Meet the winning CEOs: Irish Times Business Person of the Month Awards

July, August and September winners of awards in association with KPMG

Smurfit Kappa chief executive Tony Smurfit. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Smurfit Kappa chief executive Tony Smurfit. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


From promising acquisitions to significant asset sales and business exits, the winners for July, August and September of this year’s Irish Times Business Person of the Month Awards are among the country’s most accomplished business leaders.

The monthly award, in association with KPMG, was created to mark excellence and outstanding achievement in the field, and is open to business people at home and abroad as well as international executives leading major companies in the Republic.

Here we profile those winners from July, August and September 2018.

Tony Smurfit – Smurfit Kappa

In July, the chief executive of paper and packaging giant Smurfit Kappa picked up our award for his work in closing a €460 million takeover of Reparenco, a Dutch company. The move illustrates the group’s determination to be among the growth leaders in Europe’s packaging industry.

Tony Smurfit is the third generation of his family to take the reins at the group that bears the family name having been appointed to the corner office in September 2015. Prior to that, Smurfit was chief operations officer at the company he joined as a director in 1989.

But there’s no doubt that 2018 will prove to be his most challenging year yet, given the unwanted attempt by US rival International Paper (IP) to take over the group. After considerable too-ing and fro-ing between the pair, and at times pressure from Smurfit shareholders, IP ultimately dropped its bid, not wanting to go through with a hostile takeover.

So the Reparenco takeover was all the more impressive given this particular distraction. And since then, the chief executive has been even busier, with an issue at the company’s Venezuelan unit whereby the State commandeered it with Smurfit forced to fight for compensation.

In any event, the move in the Netherlands shows how Smurfit sees itself as well-placed to capitalise on the growing trend toward ecommerce. His hard work over the course of 2018 has appeared to pay off to some degree with the company reporting record earnings for the year, growing earnings by 25 per cent to a record €1.545 billion.

The media shy scion has ultimately strengthened the hand of the company he serves in one of its core markets with the Reparenco acquisition. It’s hard to see how any following year can be as eventful for the chief executive.

However, the apparent workaholic hasn’t been resting on his laurels. This year alone, the company opened a new plant in Mexico to grow its presence there, completed a €400 million debt sale to increase flexibility in its capital structure, and agreed a €1.35 billion credit line with a group of its banks to refinance existing facilities.

Séamus Mulligan – Adapt Pharma

It was the turn of Adapt Pharma chairman and chief executive Séamus Mulligan to collect the August gong after he agreed a deal to sell the company, in which he was a major shareholder, and put himself in line for a substantial payout.

The pharmaceutical industry veteran was responsible for a deal which saw Adapt taken over by a US company, Emergent, which specialises in public health threats. The US group paid $635 million (€562m) for the business; $575 million in cash and the balance in shares. Mulligan owns about 80 per cent of the company.

Of course this wasn’t his first major success. Mulligan previously turned around the fortunes of Elan after an off balance sheet accounting scandal and the failure of a novel Alzheimer’s drug at trials threatened to collapse the business, masterminding an ambitious $2 billion asset sale programme.

Mulligan established Adapt in 2014 with an investment of $115 million. In the midst of an opioid crisis in the US, the company developed Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray which revives people who have overdosed on opioids. Developing a simple-to-use nasal spray form of a drug which was previously only available as an injection made it easier for non-medical personnel, like policemen, teachers, family and friends, to help reduce the 72,000 toll of lives lost to overdose in the US alone last year.

The need for additional capital and resources to maximise the public health benefit of the drug was seen as one key reason behind the decision to sell.

Much of the money used for Adapt came from Mulligan’s success with Azur Pharma, which merged in a 2012 all-share deal with US group Jazz Pharma. And it was the expertise Mulligan and others gained from Elan that enabled them to have such success with Narcan.

Now, Mulligan and his team are putting their focus elsewhere, primarily with a small spinout business from Maynooth University. Avectus is developing a technology to help treat cancer patients by making cells extracted from a patient permeable temporarily, allowing them to be re-engineered to attack cancers before being infused back into the body.

Although it is ambitious, Mulligan has the track record which suggests this, too, could succeed.

Coillte chief executive Fergal Leamy. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Coillte chief executive Fergal Leamy. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Fergal Leamy – Coillte

It was the windfall for State forestry company Coillte that led to chief executive Fergal Leamy picking up the award in September.

The company sold its stake in four wind farms to Dublin-listed Greencoat Renewables for €136 million early in the month, beating a target price of €125 million the group set for the assets when they brought them to market in March.

Particularly impressive was the fact Coillte invested €25 million in the wind farms over the past four year, with the sales giving them a substantial windfall in which the State would share, with Coillte planning to increase its dividend to the Government this year.

Greencoat agreed to buy Coillte’s 50 per cent stakes in wind farms at Raheenleagh, Co Wicklow, Cloosh Valley, Co Galway, and Castlepool, Co Cork, and 25 per cent of Sliabh Bawn wind farm, Co Roscommon. Between them they can generate up to 105 megawatts of electricity.

The company also increased its revenues by 16 per cent in the first half of 2018 as a result of changes to the operation of the business over the past three years, a multimillion euro investment in new technology and a focus on higher-margin timber products.

The wind-farm sale allows the group end the year practically debt free as it gears up to invest significantly in. According to Leamy, Coillte could invest between €500 million and €1 billion over the next 10-15 years, with a focus on timber and renewable energy.

More recently, Coillte has been in talks with the ESB which could spark an investment in further wind farms, generating enough electricity to power more than 500,000 homes.

Leamy took over as chief executive of Coillte in 2015, joining from private equity group Terra Firma where he was chief executive of an Australian portfolio business, Consolidate Pastoral Company.

Prior to that, he worked with Irish food group Greencore at its US operations and previously with consultants McKinsey & Company. A graduate of University College Dublin and IMD Business School in Switzerland, Leamy is due to leave Coillte in June. In any event, he has most certainly left his mark at the State-owned company.