60th Anniversary

‘I could almost describe Ireland as being at a crisis point but not knowing it’ – Leadership interview with Gary McGann

By Business & Finance
02 July 2024

Business & Finance was founded in 1964 and this year marks our 60th anniversary. To celebrate this extraordinary milestone, we are running a series of Leadership interviews with business leaders who are creating lasting legacies across the corporate landscape of Ireland. Veteran businessman, Gary McGann, speaks with Sarah Freeman about what inspires him and shares his hopes for the future. 

I met Gary McGann in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge back in April. He had barely sat down when approached by another well-known personality in business circles, former politician and director general of the CIF, Tom Parlon. The two exchanged pleasantries before Parlon shared the announcement, just made, that then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would be addressing the Dail within the hour. 

McGann won’t criticise any politician. “Being a politician is one of the toughest jobs in the world”, he will later say, “Literally having to be voted in again every few years.” 

McGann needs no introduction. The 73 year-old veteran businessman graduated UCD in 1973 and spent time in the Auditor General’s office before joining Ericsson where he took on the role firstly of Management Accountant and ultimately the role of Chief Financial Officer. He then became CEO of drinks company Gilbeys before leading Aer Lingus as CEO for 4 years before ultimately starting work with Smurfit Kappa, the company with which he is most associated. There, he was CFO before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the paper packaging company. He would go on to spend over 17 years there. 

The Chartered Certified Accountant sat on a variety of prominent boards throughout his career including Chairman of Flutter Entertainment Plc for 9 years, Chair of Aryzta GA for almost 5 years and Chair of DAA for 6 years. He also sat on the board of UDG for 9 years as well as that of Anglo Irish Bank, the latter role leading inexorably to a place in the hot seat at the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry. He currently chairs Sisk Group and Aon Ireland and is a venture partner in Middlegame Ventures, Chairs the Ireland Funds in Ireland and is on the Board of Barnardos.

McGann is also a devoted grandfather, who speaks with great affection about his three grandchildren. So it begs the question, after a lifetime of successful deals and an extraordinary career arc that includes incredible success along with some tough times, why is he as busy as ever, having recently accepted the role of Chairman of the board of Poland’s largest ecommerce platform, Allegro, pending shareholder approval. Certain contemporaries have retired, will he follow suit? 

“I had breakfast with a good friend of mine, also in business, who’s at least a decade and a half younger. He said, ‘I see the masochism continues’ and I answered, ‘What you don’t realise is that, in my world, the absence of this [involvement in business] is masochism.’ 

McGann expands on the theme. ‘At post-50, there are loads of things you need to do to make sure you don’t deteriorate. One is physical fitness and to be sensible about your diet. The other is to keep interested. The brain is a muscle. I’m not going to take up Sudoku and I’m definitely not taking up Bridge so the alternative is, I work…but the most important thing is, it’s a privilege. I want to be doing things.”

Failure and resilience – two sides of the same coin?

We pick up the thread of our conversation from our first meeting, when we spoke about failure and resilience and McGann shared his view on how imperative it is for younger generations to learn what it is to fail and try again. 

“It’s kind of statistically likely that the longer you do things, the more the possibility exists that things will go wrong. On the other hand, there’s an Americanism that if you don’t fail, and fail quickly, it’s going to slow your growth, and you won’t have a learning curve and proper trajectory, all of which is utter nonsense. 

“I think the reality is the old principle of trying to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Be alert to the fact things will go wrong, and sometimes they will go badly wrong.”

The biggest challenge in business, according to McGann, is actually recognising when failure is staring you in the face but not yet manifest. He mentions the late Howard Kilroy, best known for his role as chief financial officer and COO of the Smurfit Group, who used to describe the best business people as those who could see around corners; people who were just a fraction ahead of the problem and had enough vision to turn the wheel at the last minute and avoid a head-on collision.

“When we talk about failure and resilience, they are actually two sides of the same coin because it becomes apparent very quickly, when the rubber hits the road, who has an innate resilience and who does not.”

By and large, the event that brings about the scandal pales into insignificance compared to the manner in which it is dealt with, the admission of it, the transparency, the acceptance of it and the moving on from it. 

McGann found himself, at a relatively young age, with a six-week-old baby and unemployed for a few months. “My mother-in-law never knew about it. It was difficult and after a day or two of fury and anger, I had to ask myself, ‘what am I going to do?’ I’m of the mentality to just get back on the horse.”

He believes that any meaningful occupation, which gets people out of bed, is materially better than dwelling on the inequity of one’s situation and references the old adage that it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

“My mother was a nurse and a west of Ireland woman. She insisted that I, from the age of 10, worked every summer at the most God-awful job that she could dream up of, to make sure that I really knew the value of education.”

He did learn the value of work and a day’s wage from an early age, spending his teenage summers as a painter and a petrol pump attendant. 

Education, says McGann, himself a past pupil of Colaiste Mhuire on Parnell St, was always a passport to a better, more rewarding life. 

He sees a massively wealthy Ireland, filled with enormous opportunities for people but wonders about the conspicuousness of wealth these days. Is the visibility of monetary success feeding a sense of disenchantment, whereby large sections of the population are feeling increasingly disenfranchised? 

