A great entrepreneur’s tale to savour

Paul McErlean column
At the Saffron Business Forum breakfast are (from left) Seamus McMullan, Antrim county chairman; Digicel founder Denis O’Brien; and Tony Shivers, Saffron Business Forum chair (Jim Corr Photography)

I spent my student summers playing football for the Ulster Club in San Francisco and working on building sites in the Bay Area. They were great days and I learned a lot from the experiences.

This was long before mobile phones and the internet and every couple of weeks, I’d get a big letter from my dad giving me updates on home and clips from newspapers with articles he thought I should be interested in.

One year (probably 1992, just before its flotation) he sent me a succession of articles on the rise of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), the most exciting company in Ireland at the time. The driving force behind the company was one of this island’s greatest entrepreneurs, Tony Ryan, who later founded Ryanair.

Two Fridays ago, at a Saffron Business Forum breakfast, we were lucky enough to hear from arguably Ireland’s current greatest entrepreneur Denis O’ Brien.

He held the 200-plus audience in his hands for over an hour talking about his approach to business; when to buy; when to sell; how to structure; the need for reparations for the Caribbean countries; the influence of his parents, and many other, often entertaining, topics. It was a brilliant morning and the feedback has been universally effusive. One of the big takeaways was there is no substitute for hard work and learning from first-hand exposure to the best. With that in mind, he has some strong views on that post-Covid phenomenon, working from home. I think it’s fair to say, he isn’t a fan.

At the start of his career (after one year in banking) Denis wrote a letter to Tony Ryan asking him for a job. He subsequently became Tony Ryan’s personal assistant for the next six years, helping with everything from managing a cattle farm to starting Ryanair. It was an all-day, all week job and he described how he regularly stayed at Ryan’s house in Tipperary.

One of the business areas GPA had looked at was satellite technology and that emerging business helped to give Denis O’Brien the impetus to leave GPA’s employ and start Esat Telecom. The later sale for £2.4 billion of Esat to BT and the story of O’Brien’s incredible business journey in the Caribbean and the South Pacific after, in addition to his many media businesses, would fill this paper. Suffice to say, it was a fascinating morning and the Saffron Business Forum and Antrim GAA is extremely grateful to him for his time.

Jumping back 20 years when I first got started in business, one of the major contracts we won was InterTradeIreland, the cross-border trade body created after the Good Friday Agreement. So, early in my career, I got exposure to two more of Ireland’s great entrepreneurs, Martin Naughton of Glen Dimplex and Harold Ennis of Boxmore, the founding chairman and vice-chairman of InterTrade. What a team they were and what an example they set.

The breakfast sponsor last week was Whiterock Finance, which also used the occasion to launch this region’s largest domestically-managed private equity fund, a massive opportunity for the economy here. The use of private equity as a business accelerant is far more prominent now than it was 20 years ago when listing on the stock exchange was the prestigious and most attractive route to international expansion.

Few companies here had the people and the business to try it and make it work, but Harold Ennis was one of those people. Listing Boxmore and expanding it into 19 countries and then subsequently selling to US multinational, Chesapeake Corporation, was one of the great business success stories of the early 2000s.

It was very poignant for me then to go straight from interviewing Denis O’Brien to the funeral of Harold Ennis on that same Friday morning. I couldn’t help but think that Denis is one of the leaders who has carried on the Irish entrepreneurial torch from the likes of Harold, who started his business in Lisburn in darker, very challenging times.

In business circles here, Harold was held in the highest esteem. He was humble, thorough, fair and very, very smart. His son Mark told some great stories about his razor-like understanding of complex issues at the board meetings of the other public companies he was involved with, including Galen and Dunloe Ewart.

Paul McErlean.
Paul McErlean. Paul McErlean.

And my good friend, his younger son, Richard, gave us some loving insights into his dad’s early years in Cavan, the youngest of eight children who lost his father when he was only five years old. Harold’s third son, John, rounded out the stories with touching reflections on family and Harold’s great love for their mum, who passed away in 2021.

It was a lovely service for one of the great business people of our time. Harold Ennis, RIP.

  • Paul McErlean is chief executive of MCE Public Relations