Boxing clever: Brian O’Sullivan on rolling with the punches

Founder of Zeus Packaging talks of being a hard worker rather than entrepreneur

If there is one thing that Brian O’Sullivan can’t be accused of it is resting on his laurels. The businessman might have recently been named Entrepreneur of the Year but he’s been too busy working to have really celebrated the accolade.

“Every day is a marathon and there is the daily goal, the monthly one and the yearly one. For me, it is about constantly pushing myself to hit those targets. It is relentless,” O’Sullivan says.

As you may rightly assume, the businessman isn’t one for sitting around, as his working schedule shows. In the office bright and early after a late flight back from Birmingham the previous evening, O’Sullivan is a man usually happiest when he is on the road.

“I was in the Middle East last week and the UK this week and was also in Athens and a few other places just before that. I’ve pretty much been on planes since I won the award in late November,” he says.


“Things have changed because of Covid obviously but I have been known to do crazy journeys when necessary such as going out to Australia on a Sunday night and coming back the following Friday,” he laughs, shaking his head in disbelief.

It's just two days before Christmas when The Irish Times catches up with the businessman, who leads Zeus, one of the largest privately owned packaging companies in Europe. While the rest of the country has pretty much decided the holidays have already begun, O'Sullivan is behind his desk in his near-empty office beavering away.

When I say behind his desk, this is only partly true. The Corkonian jumps up frequently while talking. One minute he’s pouring coffee and trying to force biscuits on his guest, the next he’s on his feet physically demonstrating an interaction he had with someone in the past, and so on.

It is this kind of restless energy that has led O’Sullivan to build a very successful company. Founded in 1998, Zeus now employs more than 670 people and has business units in 26 countries. It has clients working across several industries including retail, hospitality, pharma and agriculture and it offers more than 9,000 products covering everything from pallet wrapping and cleaning solutions, to pizza boxes and medical supplies.

O’Sullivan initially funded Zeus by selling houses he had invested in during his studies and using all of his personal savings. Since then, he has led the company through significant growth, both organically and through acquisitions that have been financed by debt rather than outside investment.

Zeus, which has spent about €40 million in strategic acquisitions over the past two years, now has annual revenues of €300 million and a plan to grow turnover to €500 million by 2025.

The Covid crisis may have forced O’Sullivan to cut back on travel somewhat over the past two years but it hasn’t calmed him down. His speech, like his actions, is high-octane. He takes a scattergun approach to answering questions too.

Excitable interviewee

The Cork man frequently takes detours as he gets caught up in discussing something before circling back and asking you if that was what you wanted to know, or indeed asking what the question was again. Unlike some interviewees, this is more to do with him getting distracted because he is so excited, rather than him being evasive.

He apologises for getting lost constantly, offers to answer follow-up questions by email if necessary, and admits his PR people fear the worst when he does interviews as he is anything but a seasoned professional.

EY, which is behind the Entrepreneur of the Year awards must have also been concerned when he was selected as one of the 24 finalists last year. After all, prior to taking home the top award as well in late November, O’Sullivan was quick to downplay the guff that surrounds entrepreneurship.

“I don’t believe I am an entrepreneur, just a hard worker with common sense,” he told The Irish Times prior to the awards taking place.

He's certainly a grafter. Growing up in the village of Britway, close to Fermoy in east Cork, O'Sullivan started his working life early, helping out farmers before he'd go to school in the morning. He went on to reluctantly become a metalwork and engineering teacher, after studying at Thomond College of Education, part of University of Limerick.

He soon decided to jack in the teaching though, with a plan to go into business for himself selling pallet wrapping, having already tried his hand at numerous ventures, including selling mobile phones and running several tutorial centres.

“I had absolutely no qualms about giving up a pensionable job because I always knew I could earn a crust. All of my ventures might have been small-scale but they all made money. It sounds arrogant but I believe that any of those businesses could have been bigger successes if I’d have kept at them,” O’Sullivan says.

“When I decided to go with Zeus it wasn’t because I had a light-bulb moment as such. But I just figured I could do things differently and bring innovation to the packaging sector through things such as selling by the pallet, rather than the roll, and being more sustainable. I knew that the only way I was going to get fellas to go with me was by being different so that is what I went with,” he adds.

O'Sullivan succeeded in getting big names such as Baxter Healthcare and Tayto Crisps producer Largo Foods on board as customers early on and, by 2002, Zeus was making about €4 million in turnover. That year the company made its first acquisition, snapping up Cosgrave Packaging, a supplier of carrier bags to Spar owner BWG that experienced difficulties when the bag tax came into effect and people cut down on them.

Recession survival

He followed up this with several other strategic deals that helped Zeus hit revenues of over €65 million by 2008. But things got tough when the recession hit

“It was funny going into 2008 because I remember going to the bank and asking for €8 million to acquire another business and they were reluctant to give me the money for this but were telling me if I wanted the same amount to buy property I could have it. That was the first time I ever questioned whether I was doing the right thing,” says O’Sullivan.

After he borrowed extensively to build the business, Zeus found itself struggling when the banks withdrew support at a point where it owed more than €50 million. Not helping matters was a big drop in turnover as customers dealt with their own problems.

The solution was a refinancing and a concerted effort to look beyond the local market for business. Having already made some inroads outside of the Republic, O’Sullivan moved swiftly to expand further overseas.

“With Covid you’re seeing lots of supports for businesses but there were none back then but the whole situation taught me a lot in terms of who has got your back and so on,” he says.

“We had been advised against expanding into Britain but I’d ignored that and by the time the recession came I was going there on a weekly basis because it was accounting for about half our revenues. We were lucky that the recession there was much more short-lived than the one here, so we were able to get back on our feet quickly and also start to look further afield,” O’Sullivan adds.

He says he relished the idea of taking a plane to another market and starting from scratch and in the coming years he was largely on the road.

‘Hard graft’

“The stuff that I’ve done in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and in the US was out of a demand to challenge myself and prove I could build a business out of nothing. In all those countries, we didn’t buy anything because banks wouldn’t give us the money so we did it all ourselves through hard graft and determination. I’m very proud of that,” O’Sullivan says,

By 2019, the business was back into acquisition mode with O’Sullivan seeing it as a key tool in helping it to achieve significant growth in the years ahead. He says Brexit has posed few difficulties for the company given its geographical spread and its prior experience dealing with cross-border trading difficulties. Covid is a different story though

“We’ve been having real issues due to Covid. Supply chains are impacted and obviously a lot of our customers in hospitality and so on have been affected. Because we’re so diversified we’re okay though,” says O’Sullivan.

The pandemic had another impact on O’Sullivan, who has four children. The demand from customers for masks, cleaning supplies and so on means that his younger children view him differently than the older ones do.

“With my older children, if you’d have asked them what their daddy did when they were younger they’d have answered that his job was to make money. But my two younger ones think I’m saving the world,” he laughs.

The rest of us may not have quite the same view of him but he has noticed that staff are buzzing about the Entrepreneur of the Year award, as are customers.

“It has been amazing how people have talked to me about it. It’s funny as well because I warned EY when I was going for it that I’m probably not someone they would want as I’m not very social and have no interests outside of work apart from the family. Even money isn’t really that important to me. I just love doing this because I want to be the winner,” O’Sullivan says.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist