John Donnelly obituary: One of Ireland’s foremost insolvency experts

Donnelly also fought as a teenager in the British army’s D-Day landings in Normandy

John Donnelly: ‘He’d test you and you very much had to past that test’

John Donnelly: ‘He’d test you and you very much had to past that test’

 

Heroism, eclectic diversity of interests, deep spirituality and chartered accountancy are not usually found in each other’s company, but in the one-of-a-kind life of John Donnelly, who has died aged 90, they certainly were.

Donnelly, one of Ireland’s foremost insolvency experts and the leading receiver of troubled companies from the late 1960s onwards, was, successively, a teenage soldier in the British army’s D-Day landings on Sword beach on the Normandy coast, a Jesuit seminarian for two years, an articled clerk in a practice co-founded by his own father, the principal of that practice from his qualification in 1954 as a fellow (as it then was) of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and then, finally, one of the founding partners of what has become, after many mergers, the Irish operation of the major firm Deloitte.

Business was in Donnelly’s blood. His father, Jack, was a chartered accountant with the famous Dublin firm Craig Gardner. He had left with John Gardner, a son of one of the founders of the practice, to form Gardner Donnelly, but died young when John was still a child, leaving his mother, May (nee Mehigan), to bring him and his five siblings up on her own. Fortunately, however, she was also in business, and prominently, as chairwoman of the legendary department store McBirney’s. The family continued to live in comfortable circumstances in Temple Gardens, Rathmines.

Educated at Belvedere College, he demonstrated early an independent streak which was also to last him to the end, by running away in his 16th year to join the British army in 1944. He found himself within a few months, having lied about his age, in France. He was shot in the neck by a sniper, recovered and returned to his unit.

Father’s practice Donnelly lost many friends as a young soldier, and this affected him

very deeply. It was perhaps this experience that led him to spend two years in training for ordination as a Jesuit on his return to Dublin, and, later, perhaps influenced also a short-lived dalliance as a medical student. In time, he settled down in his late father’s practice, which he bought out two years before qualifying himself.

He developed a speciality as an insolvency practitioner widely regarded in the business world as second to none. As his former colleague in Deloitte, retired partner David Deasy, put it to The Irish Times this week: “During the late 1960s, and from then until [Donnelly’s retirement in] the 1990s, he was the go-to person for banks for particularly challenging and difficult receiverships.”

Among the most prominent of these were Ranks Ireland; Cork brewers James J Murphy’s; Van Hool McArdle, motor body builders in Dundalk; Janelle, a large textile group in Finglas, Dublin, in the early 1980s; Dr Austin Darragh’s Institute of Clinical Pharmacology in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and UMP Meats of Ballyhaunis in the same period.

Donnelly made a point of attempting to rescue jobs, if he could, from unpromising situations, and it gave him particular pleasure, for example, to be able to sell on Murphy’s to Heineken, a deal that has preserved jobs in Cork for the past generation. UMP Meats was eventually bought by Glanbia, and today Dawn Meats still operates the plant.

The work was sometimes dangerous. In the case of Ranks Ireland, a number of the firm’s workers staged a sit-in at the plant, and subversive elements, quite separately from the workers and without their consent, took advantage of this as a publicity stunt to threaten Donnelly and his family, resulting in an armed Garda presence having to be provided at the family home for years subsequently. His former colleague, Billy O’Riordan, told The Irish Times that when Donnelly had to make people redundant, “he always treated them with the utmost respect and consideration”.

To work for, Donnelly was a demanding taskmaster. David Carson, another colleague at Deloitte and still a partner with the practice, recalled this week that “John was a tough individual to work for, but fair. He stood up for you.” But first you had to prove that you knew your stuff. “He very much challenged you. He’d test you and you very much had to pass that test.” For scheduled meetings, colleagues needed to be prepared thoroughly. Carson remarking that “you needed to be very, very well prepared, you needed to know what the objective was; he didn’t appreciate you not being well-briefed.”

Eugene McCague, a solicitor formerly of Arthur Cox and Partners, who worked on many projects with Donnelly, said this week this directness extended to Donnelly’s dealings with lawyers. “He had a hatred of imprecise language. He was a stickler for precision . . . I learned a lot from him.”

Toughness in negotiations was another characteristic McCague recalled also when Donnelly handled the closing down of Dublin Port’s stevedoring subsidiary Dublin Cargo Handlers in 1992, “there were long, tough negotiations with the trade unions, but he did a deal with generous redundancy payments.”

Outside business, Donnelly had an extensive record as a volunteer with a range of charitable and not-for-profit causes, especially at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin (where he chaired a finance committee, which raised £1.5 million) and Co-Operation North (now Co-Operation Ireland), the boards of both of which he chaired. He also served for 20 years as honorary consul of Finland in Ireland.

John Donnelly is survived by his widow, Aoibheann (nee MacEllin), his daughters Grace, Caoimhe and Deirdre, son JP, and also by sisters, Ethel and Philomena, and his brother, Gerard. He was predeceased by brothers Michael and Daniel