Remembering ‘bean baron’ O’Reilly’s Australian legacy

May 20, 2024 at 02:56 pm by admin

Sporting hero, “bean baron” and according to The Guardian, “Ireland’s “best known and most flamboyant businessman”, Sir Tony O’Reilly, who has died aged 88, was best known in news media circles for his transformation of the former Provincial North Queensland chain.

It happened almost by chance: during a radio interview, the famed rugby international picked up that News Limited – which had finally succeeded in buying the Herald & Weekly Times – would have to offload the regional NSW and Queensland mastheads to meet competition laws.

He was immediately on the ball, capturing the business later to become APN News & Media for a reported $150 million.

But he was not the purchaser, as has been reported, with News’ 48 per cent interest in the newspapers and real estate actually passing to a trust for his children, whose Australian citizenship (through mother, Australian pianist Susan Cameron) avoided the inconvenience of foreign ownership legislation.

What followed was a dream run for the regional business, which was to evolve through acquisition into one of the country’s premier radio broadcasters, despite the battles O’Reilly frequently had on his hands.

Famously, O’Reilly led Heinz for 20 years, first as UK managing director and eventually as its first family chairman, and owned at one time or another, a variety of businesses including Waterford Wedgwood, and UK daily The Independent (sold to Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev).

Newspaper and broadcasting interests spanned the world beyond Ireland to include not only Australia but New Zealand (now NZME.) and South Africa.

He had channeled millions into Irish publisher Independent News and Media – which acted as parent of APN – becoming executive chairman in 2000, only to have regulators accuse him of “abuse of a dominant position”, and be forced to step down following an attack by fellow shareholder (and billionaire) Denis O’Brien. Ironically, from once being Ireland’s richest man, he was declared bankrupt in 2015.

In Australia, he also battled with Kerry Packer and Conrad Black for control of then rival John Fairfax. His son, Cameron, who had joined INM as a marketing executive, moved to Australia to run APN, a position briefly occupied by News Corp Australia’s current executive chairman Michael Miller, who had left News to take it up. Miller later drove the purchase of ANM’s newspapers for bargain basement $36 million. The broadcast and outdoor interests were briefly Here, There & Everywhere and are now known as ARN Media.

An obituary this week included a 2007 picture of him at the INM print centre in Newry, Northern Ireland, which had been equipped with a ground-breaking hybrid Goss FPS press (pictured) which I was fortunate to see myself for GXpress in 2008.

In Australia, O’Reilly drove the modernization of APN’s string of slightly-antiquated print sites, somewhat controversially bringing Indian press maker Manugraph to all but one of the new locations. All of these have now been closed with the exception of Rockhampton, which News Corp Australia sold to the up-and-coming Today Group. Pinnacle of this achievement was (and is) Yandina on the Queensland Sunshine Coast, where a tightly-specced hybrid manroland Regioman took over what remained of News’ Queensland print workload following the closure of its Murarrie site.

Sir Anthony O’Reilly, who was the father of six children, died on May 18 after a short illness, aged 88.

Peter Coleman

Sections: Newsmedia industry


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