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The Not-So-Secret Life of Heinz Chairman Anthony O’Reilly

September 3, 1989 GMT

KILCULLEN, Ireland (AP) _ Anthony J.F. O’Reilly is best-known in international business circles as chairman and chief executive of H.J. Heinz Co., the food giant famous for ketchup, baked beans and pickles.

But in his native land he’s Tony O’Reilly, eminent Irishman.

″I’m very comfortable with my Irishness, and very proud of it,″ says O’Reilly, 53, multimillionaire, philanthropist, rugby hero, lawyer, agriculturalist, publisher, campaigner for peace in Northern Ireland and symbol of Ireland’s transformation from rural backwater to modern industrial society.


″I see myself as a manager in the world of Heinz,″ he says. ″I see myself in Ireland as an innovator, a creator, a pacifier.″

Having worked in the United States for 18 years, he is considered one of Ireland’s most successful expatriates.

O’Reilly is not universally adored in Ireland, perhaps partly because of what The Financial Times calls ″old-fashioned Irish begrudgery,″ exacerbated by O’Reilly’s flashy life.

″Small countries don’t like tall poppies,″ O’Reilly says. ″I think I’ve hardened against that.″

He spoke during an interview in the drawing room of Castlemartin, his 28- room Georgian manor. It overlooks the meandering River Liffey and paddocks where his white Charolais cattle and bay and brown racehorses graze.

The 500-acre estate lies 30 miles south of Dublin in County Kildare, and is green, of course.

″This is the center,″ says O’Reilly, who also owns houses in west Cork, and near Heinz’s Pittsburgh headquarters. ″It clearly is my spiritual home. The rhythm of life, I get from Ireland.″

O’Reilly retains his Irish citizenship and accent, and occasionally speaks Irish ″to confuse the enemy.″ He usually spends a weekend a month in Ireland, typically continuing on to Europe or Africa on Heinz business. He vacations in Ireland, and says he intends to return here to live out his life.

Wherever he is, O’Reilly calls the managers of his Irish investments daily.

He is 6 feet 2 inches tall and struggles with his weight. Silver-haired and ruddy, he is a dapper dresser who likes to splash on the cologne.

He is hospitable and likes to joke. After meeting Robert Mugabe, the Marxist leader of Zimbabwe, O’Reilly told him: ″We’re both students of Marx. You of Karl, and me of Groucho.″


Like any good Irishman, he constantly refers to the island’s great writers, and believes luck has contributed to his success.

″The thing I dislike most about Ireland is the absolute tyranny with which history is imposed today, this reaching back to history as a guide to the future. It’s a straitjacket,″ he said.

He was referring to the Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla war to rid Northern Ireland of British rule and unite the province with the republic.

″We are not for that,″ said O’Reilly, a Roman Catholic who believes in the non-violent unification of Ireland. ″I consider the terrorist divide to be one of the great stains on Irish history.

″I do believe that the unification of Ireland is not worth shedding one drop of blood.″

In 1976 O’Reilly founded the Ireland Fund, a charity that has raised millions of dollars in United States for solving social problems caused by the fighting in Northern Ireland. Similar funds operate in Canada, Australia and Britain. He chairs them all.

O’Reilly denies persistent speculation that his goal is a political career, and has rejected an offer to serve as Ireland’s agriculture minister.

Still, he has strong opinions on Irish issues. He says Ireland’s high taxes should be cut, and divorce and abortion legalized.

He also says a successful international businessman is an ″enormously important political role model for the Irish people.″

O’Reilly is Ireland’s biggest newspaper owner, as chairman and main shareholder of Independent Newspapers PLC, with titles that include the Irish Independent and tabloid Sunday World.

He also is chairman of Fitzwilton PLC, a holding company with interests that range from a retail chain to a sign maker. O’Reilly’s other Irish business ventures include oil prospecter Atlantic Resources PLC, several hotels and a license to practice law.

His personal fortune exceeds $100 million, he says.

O’Reilly says he told Heinz before taking the $4 million-a-year job that he would not abandon his Irish pursuits.

″It was all up front,″ O’Reilly said. ″There’s never been a conflict of interest.″

O’Reilly was born in Dublin in 1936, the only child of the chief customs inspector.

At age 6, O’Reilly attended Belvedere College, an exclusive Jesuit school where writer James Joyce was educated.

Within eight months of leaving school at age 18, he became one of Ireland’s greatest rugby players. His career spanned the ’50s, ‘60s and ’70s, he played 29 internationals for Ireland, and in 1955 set a record for touchdowns scored on tours, which remains unbroken.

Enlarged photographs of O’Reilly the rugby player adorn the walls of his house. He talks about the game constantly, using it as an analogy for business and life.

″It taught me a fervent and never-ending respect for collegiality. We shared the rewards, we shared the losses.″

He excelled academically as well. He attended University College Dublin, where he studied law, and then the University of Bradford, in England for a Ph.D. in agriculture.

O’Reilly became head of the Irish Dairy Board and soon displayed his marketing abilities by inventing Kerrygold, the internationally known Irish butter brand name.

He then managed Irish food companies doing business with Heinz, and the foodmaker’s executives were impressed with the young O’Reilly. In 1969, they offered him the job of managing director of Heinz’s British operations.

Within four years, he was president of the entire company, and in 1987, when Henry J. Heinz II died, O’Reilly succeeded him as the first non-family chairman in the company’s 119-year history.

O’Reilly has energized the $6 billion concern by cutting costs, tying pay more closely to performance, promoting stock ownership among employees, and expanding into the faster-growing baby, pet and diet food industries.

O’Reilly’s rugby-team spirit apparently makes him well-liked among Heinz’s 40,000 employees, and his profit-making talents are popular with shareholders.

He loves a party and entertains celebrity friends lavishly, often with his own singing and piano-playing. He travels on Heinz’s corporate jet and in cigar-equipped luxury cars.

O’Reilly married Australian-born Susan Cameron, a former concert pianist, in 1962 and they have six children, including triplets.

Aside from Irishness, what makes O’Reilly tick?

″With the philosophy of ‘Gee thanks, what have you done for me today,’ I feel myself in a sense of permanent competition with the world outside,″ he says.

But, he says, ″There is the constant inherent contradiction of success and the enjoyment of success.

″Here I am in this lovely Celtic setting which I see eight weeks out of the year, and never leave without regret and a backward glance.″

End adv for Sunday Sept. 3