Reihill, John Philip (1933–2013), coal and oil importer, was born on 28 June 1933 in Lower Baggot Street, Dublin, the elder son of two sons and two daughters of John Reihill, a coal importer of Ailesbury Park, Dublin, originally from Co. Fermanagh, and his wife Elizabeth (née Stafford), from a wealthy Co. Wexford shipping family. The manager of his in-laws’ coal importing business, John senior developed close links with the ruling Fianna Fáil party and served as chairman of the state company responsible for obtaining, stockpiling, and distributing coal and turf during the wartime ‘Emergency’ (1939–45). In 1950 he bought a coal importing company, Tedcastle McCormick Ltd (‘Tedcastle’).
From 1942 John junior grew up in Deepwell, a nineteenth-century mansion in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, and was educated at Willow Park school, Blackrock; Belvedere College, Dublin; and Castleknock College, Co. Dublin. He was always intended for the family business but first trained as an accountant with a Dublin firm and then took a course in oil operations at Coryton refinery, England. He joined Tedcastle’s Cork office as a clerk in 1953, becoming head of the Cork and Waterford branches by 1957. In Cork he met a medical student, Emer Collins of Rossleague House, Cobh, Co. Cork, whom he married in 1956. During this period, he spent a year in the USA studying the coal and oil trades. He returned to Tedcastle’s Dublin headquarters in the late 1950s and settled with his wife in Deepwell where they raised three sons and three daughters.
As managing director from the early 1960s, he assisted his father in making Tedcastle the biggest player within Ireland’s shrinking coal trade. John senior had struck an exclusive supply contract with the Polish coal authority Weglokoks in 1957 before bringing in thirteen other Irish importers in 1962. This Polish coal cartel held ninety per cent of the Irish market by 1970, though sales competition continued between its members in Dublin. With most industries and some households switching from coal to oil, the Reihills diversified into warehousing, farming, a travel agency, and the importation of oil, fertilisers, steel, and machinery. In 1965 they exploited their eastern bloc connections to secure the Irish oil agency with the Soviet Union.
Upon his father’s death in 1971, John inherited the chairmanship of Tedcastle along with fifty-one per cent of its holding company, the rest going to his younger brother Frank, who became chief executive. As most of the oil imported by Tedcastle was shipped in Soviet tankers direct to the ESB, he sought to develop his small oil distribution line by investing £1 million in a 25,000-ton oil storage depot at Tolka Quay, Dublin. His boldness paid off when the terminal opened in October 1973 just as the Middle East oil crisis disrupted the supplies of the multinational corporations dominating the Irish market. Reihill prevented shortages by negotiating increased shipments from the Soviets, allowing him to supply over half the ESB’s oil in the mid-1970s and all CIÉ’s diesel for several decades from 1974.
Using its new blending facilities to offer a range of petroleum products for industrial, agricultural, hospital, and household users, Tedcastle Oil Products (TOP) sold wholesale in the Dublin area and went from having two per cent of the Irish market to at least ten per cent by 1977, mostly by selling heating oil. Enhancements to the Tolka Quay storage depot nearly trebled its capacity in 1977. In 1979 Tedcastle won the contract for managing the Soviet supplied refuelling depot established by Aer Rianta at Shannon Airport for the Soviet airline, Aeroflot. This became a useful earner in the 1980s when various charter and eastern bloc airlines started using Shannon as a refuelling base. Otherwise, the Soviets’ inability to increase their shipments further caused Reihill’s oil business to stagnate from the late 1970s.
Elsewhere, the Dublin coal market fell into his lap thanks to falling demand and pressure from state authorities for a more efficient distribution system. In September 1972 Tedcastle and four other companies, all signatories of the Polish supply contract, combined their greater Dublin area operations into Coal Distributors Limited (CDL), which handled half of Ireland’s coal imports. The Dublin Port and Docks Board provided a site for a large depot at Ringsend with a jetty and berth capable of docking bigger ships. CDL invested £1 million on redundancies and mechanisation and ended an exploitative casual labour system by guaranteeing employment and better conditions for its 300-odd workers. Reihill became chairman, Tedcastle being the largest, though not the majority, shareholder. His dominance of CDL rested on the fact that Tedcastle was the only Irish company that could negotiate with Weglokoks. Together with Tedcastle’s imports through Dundalk, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Sligo, the creation of CDL made Reihill the arbiter of the Irish coal trade.
