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Ben Dunne obituary: Larger than life, the ‘big fella’ always bounced back



Born: March 11th, 1949

Died: November 18th, 2023

Ben Dunne, who has died at the age of 74, was a resolutely tough businessman who cultivated an affable, no-nonsense, public persona. He prided himself on his capacity to drive the hardest of bargains and deliver the best price for his consumers and – crucially – the healthiest profits for his businesses.

He played a pivotal role in the expansion of Dunnes Stores, the enterprise grown by his father Ben snr from a draper’s shop on St Patrick’s Street in Cork, into the largest retail chain in the country with about 100 stores and a turnover of close to £1 billion at the time of his departure.

Dunne was ousted from the family business that carried his name in a bitter dispute following a highly publicised cocaine-fuelled panic attack in the company of an escort in a Florida hotel in 1992, which led to his arrest and a subsequent fine. The episode was, it turned out, key to unlocking one of the biggest political scandals in the history of the State.

This was all after he had been the central character in a kidnapping drama that might have come to define the life of another person. In his life, it provided something of a footnote – albeit a terrifying one – in the story of one of Ireland’s most high-profile business people over the course of a career spanning six decades.

Despite all the controversies and setbacks – some of which might have seen him disappear entirely from public life – he did quite the opposite. After three dramatic falls from grace in the space of five turbulent years in the 1990s, he grew his profile considerably and set up the profitable chain of gyms which carry his name.

Born in Cork on March 11th, 1949, to Ben and Nora Dunne, he was the youngest of six children. He left school early to join the family business and first came to widespread public attention in 1981 for the worst of reasons.

While en route to visit a newly opened Dunnes Stores branch in Newry, he was kidnapped by the IRA and held for a week before being released into a graveyard, where he climbed into an empty grave before making his escape on foot. Reports have suggested a substantial ransom had been paid to his abductors, though the details remain disputed.

Days after his release, showing he was not to be cowed, Dunne returned to work. His fierce drive and commitment to the family business were rewarded when he took over the running of the empire in 1983, following the death of his father.

Under Dunne, the company had a staunch anti-union policy and did not engage in collective bargaining, refusing to bend to the will of its employees even when such a refusal would see it fall firmly on the wrong side of history. In the late 1980s, a group of Dunnes Stores workers refused to handle South African produce in a stand against apartheid. They took to the picket lines after a cashier involved in the protest was suspended.

Dunne subsequently apologised publicly to the former cashier, Mary Manning, who had been suspended because of her conscientious objection to the business practices adopted by her employer. But in an interview with this newspaper a decade ago, he defended the approach taken by the company at the time on “commercial” grounds.

A self-described “aggressive retailer”, he was behind the bread wars of the early 1980s, which shook up the bakery sector. The opening salvos were fired when he did a deal with a bakery that agreed to sell Dunnes Stores its loaves for 19p, allowing him to put them on his shelves for 29p, far below the 55p branded products were selling for.

The fury of the established bakeries prompted government ministers to intercede in an attempt to get Dunnes Stores to increase their prices. When he refused to bend to their will, legislation was introduced which prohibited below-cost selling something that was – at least in part – responsible for the higher than necessary prices paid by Irish consumers for a full two decades after that.

The government’s move to prop up an industry and reward it for what he believed to be their inefficiencies still rankled with Dunne decades after he had moved on from the grocery business.

In 1992, Dunne’s life appeared to have come off the rails after he went on a golfing holiday to Florida and ended up splashed all over the newspapers at home.

On the night in question, while reportedly alone in his hotel room, he launched into a cocaine binge, before ringing an escort service. He subsequently suffered a panic attack, threatening to throw himself from a balcony. Hotel security was called and the businessman was arrested before eventually being fined for possession of the drug.

The high-profile arrest and the subsequent mea cupla across multiple media outlets did not sit easily with his siblings who valued their privacy enormously and a majority of them moved against him, forcing him out of the family business a year later, with a reported payout of about £100 million softening the blow.

His sister, Margaret Heffernan, took over and remains an indomitable presence in the family firm more than 30 years on.

The family feud and his acrimonious departure, marked by a steady stream of legal papers, led to revelations that would – almost by chance – reshape Ireland and, at least to some degree, alter the course of its history.

In 1996 it emerged that building work worth hundreds of thousands of pounds had been carried out at the Tipperary home of the then Fine Gael minister for communications, Michael Lowry, on the Dunnes Stores dime, with the payments carefully masked in the company accounts. The revelations led almost instantly to the resignation of Lowry as minister. But more was to come.

Not long after the first whisperings of the scandal became public, this newspaper reported that that former taoiseach Charles Haughey had been given £1.1 million by Dunne. The revelations about both Lowry and Haughey sparked a series of tribunals and a wave of revelations. Perhaps the best known was Dunne’s account that, as well as the £1.1 million paid to Haughey through offshore accounts, he had personally called to the former Taoiseach’s house and given him three cheques to the value of another £210,000. He said Haughey had responded to the retailer’s largess with a terse “thanks Big Fella”.

The fallout ultimately led to tens of millions of pounds that Ireland’s elite had secretly stashed in off-shore accounts, free from the gaze of the tax man. The Irish Times had reported that Dunne’s payments to Haughey had been channelled through accounts in the Cayman Islands, via company known as Ansbacher (Cayman). The McCracken tribunal uncovered what became known as the Ansbacher Accounts, a scheme established in the 1970s by Haughey’s former accountant, Des Traynor which enabled wealthy Irish people to hide money on the Caribbean island, while still having easy access to it closer to home through the Guinness & Mahon Bank.

After the media glare of the tribunal years, Dunne focused his energy on fitness. He set up a chain of gyms that carried his name, once again offering a no-frills cheap as chips model of enterprise. While the gyms were basic, they were often significantly cheaper than their rivals and attracted thousands of members in a burgeoning sector.

He had some high-profile business failures too – most notably, his foray into online trading with the short-lived, which he set up to rival established online sales planforms. Technical glitches blighted the site from the offset, and it shut shortly after it opened. The businessman admitted he had underestimated the challenges such an enterprise presented, describing its rise and fall as a “disaster”.

While others might have shied away from the media after the scandals and the controversy, Dunne enthusiastically embraced the platform he had been given and spoke frequently and openly about his problems with drugs and his struggles with mental health.

Paying tribute to him, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he “really was larger than life”. He said Dunne was a man who “led a life less ordinary and in turn, he made some mistakes in life. The best people do. He never allowed that to defeat him or hold him back. He touched the lives of tens of thousands who will mourn his loss.”

Dunne is survived by his wife, Mary, and their four children Caroline, Robert, Nicholas and Mark.

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