Smurfit, (John) Jefferson Snr (1909–77), industrialist and businessman, was born 24 March 1909, the son of a Sunderland shipyard worker. He was ten when his father, John, died painfully at home from diabetes, leaving a widow and three small children. To support her family Ellen Smurfit established a small local ‘club’ or hire-purchase business, and it was young Jefferson's job to coax the weekly payments from the often impoverished customers. These experiences, as he put it in his unpublished autobiography, ‘made me into a little old man by fourteen years of age’. At that age he started work in a local furniture store, where the well-to-do customers kindled in him a burning determination to be rich himself. At sixteen he crossed the Pennines to become an apprentice tailor with his uncle; ten years later he set up his own tailoring business in the Liverpool area, and by 1939 he had several shops. In 1934 he married Anne Magee from Belfast, whom he had met on holiday in the Isle of Man; they had four sons and four daughters.
When the war started his life took a radically different turn when he was asked to try to revive a small box manufacturing business run by his wife's uncles, then in Dorset Street, Dublin. For three years he commuted across the Irish Sea, running both businesses. His regular trips to neutral Ireland and a lavish lifestyle attracted the attention of the British authorities. It was with great difficulty that he managed to persuade them that he was of no interest to the security services. The death of his infant daughter from epilepsy during an air raid prompted him to move finally to Ireland, where he concentrated on developing the box business. Although he had converted to catholicism at the time of his marriage, he remained somewhat outside the close-knit Dublin business world. He was blackballed from the local golf club (assumed, wrongly, to be Jewish), and when the managing director of Odlums, the biggest milling company in the country, and a governor of the Bank of Ireland, enquired about placing a very large order, Smurfit, not knowing whom he was dealing with, insisted on bank references.
Jefferson Smurfit's first factory was in Observatory Lane, Rathmines, near the Leinster cricket club. Relying on his favourite motto, ‘Opportunity comes to pass, not to pause’, he put into effect all the ideas his fertile brain could generate; his company made stationery, egg boxes, toilet rolls, game boards, speciality cosmetic cartons, and numerous other paper-based products. At times he employed as many as 300 workers, though a lack of working capital meant that machinery to finish jobs frequently had to be improvised. Thanks to his entrepreneurial inventiveness his enterprise was generally profitable and in 1942 the company name was changed from Magee to Jefferson Smurfit & Co. However, the cluttered factory, filled with glue and paper products at a time when many of his workers smoked, was a dangerous environment, and there were major fires in 1948 and 1952.
In 1952 Smurfit moved the factory and its 150 workers to Clonskeagh on the Dodder and built a solid factory that, though it sometimes flooded, could never burn. His interest in the business was technical and creative, and he neglected its financial management. In 1955 a major cash-flow crisis, which led to the resignation of all four external directors, prompted the radical decision to concentrate exclusively on corrugated cardboard boxes and abandon all other lines. This was a crucial turning point and provided the platform on which his sons were to evolve a business on a worldwide scale.
Demand for packaging is directly dependent on economic activity, and the financial reforms introduced in 1959 by Seán Lemass (qv) and T. K. Whitaker drove the Irish economy to new heights. The company's production and profits, now concentrated in a single line, rose accordingly. When the company was floated in 1964 Jefferson Smurfit had achieved his boyhood ambition to be a very rich man, though he sadly noted in his autobiography of 1972, ‘now . . . I often wonder whether it was worthwhile’. In 1965 he resigned and appointed his two elder sons, Michael and Jefferson Jr (see below), as joint managing directors in his place. For the next few years he watched with amazement from the chairman's office as his sons drove his company from a turnover of £1 million in 1966 to £179 million in 1977. But by then years of very hard work (and equally hard play – his personal wealth allowed him, among other things, to indulge his favourite hobby of horse racing) had taken their toll, and though he was not yet seventy years old, his handwriting in the board minutes is shaky. He died 12 March 1977.
(John) Jefferson Smurfit Jnr (1937–87), was born on 28 July 1937 in Lancashire. He was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, up to the age of fifteen, when he first joined the family firm in its new Clonskeagh factory with his elder brother Michael. Jefferson Snr declared in his autobiography that ‘he told every foreman in the place to kick their backsides good and hard’, but, in practice, he also bought them a car. They were unmistakably the crown princes. Not yet thirty, in 1965 Jefferson Jnr became joint managing director, responsible for sales and marketing for the fastest-growing company in Ireland. He was a persistent and a persuasive salesman, whose activity was responsible for much of the success of the firm in the 1960s, though he could also be impulsive – for instance in occasionally committing the firm to uneconomic orders. He fuelled his sales approaches, as was the business practice of the day, with lavish hospitality; his memory for names and faces was infallible, and he became a popular character about Dublin.
By 1971 a rapid series of acquisitions in the print and allied industries by the two brothers had made Smurfit the third largest company in Ireland. The group now consisted of over forty trading companies, and went on to make acquisitions, first in England (1972, 1974) and then in the US (starting with takeovers in 1974, 1979, and 1982). However, for the next stages in its growth the company began to rely more heavily on Michael's strategic and financial skills, and less on Jefferson's personal approach to marketing and sales. By 1980 Jefferson had developed a serious cardiac condition, which led to his retirement as deputy chairman of the group in 1984. He moved to the Isle of Man, but after a three-day party to celebrate his fiftieth birthday in July 1987, he suffered a serious heart attack, followed by another in August. He died 26 August 1987. In 1963 he had married Ann Ball Tighe, a former Irish go-kart racing champion, from whom he later separated. They had two sons and two daughters.