Denis O’Connor – An Appreciation

Denis O’Connor – An Appreciation

The late Denis O’Connor was Managing Partner of KPMG from 2003 to 2006.

The late Denis O’Connor was Managing Partner of KPMG from 2003 to 2006.

The late Denis O’Connor was Managing Partner of KPMG from 2003 to 2006. Denis’s life and contribution are remembered each year at the annual Denis O’Connor Walking Festival.

Facing death with courage & calm leaves an inspirational legacy

This article first appeared in the 1 January 2010 edition of the Irish Examiner and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Author: Terry Prone

A few months into 2006, a client and friend was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He had never smoked. He was 46 years of age. He had four children.

The consultant oncologist was blunt. "You have months or possibly years," he told his patient. "And don't ask me how many. I don't know."

Imagine, the patient told his hospital visitors with a twinkle. Imagine telling an accountant not to seek clarity around the figures.

His friends expected him to go through shock, denial, bargaining and depression before coming to serenity. He floored them by not doing any of that. Nor did he do the "battle against cancer" so beloved of headline-writers. Cancer had happened to him. Death was going to happen to him. When he pushed the oncologist for any treatment, no matter how experimental or problematic, it wasn't to avoid death, but to gain time. Because he had things to do. Ordinary, routine things. He didn't want to climb a mountain or do white-water-rafting. He just wanted to be with his family in as normal a way as possible for as long as possible. He wanted to run his business for as long as he could do it properly. No heroics.

But then, this man had always been short on heroics. I remember watching a communications coach get assertive with him in advance of an important speech he had to make.

"There's no PASSION in it," she told him. "We have to have passion."

He gave an apologetic half-laugh that indicated his incapacity to drum up overt passion, his faith that the people he was talking to would apprehend his real passion for the subject and his resignation in advance if they didn't. He was an accountant, after all. He took care of the details. He worked within the systems. The problem with cancer is that someone else is in charge of the details, insofar as anybody is in charge of anything. He understood that immediately. Cancer was something that had happened to him, like short-sightedness, only more serious. The results of treatments, likewise.

Even when one of those results was a form of chloracne that briefly pitted his skin and radically changed his appearance. His friends and visitors were constantly being upset by the setbacks. He was constantly being surprised by the advances. He came from a business that's about figures and spreadsheets, not feelings. So he was astonished to find so many of his colleagues so emotionally involved with him. They arrived to see him whenever he was in hospital, nodding brusquely to each other, giving him unsentimental support and then shutting up about it.

In his home, one day, I remarked on the new chair he had, that tipped him onto his feet without him having to struggle to stand up. In what sounded like a non sequitur, he asked me if I knew Mary Harney, who, that week, was getting beaten up over some failure of the health system. If I did, he wanted her to know that he was amazed at how good the system was, when it came to making it possible for him to stay at home and live a fairly normal life. The home care team identified what he needed before he knew he needed it, and it arrived within days. Please let her know, he said. There should be balance.

He treated his illness and his dying as a project to be tackled. A baffling and unwelcome project. But an inevitable and inescapable project, which, like any business project, required goal-setting and strategic thinking. A holiday during the summer was one of those goals and its achievement was satisfying. Other goals weren't met, and were abandoned without complaint.

He didn't complain at all. But he didn't let on to be positive when there was nothing to be positive about. He was factual about every phase. For example, in recent months, sleep would tend to descend on him, unbidden.

"That must be good," a visitor said. No, he responded, matter-of-factly. It wasn't good sleep.

HE WASN'T looking for sympathy. Just stating facts. Facts were what he always dealt with. He didn't suddenly reach for great thoughts or insights. He went on paying attention to the details we so often seek to remove from the hands of very sick people. The only time a detail got away from him was when a mention appeared in media of his retirement. That annoyed him. But only because it would have been read by colleagues and staff the day before he planned to communicate the fact to them. He wasn't personally hurt or affronted. It simply wasn't the correct way for it to happen, and he wanted everything done correctly.

And if that sounds prissy, it shouldn't. He took decency and correctness beyond a form-filling punctilio. For example, if you met him in his understated home, and his two youngest daughters arrived to greet you, he never did the jolly show-offery "aren't my children super" performance.

When his youngest talked with the resolute seriousness only a six-year-old can bring to small matters, he listened to her with as much grave attention as if he'd been at a board meeting.

