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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform