The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has praised Gary Kennedy, the leading executive and company director who died earlier this week, for his contribution to Irish business life. “Gary Kennedy made a significant impact on the business world,” Varadkar said. 

Kennedy was appointed by Varadkar as the first joint chairperson of “Balance for Better Business”, an initiative established to achieve more diverse boards and leadership teams. The Taoiseach said Kennedy’s contribution to the goals of this group had been an important one.

“He made a major contribution and achieved great results in promoting women at senior levels in business. I wish to express my sincere condolences to Gary’s family and friends,” he said. 

Varadkar was one of a number of leaders in the public and private sectors to praise Kennedy, who had a remarkable career as an executive and boardroom titan over many decades before his passing at the age of just 65.

Kennedy was previously a senior executive at AIB and Nortel Networks Europe as well as chairperson of Greencore, Green Reit, Goodbody Stockbrokers, Norcros Plc, and the Connect Group. He also served as a non-executive director of private sector companies including pharma company Elan and Friend’s First, as well as serving the state as a former director of the IDA and the state-owned IBRC after Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide were nationalised. Kennedy was also a former director of homeless charity Focus Ireland. He began his career with Deloitte.  

Dr Orlaigh Quinn, secretary general of the Department of Enterprise, said she knew Kennedy from a range of business fora. “Gary was a major figure, with impact, in Ireland’s business sector. He always contributed, through his knowledge of certain sectors, his connections across industry and, more importantly, by always being willing to engage and find positive ways forward,” she said.

“I saw Gary at his best in his role as joint chair of Balance for Better Business,” she added. “Gary believed strongly in using all of the talent available, not just 50 per cent.” 

Quinn added: “He understood that having diversity of views and experience enhanced and enriched the overall effectiveness and decision-making processes in companies. Therefore, he very strongly promoted women moving into senior positions. When he accepted the first joint chair role, with Bríd Horan, he took on responsibility for leading on the establishment of the group, setting the targets and a major outreach programme to promote gender at the most senior levels in Irish business.

“It has achieved excellent results to date and this is due to Gary’s leadership, commitment and a challenge to the Irish business community to do better.” 

Bríd Horan, the Chancellor of DCU, first met Kennedy in April 1996 when they joined the board of the IDA on the same day. “Gary’s experience and understanding of foreign direct investment in Ireland as well as the challenges we faced were obvious,” Horan said. “Having worked in international business and in the technology sector, he was a leading board contributor as Ireland’s FDI sector grew and indeed when the inevitable challenges arose.”

Horan set up the 30% Club in Ireland along with Carol Andrews, Marie O’Connor and others in 2015 to push for more women on Irish boards and senior management teams. “Gary immediately agreed to join this Advisory Board and was a key player in supporting us as we engaged with Chairs and CEOs, rapidly building an effective organisation which is having a real impact in increasing female membership on the boards of leading Irish businesses,” Horan said. “There are now some 300 Chairs, CEOs and equivalents supporting the drive.”

Horan and Kennedy then co-chaired Balance for Better Business. “There is much still to be achieved but Gary and I were heartened to report both engagement and progress:  in 2015 12 per cent of Board members of Ireland’s leading 20 listed companies were female, by 2018 when Balance for Business set targets this had risen to 18 per cent and when we handed over the co-chair roles to Julie Sinnamon and Aongus Hegarty in 2021, we were delighted to report that this had grown to 30 per cent. The focus is being maintained by the new co-chairs and by our review group colleagues, who are also deeply saddened by Gary’s death.”

Horan said like his other friends she was moved by the number of people who expressed sadness at Kennedy’s passing. “Many didn’t work closely with Gary but they were impressed by his visible leadership, his commitment and effectiveness,” she said. “For those of us who worked more closely with him, we will also miss his warmth and his humour.”

“Quiet influence”

Kennedy was a friend of Gary McGann, the chair of Flutter Entertainment and former chief executive of Smurfit Kappa. McGann served with Kennedy on the board of Green Reit. “I had enormous regard for Gary,” McGann reflected. “He was a big man in every respect – physique, intellect, and influence, without ever needing to throw his weight around either practically or metaphorically.

“He was the epitome of ‘quiet influence’ and never tried to demonstrate being the smartest guy in the room, which he quite often was. He handled good news and adversity with equanimity and was tenacious in his desire for positive outcomes in all things that mattered. He was wonderful company – interesting and fun to be with in every respect. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have known him and the world is a poorer place for his passing.”

Kennedy also served on the board of IBRC for three years until the state decided to liquidate it in 2013. Former Fine Gael finance minister, Alan Dukes, who chaired IBRC, praised Kennedy for his contribution as a director of the bank.

“Gary was a committed and invaluable member of the IBRC board and brought a wealth of experience and insight to the issues we had to confront,” he said. “He willingly took on a number of complex matters concerning subsidiary activities. Calm, good humour, and wisdom were his trademarks. I offer my sincere condolences to his family and friends.”

