Tony O’Reilly, former Heinz CEO and Irish rugby star, dies at 88

Anthony O’Reilly, former CEO of H.J. Heinz Co. and one of Ireland’s wealthiest men, has died at 88. Renowned for his contributions to sports, business, and media, O’Reilly led Heinz for three decades and played international rugby. Despite amassing a fortune, failed investments significantly impacted his wealth. He was instrumental in shaping Ireland’s media landscape and established the Ireland Funds, promoting philanthropy worldwide.

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By Shiyin Chen and Donal Griffin

Anthony O’Reilly, the Dublin native who became chief executive officer of ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. and once one of Ireland’s richest men, has died. He was 88.

“It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Tony O’Reilly,” Ireland’s Prime Minister Simon Harris said in a statement Saturday. O’Reilly “was a giant of sport, business and media and left permanent legacies in all three.”   

A former international rugby player who enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle, O’Reilly helped lead Heinz for about three decades while he amassed a personal fortune. The Sunday Times newspaper ranked O’Reilly as Ireland’s second-richest man in 2007 before soured investments cost him much of his fortune.

O’Reilly’s fame in Ireland stretches back more than 60 years, having made his international debut for the Irish rugby team in 1955. He also played for the British and Irish Lions, a team combined of the best players from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

While playing international rugby, O’Reilly began his business career with an advertising campaign for Kerrygold butter, which he described as “the biggest success of my life,” according to Ivan Fallon’s biography The Luck of O’Reilly

He was hired soon after by Heinz, where he climbed to become CEO of the Pittsburgh-based food producer in 1979. The Irishman urged his managers to ensure their costs were lower than competitors’ in every line of business while investing in branding and steering the company into overseas markets, according to David Sculley, a top Heinz executive until 1996.

While helping to lead Heinz, O’Reilly began to build stakes in publisher Independent News & Media Plc — one of Ireland’s largest media companies — and crystal maker Waterford Wedgwood Plc. He was also later part of a consortium that acquired Irish phone company Eircom Group.

After he stepped down as Heinz CEO in 1998, O’Reilly returned to Ireland and helped run Waterford Wedgwood and INM.  

While O’Reilly had helped turn Waterford Wedgwood into the world’s biggest premier crystal and ceramics group, the company went into receivership in 2009 after a period of decline. O’Reilly and his brother-in-law and fellow investor Peter Goulandris lost about €400 million ($435 million) combined on the company’s collapse, the Irish Times reported in June 2014.

O’Reilly also had to step down as INM CEO in 2014 after a long-running feud with billionaire investor Denis O’Brien. He had spent about €350 million buying INM shares in a failed effort to fend off O’Brien, who went on to become the company’s biggest shareholder, the Irish Times had reported. 

The businessman also helped to establish the Ireland Funds, a major cross-community philanthropic organization for the island and for Irish communities around the world. 

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