A life worth living according to Michael Smurfit

Michael Smurfit and Lindsey Nguyen of the full-time MBA class

Dr Michael Smurfit arrived into the Laurence Crowley boardroom in Smurfit College on Tuesday Sept 30th where the noise filled room of curious MBA and business students immediately fell into a quiet hush. He took his seat next to the Dean and then opened with a self deprecating ice breaker apologising for the inadequacy of his book. Result? Everyone immediately relaxed and warmed to their college namesake. Dr Smurfit proceeded to give a fascinating account of how he developed his empire and set up the Business School and shared some lessons learned along the way. Our very own Lindsey Nguyen (Full time MBA) did a great job as MC and posed some carefully crafted but pointed questions to Dr Smurfit which he duly answered.

What became quickly evident was a lot of his success was down to doing the obvious, like cutting costs, managing stocks and being a forward thinker in a time when everyone was looking inward instead of outward. What is also interesting is how Smurfit took a small Irish company to the top of the world in the area of wood and wood products, beating off rivals from countries with significant wood and native paper industries.

As per his autobiography A Life Worth Living, Dr Smurfit was the first Irish mega tycoon, who built a small family business into Ireland’s first multinational company and one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies. A particularly spectacular feat coming from a country with no indigenous wood industry to speak of. Dr Smurfit’s motto was “I must, I can and I will” and he did.

Having previously read his autobiography, it was great to see the man in person reflect on what he has achieved to date. I was particularly impressed when he outlined his decision to take Smurfit out of their most profitable business in the mid 1990’s, the newspaper print industry with gross margins of up to 50%, due to his realisation that newspaper print was becoming a Sunset industry. On hindsight it was a masterstroke but at the time it must have been a very risky strategy.

It also became evident through the Q & A session, Michael Smurfit, was and is more than just a successful businessman. While building the Smurfit empire he served as Chairman of Telecom Eireann from 1979 to 1991, supervising the transformation of an antiquated clack clack national telephone system to third generation digital networks, an essential foundation for the development of the Celtic Tiger. He also served for six years as Chairman of the Irish Racing Board, where he brought his business acumen and organisational skills to develop an important national industry. Separately, his vision led to the development of the K Club and the bringing of the Ryder Cup to Ireland in 2006 which he claims is the pinnacle of his career! An avid golfer, he also remarked (when questioned by my good self) that he had personally told Phil Mickelson his post Ryder Cup comments were very disappointing!

After the session ended he stayed around to sign books and I observed he asked every single student their name and where they came from and without fail related to everyone he spoke to the fact he knew of their home place, had a business there or planned to visit in the near future. It was in effect a masterclass in networking and relationship building from someone who understands that the combination of education, intelligence, integrity and the right attitude should lead to self fulfilment and hopefully personal success.

Listening to the man behind ‘A Life Worth Living’ was an hour well spent.

Cian Collins

FT MBA 2015