The 1973 oil crisis boosted demand for coal before the Ringsend depot was fully operational, causing long delivery delays. It also allowed Weglokoks to impose an eighty per cent price increase. The resulting government inquiry into the coal trade accepted that CDL’s formation had reduced prices in the Dublin region while finding that the Polish coal importers made excessive margins and behaved like a cartel. As high oil prices led the Irish coal market to double between 1973 and the early 1980s, the National Price Commission’s attempts to suppress Reihill’s profiteering were generally ineffective, given his readiness to halt coal sales until price rises were conceded. For their part, CDL workers sought a greater share of the monopoly profits by staging unofficial strikes during busy periods. The recurring delivery delays, which infuriated his shivering customers, also arose from problems further up the supply chain. After turmoil in Poland forced Reihill to scramble for alternative stocks during 1979–81, he hedged his bets thereafter by supplementing his Polish supplies with coal from Britain, America and, controversially, South Africa.
Successive governments did little to threaten Reihill’s inefficient coal monopoly, being beholden to him for diversifying Ireland’s oil supplies and for delivering relatively cheap coal in an era of high energy prices. He had inherited his father’s seat on Fianna Fáil’s fund-raising committee but also donated to Fine Gael and was equally successful in obtaining state contracts for TOP from Fine Gael-led governments. Peter Barry (1928–2016), the tea importer and sometime government minister and Fine Gael deputy leader, was particularly supportive; in 1985 a note included in an official file concerning the Polish coal cartel described Barry as having a business interest in the matter.
Periodic challenges to the CDL/Tedcastle monopoly were defeated by the heavy initial costs, Weglokoks’ refusal to deal with anyone outside the cartel, and the lack of another ocean terminal in Dublin for discharging and storing coal (not least because Reihill used his influence to block the required planning permission). After the well-financed National Coal Company (NCC) acquired an industrial site at Tolka Quay suitable for coal ships in 1982, CDL kept its prices down and enjoyed an unprecedented period of labour relations harmony until NCC was forced out of business in 1984; CDL took over the Tolka Quay terminal. The ensuing anti-monopoly investigation by the European Commission accomplished nothing despite finding that CDL had manipulated prices. Reihill also withstood an internal challenge in 1986 when Heiton Holdings bought out another shareholder, grabbing a majority stake in CDL but control of only half its board. The prospect of a debilitating struggle led Heitons to restore Reihill’s primacy by selling some of its shares to Tedcastle.
His Tedcastle Group employed 300 workers directly while controlling a network of other companies through supply contracts. Profiting mainly off coal and oil, it also engaged in shipping, international coal brokering and the importation of construction plant and heavy-duty road vehicles; Reihill quickly aborted Tedcastle’s lossmaking scrap metal and timber mill ventures. In 1984 TOP entered the retail petrol market with supplies from the state-owned refinery at Whitegate, Co. Cork, later augmenting this with purchases from refineries in Britain. Depressed petrol sales in Ireland entailed negligible profits but allowed Reihill to take over from failing operators and gain a foothold in a market controlled by the oil multinationals. By 1991 TOP had 100 petrol stations, nearly all run as franchises; because of Whitegate they were located mostly in Munster.
A year after his first wife’s death from cancer in 1973, he married a widow, Ann Dillon-Malone (née McCoy), who brought three children to add to the six already at Deepwell. He financed her ownership of the magazine Image from 1976 and the Irish Arts Review from 1984. Her interior refurbishments and laying out of formal Italian gardens gave Deepwell a more patrician stamp, enabling her to throw stylish parties where guests could admire Reihill’s impressive collection of modern Irish art. He mainly bought Irish impressionists, with Roderic O’Conor (qv) being his favourite. There were also the many Jack Yeats’ (qv) paintings bought by his father, including ‘A fair day, Mayo’, which fetched €1 million in 2011.
