How I plan to spend €660m – Tony Smurfit

CEO Smurfit Kappa on why now is the right time for a war-chest

Tony Smurfit That Great Business Show E14

‘Clogs to clogs in three generations’ is an aphorism so often used that, presumably, there is some science behind it. What it means is that families have been known to start poor, make wealth and go back to relative poverty over those three generations.

Of course, there are always exceptions to rules, the Smurfit family being an excellent example of that. Their business was started three generations ago by the late Jefferson Smurfit. It was taken over by one of the giants of Irish business, Michael Smurfit, who transformed the packaging conglomerate in the 1980’s. It was a quoted company, it was brought private and then refloated. Michael stepped away from the business but his son Tony Smurfit had started his climb up from the very bottom (deliberately done by his dad) to the very top of the €9 billion market cap organisation that he now has led for the past five years. During that time Tony has faced the same criticism that faces all leaders, he has faced down a takeover bid by International Paper and most recently he has overseen the raising of a €660 million war-chest to take advantage of whatever spoils Covid may leave in its wake.

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A family legacy

Being named Smurfit is a definite advantage in the paper and packaging business as it’s assumed that you know all there is to be known about the industry. But it’s also a burden in that you are lumbered, constantly, with comparisons as well as some undoubtedly snide comments that the journey to the top was made easy due to having the Smurfit name. However, there’s little sentiment in business and if a leader doesn’t perform, he or she is, to put it colloquially, out on their respective ears. It could be argued that Tony must over-perform to stay standing, so no pressure then. Listen to the Tony Smurift interview and make up your own minds whether being called Smurfit is a help or a hindrance, or possibly both?

Tony Smurfit, Sharon Smurfit and Dr Michael Smurfit

Son of the father

Interesting in our chat with Smurfit Kappa (following a merger with Kappa) CEO we learn that he rings his dad, Monaco resident Michael, twice a day. This is a measure of the respect that the son has for the father. Having steered a small company onto the world stage Michael has seen it all and knows who’s who, and what’s what, so presumably there’s no better mentor to run things by? But there are others who advise Tony and he was fulsome in his praise of his CFO Ken Bowles and equity adviser Mark Kenny for coming up with the idea of raising well over half a billion Euro ‘just in case’.

He was also quick to say that he won’t be retiring. More precisely he said his time may come at Smurfit Kappa but that he would continue in business always because it’s not work, it’s what he enjoys. As a director of several different companies across different sectors he still feels he would like to stay in an industry close, but not competing, with Smurfit Kappa, should he ever down tools at the Clonskeagh, Dublin based multinational.

46,000 employees worldwide

He is very specific that one thing he loves is meeting with his colleagues that number 46,000 across 35 countries. During Covid he does this by arranging 3 Zoom or Team calls a day, lasting over 30 minutes each and involving up to 15 senior facility managers on each call – that’s a lot of concentrated calling every day of the week, especially when you consider every time zone across the world that he must accommodate. But again, you’ll hear in his candid answers, it’s a pleasure for him to maintain those contacts. (Pre-Covid Tony used to travel up to 250 days a year, visiting those plants in person – and there’s no private Smurfit jet!).

American football

We learn that for downtime, beside his well-known love of bloodstock, that Tony finds betting on American football a frustration as he so rarely gets it right. A discussion about American football leads nicely into Tony and Irish rugby legend and co-host Jamie Heaslip discussing the wonders of the incredible athlete, Patrick Mahomes – a man whose sporting prowess may have led to the dropping of some Smurfit dollars along the way.

All in all a nice man, proving you don’t have to be nasty to be good in business and hopefully also proving, equally, that ‘clogs to clogs’ need not be true.