Castleknock College Union

Neil McCann, class '41

1924 - 2011

Jul 26, 2011
Neil McCann, class '41 -

The Union was saddened to hear that Neil McCann, class '41, passed away Tuesday evening, the 26th July 2011.

Requiescat in Pace.

Many more tributes have been made over the last number of days to Neil McCann’s extraordinary business career that spanned 5 decades and multiple continents, but to those who came in contact with Neily, their lasting impression was his innate modesty and amazing generosity. Neily never talked about his own achievements and accomplishments rather preferring to spend his time understanding what you were doing, how your family were and introducing you to someone with shared interests and connections. Neily had the common touch, whether you met him through his many business interests or were a 14 year old in Castleknock tagging along with one of his 5 sons, Carl (class '71), Neil (class '74). David (class '76), Patrick (class '80) and Christopher (class '83), he devoted his full attention to you, eager to know who you were and where you were from.

As a friend and classmate of his son, Chris, in both St Mary’s College, Dundalk, and Castleknock College my memories of Neil McCann go back almost all of my life. My family’s connections predate that by some time. My brother Fr James Murphy CM is also a friend and classmate of David and my father (Dr Philip Murphy) was in St Marys and Castleknock and a team mate of his in the Dundalk rugby team of the late 40’s. Whether it was myself, my brother or my father or indeed the rest of our family, our admiration for Neil was and remains unbounded. All of us have stories to tell about Neil, some humorous, some serious but all end in an act of generosity or kindness by this remarkable man.

We also remember him as a Knock man, who was always available to lend a hand to advise pastmen who knocked on his door. He epitomised the social and caring nature that the college aims to engender in all past men, and with his devoted wife Mary he instilled those qualities in his daughter Christina and his five sons. Many will remember his hospitality either while in his home or sharing a drink before going on to Lansdowne Road. And to many of us who have had bereavements in our own families, we will remember fondly how devoted he was to paying respects at our time of loss.

Neil McCann was not only the greatest man I ever met but he was also the nicest. To be one or other is remarkable in itself but to combine both is the rarest thing of all. Whether it was Castleknock, Dromiskin, Dundalk, Ireland or around the world, Neily will be dearly missed. 


Former Fyffes chief executive and chairman Neil McCann has passed away.

Neil was widely known as the driving force that turned Fyffes in to a global power in the fruit distribution business and his accomplishments here are widely recognised.

The board of the fruit importation company, together with Fyffes executives and staff, have extended their deepest sympathies to Mr McCann’s wife Mary, his six children and his wider family.

In a statement this morning, Fyffes described Mr McCann as the driving force behind the creation and development of the company. After joining the business in the early 1950s, he spearheaded its growth for more than five decades.

"He enjoyed huge respect in the industry and will be sorely missed by all who knew him for his extraordinary vision and leadership, his passion for the business and his generosity and fairness to all," it said.

Mr McCann retired from Fyffes in December 2005.

Elder statesman of Irish business

NEIL McCANN, who has died aged 87, was the former chairman and chief executive of Fyffes, the fruit company he helped turn from modest beginnings in his native Co Louth into a global player with interests in Britain, mainland Europe and the Americas.

To many who worked with him, McCann’s death this week represented the end of an era. He was the elder statesman of the cohort of Irish entrepreneurs that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, whose legacy inspires many of today’s generation of business achievers.

Neil McCann (Neily to close friends) was born in 1924 into a family steeped in the fruit business. His grandfather, who came from Co Armagh, began exporting locally produced Bramley apples to Canada in the 1800s. In 1902, his father, Charles McCann, founded McCanns of Dundalk, the company that would eventually become Fyffes plc.

The young McCann attended St Mary’s in Dundalk and Castleknock College in Dublin, where he was a gold-medal student and a noted sportsman, playing rugby on the senior cup team. He won a bronze medal at the half-mile in the Leinster Colleges athletics championships in 1941.

After secondary school, he studied accountancy briefly but his entrepreneurial instinct prompted him to strike out at an early stage into the world of business where he speedily displayed the talents that were to drive his success: vision, energy, courage, leadership, perseverance and, that hard to measure but essential ingredient for many entrepreneurs, luck. This week colleagues recalled his ability to get along with people, relating to them in a way that made each feel special. This was exemplified in the case of a grower in Central America who, despite a language barrier that made conventional communication impossible, said he and McCann got on so well “because we can always embrace”.

McCanns of Dundalk began growing in the 1950s. Charles McCann was aided by his sons Jackie and Charlie. McCanns specialised in wholesaling and retailing, and in banana ripening, serving the counties of the northeast. The company was importing directly into Ireland on its own account and, uniquely, it had direct access to the London, Liverpool and Glasgow markets.

When Charles McCann and Jackie died within a year of each other, Neil McCann found himself, in 1954, in overall charge of the business. He claimed that, at the time, he “never intended to become involved in, never had a feeling for, the fruit trade”. However, he quickly got into his stride, driven by the urgency of dealing in highly perishable fresh produce.

In the 1950s, the business in Ireland was highly fragmented, comprising a large number of family-owned wholesalers and distributors, all competing with each other. McCann brought these firms together, increasing their relative strength in sourcing and in matching up to the emerging supermarket chains. His first step in the consolidation process was to establish United Fruit Importers of Ireland which became Fruit Importers of Ireland and then, following its stock exchange flotation, FII plc.

In 1986, the firm made its first overseas acquisition, buying Fyffes Group Ltd in the UK from Chiquita. Overnight, the group became a major player in the international fruit business. The move heralded a 25-year programme of expansion with more than 150 acquisitions throughout the UK, then continental Europe and ultimately into the US and Central and South America. Spearheaded by McCann’s drive and energy, Fyffes plc grew into one of the largest and most successful fresh produce companies in the world.

In 2006, the group was split into its two principal business segments, with Fyffes retaining the proprietary trade in bananas, pineapples and melons, and the wholesale and distribution activities transferred to the newly established Total Produce plc. Today, the two now independent companies have a combined turnover in excess of €3.3 billion, employ 6,000 people and have operations in more than 20 countries.

McCann had several notable interests outside his career. He was an early president of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce and a founder member of the Dundalk Economic Development Company. In 1986, he was closely involved in setting up the International Fund for Ireland and was a long-time member of its board. More recently, he devoted considerable time and energy to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

A keen sportsman in his prime, McCann won two Louth minor football championships with De La Salle and four provincial towns cups with Dundalk Rugby Club, including one as captain in 1948 when the team set a record of 20 consecutive wins. His interest in athletics resulted in his intervening to help settle a dispute between the athletics body Bord Luthchleas na hÉireann and four elite Irish runners before the 1988 Olympics.

He was a dedicated family man and devoted to his wife, Mary, whom he saw as a calm and quiet counterbalance to the endless rush of the business, and much more. They had six children: Carl, Neil, David, Patrick, Christopher and Christina.

He is survived by his wife and children and 16 grandchildren.

The Irish Times - Saturday, July 30, 2011