Gary Kennedy was chairman of Greencore for 11 years, after previously being a non-executive director. He was a mentor to Patrick Coveney who was made chief executive of the company at just 37 in 2005.

“Gary was enormously helpful, particularly when I was starting out as a young CEO,” Coveney recalled. “He had extensive business, corporate, and life experience which he shared generously with me.” 

He added: “For a man of enormous talent he had a very low ego and was extraordinarily humble. He empowered me as a CEO to get on with running the company while he chaired the board and provided ongoing counsel, support, and challenge to me.” 

Coveney said Kennedy was a brilliant chair in both good and hard times. “Some chairs can be cheerleaders on the good days but can’t be found on the bad ones,” he said. “When we had challenges like the horsemeat scandal or our very large scale up in America and exit two years later, his focus was always on what was the right thing to do.”

Kennedy had immense integrity he said and was always engaged and open: “As a person, Gary was also wonderful fun. He appeared to hardly ever sleep. He had great stories but he was focused more on listening rather than telling – that was how he engaged.” 

Coveney said he appreciated Kennedy’s support when he decided to step down from Greencore to become chief executive of SSP Group. “Gary gave his full support and helped lead the company through that transition,” Coveney said. “There was no bitterness or frustration at all towards me during that period. I will be forever grateful to Gary.”  

Patrick Kennedy, the governor of the Bank of Ireland and former chief executive of Paddy Power, was also a friend. They got to know each other serving as non-executive directors of pharma company Elan.

“Gary was a thoroughly decent person: low ego, always fair, always straight. He also had excellent judgement – both of business situations and of people.” 

“These traits led to him being highly sought-after, in both the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, to which he gave very generously of his time. It was a real pleasure to know him.”

“Rock-like in the face of anything that came at us”

Gary Kennedy was a non-executive director on the board of pharmaceutical company Elan from May 2005 to its sale for €6.3 billion to US-based Perrigo in November 2013. He joined the board as Elan emerged from near bankruptcy a few years earlier before plunging into a second crisis after its potential pipeline of Alzheimer’s treatments failed, and the business was again righted before being sold.

Solicitor John Given was an advisor to Elan for years, first as a partner with A&L Goodbody before joining the firm as general counsel and senior vice president from 2012 to the end of 2013. “We faced every conceivable variation of challenges and turbulence at Elan,” Given recalled. “But Gary was always wise, reflective and rock-like in the face of anything that came at us.

“He served as a director at a time when there were a lot of big decisions to be made. Gary was someone always willing to stand up and take a view. He had great judgement and was prepared to be brave. In terms of Elan’s recovery, he was a very important voice around the boardroom table.” 

Now a managing partner with KPMG Law Ireland, Given said he was shocked at Kennedy’s passing: “Gary was a friend to me and so many. He was very generous with his time and experience. I would like to send my condolences to his family.”  

Billy Andrews was an executive in AIB when Kennedy joined the bank in late 1996 from Nortel. “I first met Gary in Copenhagen Airport on a Sunday afternoon sometime in 1997,” he recalled. “It was almost his ‘first day in AIB’ and we were travelling to Poland for his first Board Meeting of AIB’s subsidiary, Bank Zachodni WBK. He had a photo to help him find me! I have very fond memories of our several trips to Poland, with our esteemed colleague the late Dave McCrossan.”  

“As well as becoming a good friend, he was an outstanding work colleague and a great asset to AIB. He was bright, commercial and incisive, but also engaging, informal and quick witted. Above all, he was a good man and a decent man – and I feel fortunate to have known him.”

Gary Kennedy believed in the value of education and diversity at the boardroom table, recalls Maura Quinn, the chief executive of the Institute of Directors from 2008 until last year. “Gary was a member of the IoD and he reached out very early on offering to help,” Quinn recalled. “He was extraordinarily giving of his time on a pro-bono basis.”

Kennedy’s experience as a director she said was invaluable. “Gary was very committed to improving the governance landscape in Ireland. He saw the legacy and impact of what happens when things go wrong,” Quinn said. “Gary wanted directors to be very professional. He was always extraordinarily well-prepared when he joined our board. He didn’t always say a lot but when he did it was meaty and with real substance. He had an incredible breadth of experience in business,” she said.

She said Kennedy had also worked with the IoD and other organisations on encouraging more diversity at the boardroom table. “It was innate in him. It wasn’t about being perceived to do the right thing, he saw having more women on boards as a huge opportunity to bring more talent to the table.” 

Gary Kennedy is survived by his children Daire, Eimear and their mother Annette, his partner Mary and her son Rory, the Kennedy and the Curley family, relatives, and many friends.

Further reading

Chairman of the boards: Gary Kennedy’s 2019 interview with Tom Lyons