Sir Allen McClay: Philanthropist and entrepreneur whose Ulster pharmacy company thrived throughout the Troubles

Sir Allen McClay liked to describe himself as "one of the world's worst pharmacists", yet the world-leading pharmaceutical and biotech companies he created made him the most successful businessman Northern Ireland has yet produced and the most significant philanthropist the province has known.

Born the youngest of six children in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, in 1932, he attended Belfast College of Technology but said science was one of his weakest subjects. The "dramatic interest" he conceived in pharmacy at 16 he ascribed to the discovery that he would be paid five shillings a week if he was indentured for that, rather than having to pay for an apprenticeship as in most other trades or professions.

His family did not have the money to enable him to think of pursuing ambitions in the law or architecture, but one of his sisters had died of diphtheria at the age of seven and some of his most vivid childhood memories were of visiting a young girl with polio who was attached to an iron lung. Another "huge" influence was his Aunt Minnie, a local schoolteacher whose favourite saying was "the Lord will send you nuts when you have no teeth left".

So he worked hard at his pharmacy apprenticeship, qualified, and was offered a position managing a pharmacy in Co. Down. After two years he was recruited by Glaxo as a sales representative, and believed that he learnt his science and business in his 13 years visiting doctors, hospitals, clinics, chemists and vets. On the other hand he was aggrieved that he "never got an ounce of promotion". He acknowledged "altercations" with management, admitting: "I was never a great man to be subject to formalities."

In 1968 he started his own pharmaceuticals company; few imagined the enterprise, Galen, would last three months – and within a year Northern Ireland's "Troubles" began. Yet Galen survived and even prospered, growing throughout the decades of bloodshed and chaos. In 1997, a year after the ceasefire, he took the company public.

It made Galen Northern Ireland's first billion-pound company and McClay a rich man (the Sunday Times Rich List at one time estimated his wealth at around £300m). But that made little difference to his distinctive lifestyle or management methods. "I hate caviare and champagne gives me flatulence," he said. For years he drove the same Renault Safran (which, he claimed, doubled in value when he filled its tank), he did not have a reserved car park space and his offices were functional rather than lavish.

In the early days he was known for his habit of interrogating staff in the company kitchen while cooking their lunch. Some took detours if the boss was peeling spuds, but the camaraderie earned the loyalty of employees – and the boss was as dedicated to his people as they were to him.

So when it became apparent in 2001 that Galen's purchase of a US company, Warner Chilcott, meant that the board intended to focus on the US and cut up to 800 jobs in the company's home town of Craigavon, Co. Armagh, McClay was having none of it.

"The people I worked with had been my family since 1968, and now they were being scattered to the four winds", he explained. He consulted a local lawyer about buying Galen's Craigavon divisions, and was told there would be legal problems because he was Galen's non-executive chairman and on the board. McClay rang the lawyer next morning. "I've solved all the legal issues," he said. "I've resigned". The decision, he said, was "as easy as taking off dirty socks".

Inspired by a meeting with Professor Patrick Johnston from the Cancer Research Unit at Queen's University about his work using chip technology to test for colorectal cancer, Allen McClay started out anew. At 69, when most men would have retired (McClay did not like boats or too much sun, but he was a keen golfer), he decided he had "done nothing worth writing about ... I knew I'd missed something with Galen. I didn't have the involvement in hi-tech original research. That's exciting. You're opening oysters and waiting to see if you got the pearl."

He rented an empty Portakabin opposite the offices of the multi-national he had founded and in which he was still majority shareholder. He up-ended an old oil drum and got down to business on his mobile.

Soon his new company, Almac Sciences, was back in control of the Craigavon jobs. He acquired the Galen name, moved back into the Galen offices, and, quoting Aunt Minnie ("If you're going to launch big ships you have to go where the water's deep") he took his new company into America.

Almac's work covers areas such as cancer, AIDS and cardiovascular disease. "It isn't gold standard, it's platinum standard in medical terms," McClay said. It is also one of Northern Ireleand's biggest companies, with a turnover of £167m, employing 1,300 in Craigavon and another 800 in the US.

In 1997 McClay established the McClay Trust which donated £20m to Queen's University, and funded the £3.5m McClay Research Centre at the School of Pharmacy, opened in 2002.

Last year he vested his personal wealth (recently estimated at £190m) in the McClay Foundation, a charitable trust focused on cancer research. On a trip to view progress on Almac's new US headquarters in Philadelphia McClay was taken ill with cancer. He married his partner, Heather Topping, a former employee who had been at his side for many years, in hospital in Philadelphia in November.

Robin Young

Allen McClay, businessman and philanthropist: born Cookstown, Co Tyrone 21 March 1932; OBE 1994, CBE 2000, Kt 2006; married 2009 Heather Topping; died Philadelphia 12 January 2010.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil