A LIFE WORTH LIVING
OAK TREE PRESS, 314pp, hdbk, €32.50
What makes a tycoon? One of the best places to find the secret surely must be the newly published memoir of Michael Smurfit. This gives a fascinating account of how he developed his business over the years and, as an obiter, an equally fascinating insight into the mind of a seriously successful alpha male.
It’s not a catechism on how to become a tycoon, however. There’s not quite enough detail for that. But it should be required reading for any aspiring young business man or woman in Ireland.
What is particularly interesting is how much of his success was down to doing the obvious, like cutting costs, managing stocks, etc, something that other Irish alpha male Michael O Leary is also good at (will he ever write a book, I wonder?). What is also interesting is how Smurfit took a small Irish company to the top of the world in the area of wood and wood products, beating off rivals from countries with significant wood and native paper industries.
The book is not just about Smurfit’s business life, of course. It’s his life story and he certainly has led a full life. The first Irish mega tycoon, he built a small family business into Ireland’s first multinational company and one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies, particularly spectacular when coming from a country with no indigenous wood industry to speak of.
This autobiography is an account of his life and of the company he built over three decades and is in many ways a primer on how to succeed in business. As well as cataloguing his step by step progress there are revealing insights into his business philosophy, with chapters on the Smurfit culture and the Smurfit system, both bearing his indelible signature.
Michael Smurfit, however, was and is more than just a successful businessman. While building the Smurfit empire he served as Chairman of Telecom Eireann from 1979 to 1991, supervising the transformation of an antiquated national telephone system, an essential foundation for the development of the Celtic Tiger. He also served for six years as Chairman of the Irish Racing Board, where he brought his business acumen and organisational skills to develop an important national industry. Separately, his vision led to the development of the K Club and the bringing of the Ryder Cup to Ireland in 2006. He has been decorated by a number of countries and received a Knighthood from the Queen in 2005. He is Ireland’s Honorary Consul in Monaco, where he resides.
Yet it could have been so different. He was born in 1936 in St Helens, Lancashire, the family moving back to Ireland during the war. His father, a tailor by trade, acquired a small box factory and mill in Dublin through his Belfast in – laws. He was moderately successful and Michael and his brother were sent initially to Clongowes before being taken out when Michael was sixteen and put to work in his father’s Clonskeagh factory to learn the business from the bottom. As time went on he became bored and frustrated and at nineteen was poised to emigrate to Canada with a workmate. At the last minute his visa application was refused – “a bombshell” – on medical grounds.
He was diagnosed with T.B. and entered Peamount Sanitorium the day he had been scheduled to depart for Canada. He spent ten months there, learning that had the condition not been discovered when it was he would have been dead within six months. There he was shocked to learn also that his former workmate had been paralysed in a traffic accident in Toronto; he could have been with him. The brush with mortality proved sobering. He realised how lucky he had been and returned to the family firm determined to succeed, this time to the office rather than the factory floor.
There followed a spell in the USA working with Continental Can, one of Smurfit’s paper suppliers. Here he honed his growing expertise in the practicalities of business, but getting his father to apply his ideas was another matter. It was to be a decade before he was able to put them into practice. Meantime he met Norma during a six month study stay in Richmond. Norma Triesman was a hairdresser, a Jewish girl from London’s East End. They met at a dance where he “asked the owner of the best pair of legs to dance.”
They married after two years, in 1963, moving initially to his Lancashire birthplace, where he set up his own first factory in Wigan. Their sons, Tony and Michael, were born there. Norma he described as “ the perfect partner,” “a wonderful woman” and “a tower of strength.” He gave up his early passion for racing cars and motorbikes ( his first car had been the iconic E-type Jaguar).His Lancashire business began to prosper and in early 1966 his father asked him to return to Ireland to take over the family business. He grasped immediately that, with Ireland’s tariffs coming down after the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, Smurfits, worth roughly £1 million, had to expand or die.
Expansion meant takeover. The Irish paper and packaging industry consisted of many small businesses and was ripe for rationalisation. Smurfits cut their teeth on this, devising and refining tactics over time. The Irish dominoes tumbled in turn. It was the era of family businesses, with management often dominated by Protestants, many amateurish and hostile. Smurfit fought to take them over. “My motto was I must, I can and I will; and I did.”
The approach involved complete forensic analysis of the targeted company, based on a thorough knowledge of every aspect of the paper and packaging industry, something many competitors and targets lacked. This knowledge was developed all the way back to Michael’s period on the factory floor and his subsequent years of business apprenticeship up to 1966. Meticulous research, full knowledge, and better preparation than the opposition, was the key. The same tactics were repeated over and over again on an ever increasing scale in Ireland, in Britain, in the USA, in Europe. Sometimes there were setbacks, but very few.
The phrase coined for the Smurfit approach was “logical opportunism.” There was never over-reach, something many companies were guilty of, with too much borrowing and over investment. Sometimes the target could be part of a conglomerate, but not part of the core activities, or an adjunct to the main business. Once acquired there was further forensic investigation, of staff and stock levels, of management technique and of how the new acquisition could best be assimilated.
There were six and seven day weeks, long hours, interminable dinners – up to 200 in a year – and much travel, with every mill and plant visited. Yet there was a private life also. His sporting interests are chronicled, including the successes of his racehorses , as well as his interest in skiing and yachting. There is a chapter on the K Club and the 2006 Ryder Cup. The book is generally sparse on personal details, though he does deal with the painful end of his marriage to Norma. When he revealed over dinner on April Fool’s day 1985 that there was someone else, she threw a glass of wine over him and stormed out. He has only kind words to say about Norma.
There is advice, in particular in the chapter on the Smurfit System, with emphasis on cost controls and ensuring up to date information on cash flows and on how each business component is functioning, as well as a section on the anatomy of a deal. And, with a keen eye on the present and future in a changing business environment, advice to any one starting out to master computer skills, find a market niche, and why you must never, ever, give up.
As befits a tidy and organised mind, the contents pages helpfully include separately named sections within chapters, while there is an appendix detailing the staggering History of the Jefferson Smurfit Group.
Insightful. A book worth reading.