Business & Finance Awards

Tony O’Reilly to be honoured with the 2024 TK Whitaker Award

By Business & Finance
18 June 2024

Tony O’Reilly, who passed away in May at the age of 88, was lauded for his achievements as a world-class rugby player, business leader and catalyst of philanthropy. He co-founded the Ireland Funds with Dan Rooney. His business achievements included creating the now worldwide KerryGold brand and becoming the youngest ever President & CEO of HJ Heinz.

He will be honoured with the 2024 TK Whitaker Award for outstanding contribution to Ireland & public life at the 50th Annual Business & Finance Awards, which is set to be attended by over 1000 international business, political and social leaders. The award will be accepted by the O’Reilly family.

The Business & Finance Awards in association with KPMG has today announced that Tony O’Reilly will be honoured with the 2024 TK Whitaker Award for outstanding contribution to Ireland and public life at the 50th annual Business & Finance Leadership Awards in Dublin on Thursday 5th December. 

Tony O’Reilly

Tony O’Reilly first came to the public’s attention when as a British & Irish Lion he set an all-time tour try-scoring record, which still stands unbeaten today. He was a gifted rugby player, representing Ireland, the British & Irish Lions, and the Barbarians. His achievements were recognised when he was inducted into the International Rugby Board’s Hall of Fame in 1997.

He would soon make his mark in the boardroom. From relatively modest beginnings in the Irish semi-state sector, Tony became the youngest-ever President & CEO of the HJ Heinz Company at the age of 37. His business career spanned continents, and his philanthropy had a profound impact on shaping peace and reconciliation. His unyielding contribution towards building a partnership between the United States and Ireland ultimately culminated in the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Born in Dublin on 7th May 1936, Tony O’Reilly was a pupil at Dublin’s Belvedere College. Before qualifying as a solicitor, he studied law at University College Dublin and the Incorporated Law Society.

Even though he qualified as a solicitor, he never practised law, instead, opting for a career in business. He obtained a PhD in agri-marketing at the University of Bradford, before becoming general manager of An Bord Bainne, the Irish Dairy Board, in 1962. There, he developed the now globally successful Kerrygold “umbrella brand” for Irish export butter. Subsequently, he took on the role of managing director for the Irish Sugar Company and Erin Foods in 1966.

Three years later, he would become managing director of the HJ Heinz subsidiary in the UK. He moved to the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh in 1971 when he was promoted to Senior Vice President for the North America and Pacific region. In 1973, he was made COO and President and became the first non-Heinz family CEO in 1979 when R. Burt Gookin, then Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, retired.

During his time at Heinz, he continued other business interests. He is perhaps best known for his leadership role as chief executive at Independent News & Media, from 1973 to 2009, before his son Gavin O’Reilly took on the role. He was also chairman and lead shareholder of Waterford Wedgwood.

In 2001, he was part of the Valentia consortium that bought into Eircom, the former Irish state phone company, for €2.8 billion. In 2004 the company was partly refloated, and in 2005 sold at a profit to Babcock and Brown of Australia.

He received a knighthood in the British New Year Honours List for services to Northern Ireland.

Philanthropy & Ireland

His contribution to establishing and developing Ireland’s reputation around the world was cemented by the establishment in 1976 of The American Ireland Fund, now the basis of The Ireland Funds. Founded by O’Reilly and his friend, Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were three established goals: peace, culture and charity. The Ireland Funds appealed for support for Ireland and its people from all Americans, but especially those of Irish descent.

Over nearly five decades, The Ireland Funds formed a thriving fundraising network of chapters in cities across the United States, UK, Europe and Asia and has raised over $600 million for causes across the island of Ireland and beyond, benefiting more than 3,200 different organisations.

In addition, the O’Reilly Foundation was created to contribute and support projects with an emphasis on education, including the annual O’Reilly Scholarship Programme along with significant contributions to a range of University projects in Ireland.

TK Whitaker Award

The TK Whitaker Award was established in 2016 to mark the 100th birthday of Dr. Thomas Kenneth (TK) Whitaker, the economist and civil servant credited with playing a pivotal role in Ireland’s economic development. It recognises Irish and international political and social leaders who have made a significant contribution to public life. President Michael D. Higgins became the first recipient in December 2016, followed by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD in 2017, and former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese in 2018.

In 2019, the Award was presented to filmmaker and environmentalist David Puttnam, while in 2021 the winners were John & Pat Hume, in posthumous recognition of their contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. This was presented to the Hume family by Bono. The 2023 honouree was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In 2024, Golden Globe Winner Gabriel Byrne accepted the award.

Ian Hyland, President & Publisher Business & Finance said ‘Tony O’Reilly was one of the most outstanding leaders of our time. His achievements in sport, business and then philanthropy, through his co-creation of the Ireland Funds, underline an extraordinary life, a life that epitomised passion and compassion. He was, quite simply, an Everest amongst the sand dunes and I know that Ken Whitaker would be delighted that his friend will be honoured in his name.’ 

Business & Finance, established 1964, will mark its 60th anniversary at the 50th annual Business & Finance Awards, on Thursday, December 5th at the Convention Centre, Dublin which will be attended by over 1000 International business, political and social leaders. 

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Nominations for the Business & Finance Awards open Thursday 20th June, 2024. For more information, see the Business & Finance Awards website.