Sir Michael Smurfit, Chairman, Smurfit Kappa: 'They used to look on me as a Paddy chancing his luck. It's a mistake they only made once'

The Irish tycoon might have sold his packaging empire but he still has plenty on his plate, like the Ryder Cup
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The Independent Online

Sir Michael Smurfit is on a roll. The Irish paper and packaging tycoon is about to realise one of his cherished ambitions: in September, Ireland will host the 36th Ryder Cup at the K Club, the County Kildare country estate his company acquired in 1987. Sir Michael transformed it into a luxury hotel and golf venue, and has nurtured a dream to host the famous America-Europe tournament for nearly 20 years.

As he recalls telling David Adamson, his director of golf, in 1991: " 'One day, David, the Ryder Cup will be here.' He laughed at me as we stood at the first tee. Well, he's not laughing now."

It's a foolish person who underestimates Sir Michael, who was knighted for services to British business last year. Over four decades, along with his brothers Dermot, Jeff and Alan, he built up his father's company, Jefferson Smurfit, into a business worth billions. When it was first floated on the Irish Stock Exchange in 1964, its market value was the equivalent of just €1.5m (£1m).

Much of the growth was born of necessity. "Back in the 1960s I could see that Irish industries were about to get clobbered when the government negotiated the Anglo-Irish free trade agreement," says Sir Michael. "We needed to get into new markets. I persuaded my father we should expand into England and America."

With his father convinced, the eldest son went on a spending spree. He found his early attempts to crack the US difficult, but evidently refused to let any prejudice stand in his way. "They used to look upon me as the Paddy over on the boat, chancing his luck. It's a mistake they only made once."

The acquisitions rolled and in 1998 Jefferson Smurfit Corporation, its US arm, merged with Stone Container Corporation of Chicago. The deal created Smurfit-Stone Container, America's largest producer of containerboard, and confirmed Jefferson Smurfit as a member of the global league, employing around 70,000 staff in more than 30 countries.

"To this day I cannot believe our competitors allowed us to get to this position," says Sir Michael, who started working in the family's box factory as a teenager in 1955. "In their shoes, I'd have taken pre-emptive steps to halt our growth."

His biggest deal, though, came four years later when he helped oversee the sale of Jefferson Smurfit to private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners for $3.5bn (£1.9bn). "I knew the shareholders would get the premium that the shares deserved by going this route," says Sir Michael.

He and his family are now worth £274m, and the head of the clan has all the usual trappings of wealth - appearances in the gossip columns, a home in Monaco and, apparently, one of the world's biggest yachts.

Not that Sir Michael has cashed in his chips to spend his days lounging on the yacht. He is chairman of Smurfit Kappa (Jefferson Smurfit changed its name in 2005 after acquiring Dutch rival Kappa Packaging), a substantial shareholder and chairman emeritus of Smurfit-Stone Container - a role he describes, with a smile, as "no pay and no say".

He also keeps abreast of developments through his 42-year-old son. "I was lucky to persuade Tony to join me in the business and he's now chief operating officer," he explains. "Lucky, because the packaging industry has to compete hard these days to attract and retain the brightest and the best."

Sir Michael also remains an active investor. The K Club, for instance, was originally acquired by Jefferson Smurfit but Sir Michael, along with property developer Gerry Gannon, now owns it after a buyout last year.

He readily admits to being impatient and still unable to kick the work bug even though he has just turned 70. "I'm now only travelling 300 hours per year and generally put in a six-hour day instead of 12." It remains a demanding schedule but he has never known any different. "I've been in the family business since I was 16 and learnt most of what I know from my father Jefferson. He was an enormous influence on my career."

These days his time is split between Ireland, the US and Monaco, where he is the honorary Irish consul. He has dual nationality (British and Irish) and is a tireless ambassador for Irish businesses and entre- preneurs from all walks of life. Among those he admires are Sir Philip Green, the Barclay brothers and fellow countryman the financier Dermot Desmond.

So what advice would one of Ireland's business elite give to an aspiring entrepreneur? "Find a niche, a speciality business, and stick with it. In my day the packaging industry was fragmented, decentralised and full of cartels. It was easier to get in under an umbrella and take the big boys on. Today, knocking on Proctor & Gamble's door trying to sell boxes as a newcomer is just a waste of time.

"Find a niche. And never give up. There'll be times when you want to - when you fail. That's when you have to stick with your ambition." Because as Sir Michael will attest in September, when his golf club finally plays host to one of the world's most prestigious sporting events, ambition can get you out of the rough and on to the leaderboard.

BIOGRAPHY

Sir Michael Smurfit

BORN: 7 August 1936.

CAREER

1955: joins Jefferson Smurfit, his father's company.

1967: appointed joint managing director of Jefferson Smurfit.

1969: deputy chairman.

1977: appointed chairman and chief executive.

1999: chairman, Smurfit-Stone Container.

2002: sells Jefferson Smurfit but retains chairmanship.

2003: made chairman emeritus of Smurfit-Stone Container.

2005: Jefferson Smurfit acquires Kappa Packaging, changing its name to Smurfit Kappa.

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