Michael Smurfit: career highs and lows
Business brethern: Warren Buffet, Michael Smurfit, Bill Gates, and Dermot Desmond
High point . . .
“I suppose the high point has to be the successful leveraged buyout of the company [in 2005], creating huge value for the shareholders and the family and coming to the end of the mission.
“A family-run company could no longer exist. They would not allow it any more. They didn’t want this type of company. Despite how good we were and how clever we operated and how correctly we operated . . . and my salary was becoming a huge issue as I was entitled to a huge percentage of the profits. I had no crabs about it . . . but what I created and what other people earned from my methods was far more than whatever I got.
“It had all become unacceptable. Institutions had become so paranoid about salary and income and individualism. I just thought time to go.”
Smurfit called a meeting in the Chinese room of the Dorchester Hotel in London to discuss the buyout with his brothers.
“I said ‘guys, we’ve seen the best of it. If any one of you here says we don’t do what I am planning to do, we’re not going to do it. This is a family decision. ‘The board is going to decide but we as a family are going to decide what we are going to recommend to the board’. We all agreed that we had seen the best of it.”
Low point . . .
“In Spain [post-1989] I was charged with aiding and abetting a crime. As the head of the company I was charged. That was the way it works in Spain.”
The Jefferson Smurfit Group had made an acquisition in Spain and announced to the stock market it planned to spend £68 million doing so. Unknown to JSG, after it paid over its money, others diverted some of it elsewhere. As he awaited the trial to start, Smurfit was forced to show his passport to the Spanish ambassador every week.
Eventually it went to trial.
“I said to the judge, ‘You come out of a supermarket, you pay for your groceries. The guy takes your money and he doesn’t put all the money into the till. You are now a criminal under Spanish law, yes or no?’ He says ‘No, of course not.’ So I said, ‘ Why am I here?’ He said to the prosecutor, ‘Why is this man here?’ I was there for only one reason. I was the only person in the whole system with any money. The rest had no money . . . The prosecutor was all . . . eh . . . adjourned.”
“I am flying on my plane back to Barbados to pick up my yacht and [a colleague] gets on the phone and says ‘Michael, the case has been kicked out, you are clear’.
“I never drank wine on my plane but I drank champagne. I drank a whole bottle of champagne.”