The weeks coming up to Christmas were not good. But the great thing, he said, was what he smilingly called his "quality time" with his wife in the late evenings. The two of them would sit in the middle of the hospital machinery, holding hands and saying very little. They were, he realised, way past the need to say much to each other. Their selves had been interwoven from the day they met as students. There was no need for big statements.

"You know," he told her one evening in December in Vincent's Hospital, "they don't think I'm going to get out of here again. But I am."

He did, too. He got home a couple of days before Christmas. In time to welcome friends, break open a bottle of wine, and take pleasure in his family.

Knowing he had already taken care of the details. Not just selecting the final gift for his wife, but making sure the newspaper delivery man got a Christmas present too.

Late Christmas Eve, the hospital took him back and he drifted into unconsciousness. At midnight, his wife told him it was Christmas Day and he acknowledged it: goal achieved. Then he died. He quietly died. Neatly and decently timing it so Santa could still arrive for the younger ones and that the older members of the family could have Christmas morning together in a warm house, rather than in a hospital vigil.

In career terms, his — culminating in three years as Managing Partner of KPMG — was a triumph.

But of more significance was the lesson he unknowingly gave everybody around him in how to die a good death. By not changing. By taking care of the details, doing what he could, and abandoning what he couldn't. Knowing how much the small things matter — even down to the unfailing murmured words of thanks to a carer.

His name was Denis O'Connor.

An Appreciation - Denis O'Connor

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Denis O’Connor, Managing Partner of KPMG Ireland, who died on Christmas Day, was that rare person: a man who was always self-effacing, but never shy. Often the listener, rather than the speaker, until well into a meeting, he neither sought nor facilitated the creation of a high profile for himself - not because he was modest, although he was certainly that, but because profile did not seem to him to be a prerequisite for leadership. Rather the reverse.

He regarded the development of a “hero culture” within any organisation as profoundly dangerous in the long term because it was inimical to the development of strong teams; and he believed a good team would always achieve more than even the most outstanding individual.

His commitment to teamwork was apparent from the start, and colleagues who worked with him in the 1980s remember learning from him to concentrate on objective data, not on subjective opinions. But they remember that learning as apparently accidental: Denis was restrained in the way he did everything. Clients learned that he did detailed and powerful analysis of issues, accompanied by compelling advice.

Denis O’Connor was born in Dublin 46 years ago. Growing up in Shannon, Co Clare, he was educated at Shannon Comprehensive College and UCD. He joined KPMG in 1981 and qualified as a chartered accountant in 1983. Early in his career, he spent two years working with KPMG in Stamford, Connecticut, where he further honed his wide commercial skills with keen insights into the ways of business in the US.

Returning to Ireland in 1987, he became a director in 1990 and was elected partner in 1993, heading the KPMG Financial Services Group from 1998. Although his progress through the firm was speedy and his reputation as a business adviser substantial, he nonetheless managed an enviable work/life balance.

His wife Margaret, whom he had met in college, and his growing family were of paramount importance to him. He didn’t just make it his business to be present at concerts (Margaret has always been involved in choral music) or the signpost events in his children’s lives; he became inextricably involved. So, when his son Colm became hooked on Manchester United, Denis, despite his own sporting allegiances, rowed in behind him, booking flights to Old Trafford and learning the minutiae of each player’s skills and deficits.

He was elected managing partner in 2003, succeeding Jerome Kennedy. At that time the partnership was undergoing massive growth and change. Not long before he took over, complex negotiations had culminated in the partners and staff from the former Arthur Andersen firm joining KPMG.

The significant numbers involved presented a challenge, as did the imperative of mingling - but not merging - two distinct corporate cultures. Under Denis O’Connor’s light touch, the blending of talents and teams was completed painlessly and successfully.

As managing partner, he represented a continuum of commitment to tradition while constantly stressing the need for innovation. The partnership, he maintained, had to represent much more than accountancy skills.

It had to provide an unparalleled breadth and depth of wise advice to the firm’s broad range of clients, both Irish and internationally owned. And on the international front his strengths were also recognised in his appointment and active involvement as a member of the KPMG global board.

All of this would tend to portray him as a diligent, quiet manager of an established and now very successful partnership during a time of economic boom. That would be to miss the essence of his leadership, which started with a rigid adherence to excellence, but found its most appealing expression in his appreciation of individuals.

