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Anthony O’Reilly, Irish tycoon who ran Heinz, dies at 88

by Michelle Suarez
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Anthony O’Reilly, Irish tycoon who ran Heinz, dies at 88
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Anthony J.F. O’Reilly, a charming, ambitious, Irishman, former chairman of the H.J. Heinz Company, who also owned newspapers, luxury brands and trophy homes in France and the Bahamas, only to lose almost everything in his eighth decade, has died on May 18 in Dublin. He was 88 years old.

The Irish Times and other Irish newspapers, citing a family spokesman, said he died in hospital. No cause was given.

From his earliest days, Mr. O’Reilly, known as Tony, showed an embarrassment about gifts. He was a top-flight rugby player when he was still a teenager: the “red-haired pin-up boy of Irish rugby”, as The Guardian called him. His talent for business was equally precocious.

At 26, as marketing manager of the Irish Dairy Board, he created the Kerrygold brand to sell Irish butter to English food consumers, which is still one of the country’s best-known exports worldwide.

Mr. O’Reilly was recruited by Heinz to head its British operations in 1969, then moved to the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters, where he rose to chief executive and became the first chairman from outside the Heinz family. Under his leadership, Heinz’s value increased twelvefold. Business Week called him “one of the world’s most charismatic businessmen.”

“He has a million stories and he tells them all well,” Heinz director Richard M. Cyert told Business Week in 1997. “When you sit down to lunch with him, it’s like going to the movies and having a good time.”

Mr. O’Reilly played tennis at the White House with President George H. W. Bush, who reportedly considered him commerce secretary. He helped create the Ireland Funds, whose promotion of peace projects in Northern Ireland undermined the Irish Republican Army’s fundraising among Irish Americans. Queen Elizabeth II knighted O’Reilly for his service to Northern Ireland in 2001.

He had a very unusual deal with Heinz that also allowed him to build his own business empire. On Fridays, after work, he flew to Dublin on the Gulfstream jet for meetings and sometimes a rugby match. Then he would return to Pittsburgh to be in his office by 8 a.m. Monday.

Perhaps more successfully than any other entrepreneur, he rode the Irish economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s, known as the Celtic Tiger, to become the country’s richest man and reportedly its first billionaire.

He founded his own publishing group, Independent News & Media, with the purchase of The Irish Independent, the country’s leading daily newspaper, in 1973. It has grown to include more than 100 properties, including The Independent of London and newspapers in Australia , New Zealand and South Africa, granting Mr. O’Reilly access to and influence over political leaders.

In 1990 he purchased Waterford Wedgwood, an Anglo-Irish crystal and porcelain company, with the ambition of transforming it into a global luxury group along the lines of Gucci and LVMH.

Mr. O’Reilly acquired the lifestyle and celebrity friends to match his prestigious aspirations. His Irish base was Castlemartin, a 750-acre estate where President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela were guests.

He also owned a Georgian mansion in Dublin, a beach house on Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, and a chateau in Deauville, France. His art collection included a $24.2 million Monet and works by Picasso and Matisse.

Although Mr. O’Reilly built his fortune on the large compensation he received from Heinz, the company’s bland brands did not reflect his ambitious tastes. He once said of Heinz’s ubiquitous ketchup, according to The Irish Times, “We make it, piece, piece, piece, every day in 100 factories around the world.” Owning newspapers, on the other hand, offered “more than you can get from baked beans,” he said.

This did not stop him from spending Heinz money lavishly in an attempt to bring glamour to the company. He took hundreds of guests to Ireland for an annual gala ball and thoroughbred race, the Heinz 57 Stakes.

In 1996, Forbes named him the fourth highest-paid CEO in the United States, even though business results had been disappointing for several years. “Tony O’Reilly’s ego and salary are bigger than his accomplishments,” the magazine wrote.

He stepped down as CEO of Heinz the following year, although he remained chairman until 2000. In his early sixties, he turned his full-time attention to his own businesses, which, in addition to newspapers and luxury goods, included oil exploration and an oil-and-gas company that converted castles into hotels.

Like many business empires, O’Reilly’s was built on debt. When the global financial crisis exploded as a Category 5 hurricane in 2008, O’Reilly’s initiatives failed. He lost control of his media properties to a longtime rival Irish tycoon, Denis O’Brien.

In 2009, Waterford Wedgwood, into which Mr O’Reilly had poured large personal sums, collapsed

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