“Just when you think the gods have totally abandoned you, they send you a gift.”
In late 1986, finding myself in desperate need of separation and income I was offered, unbeknownst to me, the job of a lifetime. My life almost on cue began to slowly change fundamentally. The H. J. Heinz Company was looking for a photographer who did not shoot commercially, to go around the world and photograph the presidents of all their divisions. I was also to photograph Anthony O’Reilly, the Irish CEO, Chairman, and Chairman of the Board of the Heinz Company. He was often referred to by his contemporaries as the Holy Trinity. This was appropriate, for at the time, I was looking for any spiritual guidance I could find.
O’Reilly commuted to Pittsburgh from his large estate, Castlemartin, outside of Dublin, and this is a story of my initial meeting of one of my favorite CEOs of the 1980’s. This is also a story of my withdrawal from my life as I knew it.
Tony O’Reilly at the time was already a legend. He had been a world class Irish rugby player turned businessman, and had quickly made it up the ranks at Heinz to CEO. He was one of Ireland’s great contemporary figures, and was adored all throughout the country.
As we were just beginning to map a three month itinerary to photograph each president at twelve to thirteen locations throughout the world, I received a call from Mr. O’Reilly’s office one afternoon informing me that everything had changed, and I was to quickly get to the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport by 4:30PM that afternoon, and catch a ride with Mr. O’Reilly as he leaves New York on the private jet, and fly with him to Ireland. I would be let off there as he continued on to Egypt, and I would make my way to London to start photographing the other presidents.
I would have a few hours to introduce myself, and talk with him, so that at the end of my journeys I could return to Ireland and spend a few days with him at Castlemartin.
As it turns out I made it on time to the airport, but as typical for the Holy Trinity he arrived very late, in large black Mercedes limousine, and uttered his first words to me “get on the plane we’re leaving”, and with those profound words of wisdom I began my new career photographing CEOs.
I boarded a brand new Gulfstream G4, the premier corporate jet of the time, the door closes and within five minutes we are airborne and rapidly begin climbing to almost 50,000 feet.
As we all start to relax (Mr. O’Reilly, his daughter Justine, his friend the owner of Guinness Brewery, and myself), and dinner is being prepared by the steward, I begin to talk to Mr. O’Reilly. He unclasps his tie, and begins to tell me about his day. He is in a very jovial mood. He thinks he has discovered a way to have a vending machine that can keep french fries fresh, and hot for long periods of time without becoming rancid. A Frenchman has discovered a process to prevent the oil from breaking down. He is going to put one of his french fry vending machines in every college campus in America. Heinz owned Ore-Ida potatoes so he would make a profit on the potatoes, the ketchup, everything. He was going to make a billion dollars on this deal, and he felt a lot richer that afternoon. Forget the beer, let’s get to the good stuff.
As the light begins to get very low in the sky, as we jet at almost mach 1 toward the east, I see there is enough light to take a quick photograph of the man of the hour, at work on the company’s jet. I ask him if it’s ok, and he says fine, and I take a few frames of a legendary master of the universe as he jets his way home after a days work.
We all agree to meet at Castlemartin in a few months where he will give me as much time as I need.
Off I go in Dublin along with Mr. Guinness, and Justine, and off he goes to Cairo to meet with Mubarak about some food deal in Egypt.
When I returned back to New York, and Bennett Robinson, the Art Director saw the few frames I shot on the plane, he said “This is it. No need to go any further.”
For some reason he felt this to be the quintessential portrait of a CEO of the 1980’s. I, on the other hand, thought this a simple picture of a man by a corporate jet window. But Bennett would hear none of this. He was sure this picture told it all. A powerful man at work, diligent, dedicated, energized. With Bennett’s words to my ears I started a new career that helped me extricate myself from my marriage, and my previous life. I began a whole new chapter of my story.
So I never got to Caslemartin that year, but I did the next as I was invited back to do more work the second year. There are stories to tell of the rich and famous, but this will have to wait until next week.