Unlikely candidate for success in the motor industry
Conan O’Brien’s first import venture was with DAF cars
Conal O’Brien: could almost be described as a reluctant businessman
In many respects, Conal O’Brien was an unlikely candidate to succeed in the Irish motor industry.
Discreet and reserved, he had an aversion to the crassness often employed by some of his competitors and relied on principles learned from an early age to guide his decisions. He could almost be described as a reluctant businessman, only leaving the Bar to help his periodically ill father run his textile importing company, EK O’Brien Ltd, in Dublin.
Born in Dublin in 1937, he was the only child of Eric O’Brien and Louie (sic) Coughlan, who was secretary to Sean MacBride , Conal O’Brien was exposed to political discourse throughout his formative years. His parents separated and Conal lived with his mother at Roebuck House, along with MacBride and his mother, Maud Gonne.
He attended Belvedere College and UCD and then joined the Bar. Although his legal career was relatively short, he retained links with the Law Library and was a member of the Council of the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns for eight years.
Although textile importing proved a successful venture for him, (at one stage it was said that almost every article of clothing sold in Ireland contained some of the textile fibres O’Brien’s company sourced from Du Pont) , the decline of the big textile companies in Ireland following the British Free Trade Agreement meant less demand for domestic output.
After he was joined at the company by Gay Hogan, a former banker, the pair looked to other opportunities and transport was the one they successfully identified. It was not one they knew much about but were determined and foresaw the demand that ensued.
Their first import venture was with DAF cars, a brave undertaking that was not exactly a roaring success but led to other opportunities. The OHM Group founded by O’Brien and Hogan and Declan Mc Court went on, at various stages, to import DAF trucks, Daihatsu cars and internationally known marques such as Alfa Romeo, MAN, Jeep, Dodge, Saab, SEAT, and it continues to hold the import franchises for some of these, as well as for Land Rover and Jaguar. At its most successful stage, the group employed up to 260 people.
The partnership was a very successful one but O’Brien eschewed the more public aspects of business life. He enjoyed smaller circles of close friends and business associates. This approach also allowed him to concentrate on his family and his varied interests.
He was a good sailor earlier in life and enjoyed golf, but walking and exploring seemed to give him the greatest pleasure. He had a cottage near Dublin, where he regularly spent his free time. He prepared for his walking and climbing trips, which took him to the Himalayas and Kilimanjaro, in the same methodical way he approached business.
O’Brien was charming, generous and excellent company, but it was his ability to gain and retain trust; his truthfulness and innate sense of diplomacy that were probably the hallmarks of his success. He is survived by his wife, Rose Mary and his children, Niall, Iseult, Eoin, Conn and Rory.