Not only was he a great listener, invariably spotting and identifying the key issues in any discussion or briefing, but he was superb when it came to accepting and fostering diverse talents and personalities.

It was noticeable, in the days after his shockingly early death, that so many of those who had worked with Denis used the word “decent” to describe him. He was fundamentally and continuously decent, seeking to do what was right, rather than what was noticeable, defusing tensions with humour, and showing great kindness to people at difficult periods of their lives or careers or both.

This was well exemplified in his warm, supportive response, more than a year ago, to a colleague diagnosed with a cancer which, fortunately, is in remission. A scant few weeks later, he himself got the same diagnosis.

He addressed his illness with an acute sense of his responsibilities — first to his family, but also to the partnership he led. He undertook tough treatments in order to be able to work as much as possible throughout the months of his illness, delegating where necessary with the calm decisiveness and careful briefings which had characterized his working life.

It is too easy to describe his death as “untimely”. He died at a young age, true. But his was a life of achievement, of love, of loyalty, lived fully to its last day.


Obituary - Denis O'Connor

This article first appeared in the 11-24 January 2007 edition of Business & Finance and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

The business world was saddened to hear of the untimely death on Christmas Day of a man whose warmth and professionalism will be missed.

When Denis O'Connor, KPMG's managing partner, died peacefully on Christmas Day, the firm lost a modest man who preferred to avoid the kind of personal coverage that can lead to a "hero culture". He believed that teams, rather than exceptional individuals, are of paramount importance in service organisations.

Denis succeeded Jerome Kennedy as managing partner some months after 20 partners from Arthur Anderson joined KPMG in a welcome but challenging development.

Any coming together of people from very different corporate entities carries with it an imperative to do multiplication rather than simple addition - to ensure that the merging of teams and talents adds up to more than the sum of their previous parts.

Denis quietly and consistently created the right kind of context for that to happen.

He was born and educated in Shannon, attending Shannon Comprehensive College. After his BComm in UCD, he easily earned a place in the competitive postgraduate accountancy course in the same college, the forerunner of today's masters in accountancy.

He joined KPMG in 1980 and qualified in 1983. Two years later, he and his wife, Margaret, who he'd met in college, set off to the US. Denis worked with KPMG in Stamford, Connecticut, where his client roster included General Electric.

The O'Connors returned to Ireland in 1987, and Denis's career progressed: he became a director in 1990, a partner in 1993 and headed up KPMG Financial Services Group from 1998. Busy years. Successful years.

But no matter how busy or successful he was, Denis was a family man who was always interested and involved in what his children were doing - even, in the case of his son, abandoning his own sporting allegiances to root for Manchester United because Man U was Colm's chosen team.

In the years before he took on the role of managing partner, Denis had earned the respect of clients with quiet, powerful analysis of issues, accompanied by compelling advice.

He was a huge contributor to KPMG's strengths in two key sectors, both in the financial services area.

He was heavily involved in the whole GPA story and thus with the many "sons of GPA" who have made Ireland a world-leading centre of excellence for aircraft teasing.

Denis was a central adviser and supporter of many initiatives in this sector - and his skills were also well applied in the wider aviation sphere as well. The other sector was in the insurance practice within KPMG Ireland, which, 10 years ago, was underdeveloped.

The fact that, today, the firm ranks among the leading insurance advisers and auditors is due in no small measure to Denis's reputation in the industry and his ability to master complex issues such as the interaction of insurance accounting and actuarial calculations.

Denis O'Connor contributed significantly as a member of the KPMG International and EMA boards, confirming KPMG Ireland as one of the most successful KPMG firms around the world in terms of its leadership in a national market.

Early in 2006, Denis was diagnosed with cancer.

Typically, he wanted to know every detail of what lay before him and explored all the options that were open. They were brutally few.

Effectively, in his mid-40s, he was told that, instead of having decades in which to go on contributing to business and in which to continue having good times with his family, he could hope only for a limited amount of time, perhaps not even a year.

He used that time - and his enforced absences from the office - to think deeply and strategically both about the issues facing accountancy as a profession and the partnership as a firm, delivering key insights and leadership.

Partners and friends visiting him in hospital were always struck by how unchanged, how undiminished he was by this last year.

Denis met his illness and his death the way he met his life: with understated intelligence and dignity.