A distinguished looking man, he was quiet-spoken and unusually successful in avoiding publicity. Tedcastle’s labyrinthine accounts obscured his exact wealth, which sufficed for him to mingle on equal terms with tycoons like Michael Smurfit (a long-time friend), Tony O’Reilly and Tony Ryan (qv) without quite being in their league. Business partners and rivals admired him for his courteousness, pragmatism and shrewdness. He handled deals personally and kept abreast of operations without interfering in minutiae. This allowed for regular cruises and escapes to his retreat near Kinsale, Co. Cork. He kept trim by playing tennis and golf and by walking to work at Tedcastle’s headquarters in Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Outside of Tedcastle he was a long-serving director of the Dublin Gas Company and of the state-owned Irish Life assurance company, serving as chairman of Irish Life (1984–8).
His lucrative coal cartel ultimately succumbed to its own success. From the early 1980s, whenever a high-pressure front with little wind settled over Dublin on cold days, it trapped the pollution created by many households burning dirty Polish coal, suffocating the city in smog. Air pollution levels in inner-city working-class districts reached seven times the recommended health limits, causing spikes in deaths and hospital admissions from respiratory illnesses. Despite mounting public exasperation, the politicians dragged their feet, citing a disinformation campaign orchestrated by Reihill. Journalists were similarly wary and avoided mentioning Reihill, even when covering Dublin’s smog crisis. In 1987 the dáil passed an act that empowered local authorities to ban the burning of bituminous or dirty coal in designated zones. Reihill’s lobbying, however, delivered clauses stipulating a time-consuming preliminary inquiry, along with a lengthy appeals process, into any such designation. CDL exploited this to delay Dublin Corporation’s attempts to enforce smoke free zones during 1988–9.
In early 1990 Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) unexpectedly endorsed proposals by his junior coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, for banning the sale of bituminous coal in Dublin city. Although there were good electoral reasons for this volte-face, Haughey’s subsequent refusal to reappoint Reihill’s wife to the board of the NGI suggests a personal element: Reihill’s past associations with anti-Haughey elements within Fianna Fáil and his public clash with Haughey’s government in 1987 over appointments to the Irish Life board probably told against him. Already suffering from the growing price competitiveness of oil and natural gas, CDL plunged into losses once the ban was introduced in autumn 1990, immediately rendering Dublin smog-free. CDL never recovered and in 1995 Reihill sold all his coal interests in the Republic of Ireland, leaving him with coal distribution businesses in Britain and Northern Ireland, which he had built up in the 1980s, as well as valuable dockland sites and his solidly performing oil companies.
In 1995 he and his brother Frank relinquished Tedcastle’s management to their respective sons John and Shane. He retired to his southern European residences while his successors expanded Tedcastle’s petrol station business by developing the attached convenience stores. Boredom and a fear that Tedcastle was overextended led him to resume as chairman in 2001 when he ousted his son John and bought out his brother Frank and nephew Shane for a reputed £50 million (valuing Tedcastle at £100 million). In 2003 he also separated from his wife, finding a new partner in Mairéad Dunlevy (qv), a museum curator, who died in 2008.
To redeem the £45 million debt incurred in the family buy-out, he sold Tedcastle’s plastics and chemicals business, its rapidly growing chain of high-street convenience stores, and some of its properties and petrol stations. He oversaw steady growth, helped by booming sales in filling stations and changes in the Irish market that prompted the oil multinationals to pull out. By 2009 TOP was at the forefront of the retail and wholesale petrol trade in Ireland with 160 service stations, 53 oil depots, and annual revenues of €1 billion, though margins were tight.
John Reihill died at Deepwell on 23 February 2013, leaving €50 million in his will. His remains were cremated following a humanist funeral service in the RDS concert hall. He left eight surviving children (stepchildren included) who had produced twenty-five grandchildren by 2018, the year his family sold Tedcastle for a reputed €250 million.