cork-based Examiner, where his propensity to divide opinion became apparent early on.

At the time, Babs Keating was manager of the Tipperary hurling team. Kelly wrote a well-read hurling column for the Examiner that regularly contained vituperative criticism of Keating, annoying hordes of his fellow natives. Nonetheless, Kelly showed up an event in Tipperary after the county under Keating won the All-Ireland championship in 1989.

All the attention should have been on the-then long-awaited arrival in Tipperary of the Liam McCarthy cup. Instead, an attendee recalls, a phalanx of angry Tipp fans ignored the triumphant team members at the event and surrounded Kelly to berate him for his criticism of his home county’s hero in a newspaper based in the rival county of Cork.

More than 30 years on, Kelly’s Teneo now sponsors the Tipperary hurling team, as he continues to nurture his local links.

Projects

In the mid 1990s as the economy improved and corporate Ireland began to find its feet, Kelly left journalism for the more lucrative world of PR, working first at the corporate PR firm Murray Consultants before jumping ship to rival Fleishmann Hillard (then FHS), where he had a long list of corporate clients.

Actor Hugh Jackman and Declan Kelly at the Global Citizen event in New York. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Actor Hugh Jackman and Declan Kelly at the Global Citizen event in New York. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

As the economy really took off under Bertie Ahern’s government near the turn of the millennium, Kelly struck out on his own, founding Kelly and Gallagher Public Relations with the Fianna Fáil-affiliated adviser, Jackie Gallagher. Kelly, meanwhile, wore his family’s Labour affinity on his sleeve.

Among the major projects he worked on at the time was in pushing the FAI’s Eircom Park stadium proposal for west Dublin. This occasionally brought him into conflict with Ahern’s camp, who in subsequent years pushed instead the ill-fated Stadium Ireland, or so-called “Bertie Bowl” plan.

Kelly gained a reputation in Dublin as a vainglorious but highly effective corporate adviser and strategist, but one who was never afraid to shelter his clients from the spotlight.

According to people who observed him working at the time, Ireland was never going to be a big enough canvas for Kelly to paint his aspirations. Kelly and Gallagher sold the firm early in the Celtic Tiger and the Tipperary man moved to the US to work for Financial Dynamics. Within two years he was part of its team that negotiated a management buyout.

His “cold, ruthless ambition”, as one observer put it, drove him to ingratiate himself with the crème of Irish America, including people who surrounded the Clintons, and, in particular, then then-mooted US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Envoy

He was her adviser during her initial presidential run in 2008 and was appointed the US economic envoy to Northern Ireland in 2009 after she became secretary of state.

Kelly later fell out with the Clinton camp, however, after their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, allegedly became impatient over his apparent cultivating of his links to the political clan to open doors for him in business.

He also reportedly irritated Bill Clinton by upstaging him on occasion with long speeches as the former US president waited to take to the lectern, including once at an event with then  taoiseach Enda Kenny.

His split from the Clintons and rivalries he developed within the American Ireland Funds philanthropy group, a bastion of the Irish American establishment, helped to sour some of his connections on that scene.

Still, he struck out again in 2011, co-founding Teneo with another former Clinton adviser, Doug Band, who later left. It grew to employ 1,200 staff, including 70 in Dublin, with a client list that is a who’s who of corporate America and Fortune 500 companies, showing the depth of Kelly’s boardroom influence.

Private equity firm CVC in 2019 became major investor in Teneo in a $350 million (€292 million) deal in 2019. This was the same year that Kelly notched up another more folksy achievement that marks him out as a member of the “made it” set in Ireland – he appeared on the Late Late Show, interviewed by Ryan Tubridy.

Kelly was on the show to promote a proposed global music event to rival the scale of Live Aid, Global Goal Live. Kelly was a main driver of the proposed event in association with the Global Citizen charity chaired by CVC’s Chris Stadler.

The Tipperary man, whose proud parents were in the audience, seemed particularly effervescent as he described the proposal to Tubridy.

The idea was for a year-long series of concerts to promote the end of poverty, culminating in a cross-continental one-day extravaganza, similar to what Live Aid did in 1985. It was scuppered by the pandemic. A much-scaled down event was held in May this year, at which Kelly, as he now admits himself, behaved inappropriately, forcing his departure days later from the Global Citizen board.

Several people who know Kelly suggest he seemed to be “under stress” on occasion over the last couple of years. Last February, a clip of him snoozing amid the revelry at the $7,000-a-ticket Superbowl game in the US went viral online and attracted much negative publicity in the US press.

“How do you keep up the pace of focus and engagement that he has done over so many years without something unravelling?” said one person who once knew Kelly well.

Treatment

As he seeks treatment over the summer for his issues, Kelly will step back from his roles at Teneo but those close to him suggest he intends to return full-time in September.

Following this week’s recent controversy, it remains to be seen what sort of welcome he gets upon his return from his fellow investors, such as CVC, as well as from Teneo’s image-conscious corporate clients.

“It might be difficult for him to come back at Teneo the same way as he was before. He no longer controls that business,” said one person who knows him.

“But whatever happens at Teneo,” said another, “this won’t be the end of Declan Kelly. He has sharp elbows and he sticks them in to people quickly.”

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