John Lynch obituary: Businessman led CIE through transformative change

Lynch’s notable success in the often troubled world of semi-State industries was credited to his impartiality

John Lynch was a remarkable combination of academic and businessman

John Lynch was a remarkable combination of academic and businessman

 

John Lynch
Born: December 31st, 1942
Died: April 8th, 2020

John Lynch, who has died aged 77, led the national transport company Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) through transformative change as chairperson from 2000 to 2011.

His very notable success in the often troubled world of semi-State industries was credited to his impartiality, and his ability to engage successfully with the widest range of interested parties.

While at Bord Gáis, Lynch was instrumental in releasing the company’s large land bank in the south docklands, where the Bord Gáis Theatre and surrounding developments now exist

Lynch “was the ultimate public servant; what he did was out of love for his country and people,” according to former president Mary McAleese.

Lynch was a remarkable combination of academic and businessman. His background was hardly privileged; his father, Daniel, was a fitter by trade and his mother, Elizabeth, was from a farming background near Clones, Co Monaghan. The family lived in Drimnagh in southwest Dublin, where Lynch attended school at Drimnagh Castle CBS. On leaving school, he worked initially for Guinness , taking degrees in commerce at UCD by night, and then a PhD there.

Still in his 30s, he became CEO of Pye Irl, the electronics manufacturer, and then director of productivity studies for the then Confederation of Irish Industry, forerunner of today’s Ibec employers’ body.

It was as chairperson of An Bord Gáis in the early 1980s, that he came increasingly to the notice of both the public and the civil service. In this role, Lynch’s “bountiful intelligence, and focused ability to bring into the public sector insights from the private sector,” came into play, combined, crucially, with respect for the trade unions, always treating them “with . . . the utmost professionalism,” according to former TD and minister Ivan Yates, who was joint chairperson of the Oireachtas committee on small industries in the 1980s.

Lynch “had contacts everywhere; people confided in him, he was very good at building relationships, and he was a past master at working with very senior civil servants,” said Yates.

While at Bord Gáis, Lynch was instrumental in releasing the company’s large land bank in the south docklands, where the Bord Gáis Theatre and surrounding developments now exist. The land, “was contaminated by decades of gas production . . . no progress could be made before de-contamination,” according to former Labour minister Ruairi Quinn.

By helping to release the sites for ultimate development, Lynch “unlocked the financial potential” of the whole area, said Quinn, who described Lynch as someone who liked “to talk to get a feel of what was happening” in the organisation he was leading, while remaining “politically neutral, with a foot in many camps”.

Lynch also worked closely with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was minister for Labour when three different Government agencies were merged in 1987-‘88 to create FAS, of which Lynch was successively chairperson and then chief executive, from 1988 until 2000. He was “very effective [yet] very laid back, very hands-on . . . if there was trouble, he was very well able to deal with it . . . he had good relations with both employers, and trade unions, having come from the private sector himself,” said Ahern.

When the financial crash came in 2008, Lynch who was due to retire in 2010 agreed to stay on for a further year to smooth the transition into what by then was clearly going to be a change of political leadership

At CIE, from 2000, Lynch faced a huge problem of reforming an organisation traditionally beset with industrial relations issues, and issues of cost control and over-staffing. He commenced a vigorous and pointed programme of reform in which his ability to extract a commitment of €2 billion investment from the Government from 2003 onwards as part of the T21 policy, skilful engagement with unions and a very hands-on approach produced results of remarkable effectiveness.

Between 2002 and 2011, Irish Rail, for example, shed over 1,700 jobs, and the CIE group made savings of a total of €233 million, while increasing passenger numbers in the group’s two bus companies by more than 50 per cent, and passenger rail miles by nearly 80 per cent, a process admittedly aided by the then very rapid economic growth. His rigorous focus on costs included blunt refusals to countenance requests from executives for extra funds for projects.

When the financial crash came in 2008, Lynch who was due to retire in 2010 agreed to stay on for a further year to smooth the transition into what by then was clearly going to be a change of political leadership. Contrary to some reports at the time, he volunteered in 2009, to take a voluntary cut of 20 per cent in his remuneration.

Outside of business, Lynch was a very keen follower of sport, especially of St Patrick’s Athletic soccer club – where he enjoyed watching the action from the terraces – and of boxing, after retirement spending a period as chairperson of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association. He particularly relished spending Tuesday evenings playing poker with a close group of old friends.

John Lynch is survived by his long-time partner, Kathy O’Shea, and by his sister, Margaret, and brother, Edmund. He was predeceased by his brother, Donal.

*This article was edited on May 12th, 2020