He’s one of Ireland’s best known business people and has enjoyed considerable success over the years, both in his executive roles and, more recently, on the boards of some of the country’s top organisations, but commerce was not part of Jerry Liston’s original career plan.
About Jerry Liston
“I was very influenced by my father, who was a lawyer, so I said, well I’ll do law,” he explains. “It wasn’t very thought out and I remember at career guidance sessions feeling very chirpy because I’d made my mind up what I was going to do. When I was in college I suddenly realised I hated law!
“My father had also done economics, so I thought I’d do that too. I was very taken by the whole supply and demand thing, the sort of micro-economics stuff.”
After completing a BA in economics and then his law degree, and subsequently being called to the bar in 1962, Liston decided to go into business.
He started out as a management trainee in PJ Carrolls and, after learning the ropes, moved into sales and marketing, where he quickly impressed.
At Carrolls, he met the first of two people he credits with strongly influencing his business life. “John Lepere was the marketing guru in Carrolls and he basically brought marketing to Ireland. I learnt so much from him.”
Put in charge of Rothman’s, he managed to reposition the brand in the Irish market over the next couple of years. “It was my first real success in the business world. So when I went to them and said I’d love to do an MBA, they actually said yes.”
He wanted to do the MBA in order to improve himself, he explains. “I always had that instinct within myself, probably still have it. People talked about the MBA as a sort of licence or entry into being more successful in business.
“The MBA completely changed my life,” he adds, stressing the impact of a number of people on the teaching side, including Michael Mac Cormac and Tony Cunningham. “It turned me from being a pure marketeer to being a completely rounded business person. That really prepared me for the world.”
However, it was very demanding time-wise, he says. “I was reasonably good at sport in my mid-20s but I gave up because I just did nothing but the MBA. But it did pay dividends. I learnt a huge amount that I never would have learnt in an informal sense.”
In 1968, after finishing joint top of his class, he was determined to do something with what he’d learnt. At the time, Carrolls had ambitions to move away from cigarettes and he spent the next few months putting together the case for buying Bolands. “Don Carroll turned down the idea and two of us who worked on that left the company within three months.”
There followed a short stint at Urney Chocolates, part of WR Grace, which, while a “mistake”, taught him how multinationals work and about shareholders’ expectations.
He then spent four years in Warner Lambert, where he was in charge of production and, for the most part, responsible for the Irish operation.
In 1974 Martin Rafferty, who he describes as the other major influence on his professional life, invited him to come and run pharmaceutical wholesaler United Drug. “He told me it was making £100,000 a year – that was true. What he didn’t tell me was there were brackets around that £100,000!
“It was really quite a dramatic 27 years after that. We took it from being a very poor third in Ireland to being in the top three in Europe.”
Key factors in the company’s growth, says Liston, included differentiating the service provided to chemists – his team developed a process whereby United Drug could deliver invoices with deliveries, which was pioneering at the time and saved customers time and effort – and developing partnerships with and offering more services to the manufacturers, who had traditionally been regarded by pharmaceutical wholesalers as the enemy.
In 1986 came a management-led buyout at the company. “And that was the start of running a plc. In 1988 we went on the smaller market and in 1990 went on Irish and London stock exchanges.
“From then until when I retired in 2000 it was non-stop servicing the needs of fund managers, who basically owned chunks of the company. And life didn’t have the fun that it did before. It’s very demanding: every half year you had to make sure you produced growth and you also had to be prepared to answer whatever the stock question was they had at that stage, and to answer it convincingly without giving anything away. It created a lot of pressure.
“Now, we did grow dramatically. We expanded the company out of Ireland. The focus was on what we could do for the manufacturers who were partners rather than enemies. And that kind of philosophy drove the company all the time.”
Liston was scheduled to retire in 2002, but opted to leave in 2000 at the age 60. “I meet people now who are at the behest of fund managers who want results all the time. It becomes extremely demanding. I thought it would burn me out.
“So I escaped, if you like, in September 2000. That’s when my life really started to become interesting!
“Twenty-seven years in United Drug was utterly focused on one business, where all I was interested in was just improving the bottom line and the company’s rating in the market. And we did dramatically improve it. From the time that we bought it to the time that I retired, the value of the company had increased by about 15-fold. It was a totally different company and with great prospects for the future.”
While his immediate plan was to play golf and sail, Rafferty suggested that he visit the Smurfit Business School, which was looking for an executive chairman after the retirement of Laurence Crowley.
“I literally went from retiring on a Friday to going straight into the Smurfit Business School on the Monday, which was not exactly part of the plan!
“I also started to get involved in lots of other companies and that was really interesting,” he says.
Some of the companies he has worked with over the last 12 years as a non-executive director or chairman have included NTR, BWG, Balcas and the Irish Aviation Authority.
He served as chairman of the Smurfit School until 2005 and is still on its advisory board, as well as being a non-executive director of Glanbia and on the board of Cricket Ireland.
“The last 10 or 12 years have been fantastic. I did sail and play golf and didn’t have the pressure of having to produce results, so I was a much more relaxed person.”
He credits the MBA with much of his professional success and opportunities. “The MBA was the most important thing I did in my life in business terms. It completely changed my life. I probably would have stayed in Carrolls and retired there a pretty disillusioned person if the MBA hadn’t happened.
For the future, he says he will continue to welcome new and interesting challenges. “As long as I can contribute somewhere I’ll always want to do that.”