Corporate consultant and right-hand man to captains of Irish business

James Osborne obituary: born April 28th 1949 – died August 17th 2017

James Osborne at a Ryanair agm in 2008. Photograph: Frank Miller

James Osborne at a Ryanair agm in 2008. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

James Osborne, who has died at the age of 68, was a corporate consultant and solicitor with connections at the very top level of Irish business and a reputation for shaking up boardrooms.

Retiring at the age of 45 from his role as managing partner of A&L Goodbody Solicitors, he took up what he enjoyed doing best, directing and restructuring Irish companies towards higher profits and market flotations. He was a director of Bank of Ireland, the dairy company Golden Vale and the cigarette company PJ Carrolls.

A close adviser to businessman Michael O’Leary, he was heavily involved in the flotation of Ryanair in 1997 and had recently been appointed to a third term on the board. He was a former chairman of the board of Independent News & Media (INM) but this role lasted for less than a year, before he was voted out after a row over Gavin O’Reilly’s departure as chief executive. He was an adviser to Larry Goodman and was involved in restructuring of his meat empire after his group went into examinership in 1990.

An enthusiastic racegoer, who favoured national hunt to the flat, he was chairman of Punchestown Racecourse in the late 1990s overseeing a multi-million pound expansion of the racecourse and helping to attract lucrative sponsorship deals. More recently he was chairman of Eason and of Oneview Healthcare, which was the first Irish company to list listed on the Australian stock exchange when it floated on St Patrick’s Day 2016. He was also chairman of the Irish Heritage Trust.

Young entrepreneurs

Osborne did not confine himself to big businesses and public bodies, often supporting start-ups. He was particularly supportive of young entrepreneurs and professionals who often sought his advice. He had an outstanding ability to listen, according to one former colleague who said that he often found jobs for people and helped them make important legal and business decisions.

Osborne often downplayed his legal skills, saying that he did not know a lot about the law, but it was his business acumen and ability to connect that helped transform A&L Goodbody from a low-key Dublin law firm into a top tier firm , and later helped him transform a number of Irish businesses, often by firing non-performing executives and restructuring areas where profits were not being achieved.

James Reginald Osborne was born in April 1949 in Dousland, near Plymouth in Devon where his father, a native of Milford, Donegal, was a Royal Navy commander. The youngest of three boys, his family moved frequently to different navy bases, including ones in Scotland and in Hong Kong. The Osbornes eventually settled back in Milford where their grandfather, John Allen Osborne had established a legal practice in the 1890s.

The Osborne boys were educated at Campbell College, where James excelled at sports and at organising clubs and events. He went on to study Law at Trinity College Dublin where he played a lot of tennis and during one term managed to cross the Atlantic on his friend Horace Beck’s boat, China Bird. In later life he sailed back from the US in 2005 on a boat he shared with friends called Southerly.

Graduating in 1972, he was taken on by Goodbodys, a somewhat staid Protestant firm, and quickly began to shake things up. Debonair, handsome and charming, he was sometimes referred to as James Bond by the younger members of staff. In a 1999 interview in this newspaper, Osborne recalled that, early on, he persuaded the senior partners they should open an office in New York. To his surprise, he said, they agreed and Osborne (then aged 28) set off for Manhattan “with one-quarter of the firm’s profits in a suitcase”, to be invested in the new venture.

After initial failure, important business was built up and a number of US companies placed their business with Goodbodys when they moved to Ireland to take advantage of the low corporate tax rates. Described as a “wonderful rainmaker” by a partner at the firm, his two talents were in getting new business and then delegating it within the firm.

Though many of his clients were mega- wealthy, Osborne was not particularly interested in the trappings of wealth. He delighted in pulling up in front of great houses in his 02 Audi , kept his entire office in a battered leather briefcase and used an ancient Nokia 6310 phone.

Long hours

He worked long hours on his directorships and family described themselves as a hostage to his diary. Bores were not to be tolerated and he would excuse himself from their company saying that he had an early diary appointment.

Well informed and fun to be with, Osborne was invited everywhere, though in recent years he’d tended to avoid the dinner party circuit to spend time at home with his daughter Pia. There was no TV in the house he shared with his partner Patricia. Instead they would read – Harry Potter was a favourite – and take long walks, take motor boats out into Dublin Bay. If time allowed, he would drive to Donegal to visit the family’s retreat, an island in Mulroy Bay.

He had recently taken up water colouring and continued to play cricket with his friends of the Oaklands Raiders Cricket Club. He continued to sail and was a lifetime member of the Royal Irish yacht club in Dún Laoghaire. He found time for tennis and golf in Carrickmines and in the courts of Mountpleasant Square near his home. He loved fishing for shrimp and lobster in Clew Bay, a 99 was his favourite treat.

He is survived by his two brothers, Henry and John, his wife Heather, two daughters Lucy and Pia, his son Patrick (Patch), and his partner Patricia Devine.