Irish business tycoon and rugby record breaker Tony O'Reilly dies at 88

  • World
  • Sunday, 19 May 2024

Tony O'Reilly, May 17, 1996./Shawn Baldwin PN/CMC

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Tony O'Reilly, the Irish media tycoon and former H.J. Heinz Co boss who first rose to prominence as a record breaking British and Irish Lions rugby player, died on Saturday at the age of 88.

For decades one of Ireland's most celebrated entrepreneurs, O'Reilly built a media group spanning from the Pacific through India and South Africa to Ireland but eventually went bankrupt after it crumbled during the global financial crisis of 2008.

He died in a Dublin hospital following a short illness, national broadcaster RTE quoted a spokesperson for the businessman as saying.

"Mr. O'Reilly was a giant of sports, business and media and left permanent legacies in all three. He was a trailblazer and forged a path that many other international business figures from Ireland would follow," Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris said in a statement.

Harris said O'Reilly's philanthropy had a "transformative effect" on the island of Ireland through his establishment of The Ireland Funds at the height of Northern Ireland's sectarian violence in the 1970s that has raised hundreds of millions of euros from US donors for reconciliation projects.

Born in Dublin in 1936, O'Reilly won his first of 29 rugby caps on the wing for Ireland at the age of 18.

His six test tries on two British and Irish Lions tours in the 1950s remains the all-time record, as does his 37 tries in all games for the Lions, a touring team selected every four years from the best of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

At 26, while still playing rugby for Ireland, he took on a moribund state body, the Irish Dairy board, and created Kerrygold butter, which remains one of Ireland's most successful international brands.

About a decade later he became president and chief operating officer of food giant H.J. Heinz. By 1987 he had succeeded the son of Heinz's founder to become the first non-family member to serve as chairman.

The smooth talking O'Reilly drove revenue at H.J. Heinz, now Kraft Heinz, from $908 million to $11 billion during his 18-year reign. By the time he retired in 1994, he was Ireland's first billionaire.

That wealth included his Independent News & Media empire that included the UK Independent and other newspaper titles and radio stations around the world. Its share price had plunged to a fraction of the price of its newspapers, as its debts mounted, when O'Reilly handed the reins to his son in 2009.

The family lost control of the company three years later.

O'Reilly, who at one time served on the boards of General Electric, The Washington Post, Mobil Corporation - now ExxonMobil - and the New York Stock Exchange, also saw hundreds of millions of euros of investments disappear as Irish luxury tableware maker Waterford Wedgwood collapsed in 2009.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin, Editing by Franklin Paul)

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