“We look at populism and the extremes in politics and commentary. Is it any wonder?” he asks. 

“I worry about the lack of appreciation people have for society as a foundation for stability and success. I was taught civics in school and it taught me about the importance and obligation of those in society to look out generally for the well-being of others.”

McGann continues. “Today, the teachers need to look after education, the police need to look after the bad boys, there’s always someone else to do it but, in my day, it was on us. There was an expectation of individual responsibility and those that didn’t were more frowned upon than lauded.”

McGann expands on the theme, referencing the Dublin riots of late 2023.

I watch about six news channels and, when the Dublin riots took place, they were the first, second or third item on all of those news channels. As a small, open economy, we’re dependent on boardrooms all over the world being positive about us because of our business-friendly society and our sensible environment. That doesn’t cause them to pause and think?

Is Ireland in crisis? 

McGann cautions that Ireland needs to curate its image and future carefully, noting that we are one of the more costly economies now.  

“There are a number of worrying scenarios facing us – a very high cost of living; you can’t get housing because of a progressively unjustified housing crisis (a supply side issue) and we’re essentially telling the digital world that we’re closed for business. You need data centres to run the cloud and we’re saying ‘no thank you, not for us.’ We think we can get just the nice stuff, don’t give us the difficult stuff.”

We are in clear danger of ‘our business’ going elsewhere. 

“If you talk to the IDA they’re quite bullish but I think, behind the scenes, they must be concerned about the cost of living and unavailability of housing. Take doctors, for example. People say there aren’t enough doctors because it’s not an attractive prospect here but the terms and conditions are as competitive here as anywhere in Europe. But that’s missing the point, it’s the spending power of the after-tax earnings that’s the key comparator. Money doesn’t go as far here.” 

He contrasts Ireland with countries like Taiwan who are building a factory in Arizona rather than in China or in Europe. This, says McGann, is a harbinger of the future direction of the tech world and it used to be our stock-in-trade. We are in clear danger of ‘our business’ going elsewhere. 

“As previously, for the next 10 years at least, our only natural resource is people. So now, we’re too expensive, we don’t want digital, or at the very least, we don’t want data centres and we don’t have housing. We need to plan and execute an awful lot more sensibly. 

“Our educational system is sliding, even if it’s standing still. The rest of our competitors are going forward and we’re an open economy that depends on foreign direct investment. That’s a tough scene. I could almost describe Ireland as being at a crisis point but not knowing it.”

McGann continues, “The hunger, activism, public/private alignments of old have waned and seems to have given way to complacency and failure to grasp our continued dependency on inward investment.”

I could almost describe Ireland as being at a crisis point but not knowing it.

He likens Ireland to a hitherto strong brand in which the owners have started underinvesting. The brand momentum will continue for a while due to the cumulative effect of the pre-investment until suddenly it stops. By then it’s too late as the brand is on a new, downward trajectory. 

“Ireland, I believe, has plateaued,” says McGann. “The key question is, what do we now consider to be our USP?”

Ireland is changing. In just a decade, AI will have advanced dramatically and will inevitably have altered many business practices and processes. 

“We know that the consequences of decisions being made now will only really be seen in 3 to 5 years,” says McGann. His sense is that by then, unless we have a serious reappraisal, our product will be past its sell by date and, by then, we will have lost our mojo. 

The Secret to Success 

McGann says there is loads of entrepreneurial spirit around the country but that there’s an element of luck in everything. 

“If you make a success of one company, it doesn’t necessarily mean you make a success of others.”

He acknowledges the extraordinary hard graft that goes into building a successful company. 

“In the businesses in which I was involved, I’ve always had one event a year where I invite them [families of the executives] to thank them for their role in the company’s success, because without them, these people couldn’t do their job. Most of the companies I worked for, many of the top team were away 120, 130, over 160 days a year.”

Adopting a people-centric approach 

Having held prominent roles in such a variety of companies, McGann has worked closely with hundreds of people at this stage. What are his tips for handling difficult people? 

“Well, there are many definitions of difficult people. There are people who don’t suffer fools gladly and others who are incredibly demanding, driven only by business and have no perspective on a wider life/work balance. Every one of us has probably got the difficult genome somewhere in us.”

McGann remembers, verbatim, an admonishment he received, almost 50 years previously at the age of 26, from his then boss, who told him that, while they’d had a great year, he wouldn’t be receiving his full bonus because he’d left a trail of destruction behind him. ‘I can’t keep replacing people,’ he told McGann. 

“That was kind of my mindset, all about the outcome as distinct from a balanced view of bringing people with you.”

It completely changed the way he managed his teams. Since then, he has tried to apply the principle of getting to the top of the ladder and sending down a second ladder to help those behind. 

“In Ireland, we’ve an incredible advantage. Our skill and unique quality is that we’re easy to get on with. We can adjust to circumstances and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’ve also learned to be much more self-confident and that’s from education, travel and our DNA.”

McGann says he now knows it’s all about helping people, listening to people, spending time, not being so self-centred and all-consumed. He advocates helping those who are struggling and nurturing those with talent, whether it’s part of your job or not.

“Good deeds are spotted by smart people and the compound impact is phenomenal. Even if you think it’s invisible, the good people will see it.”