My funny Valentine
As one of NI’s most successful businessmen Sir Allen McClay was worth millions but, in an exclusive interview, his widow tells Stephanie Bell how her husband was a man of modest, simple tastes
Published 28/07/2010 | 11:29
Sitting in the driveway of Lady Heather McClay’s Co Armagh bungalow is the old Renault which her late husband Sir Allen treasured and which more than anything symbolises the unpretentious nature of the man she loved.
“I can’t bear to part with it, he thought so much of that car,” she explains. “It’s so old I don’t think you can even get parts for it any more, but Allen hated waste and didn’t see the point in driving a flashy car. That car was just so typical of him.”
He once famously joked that filling it with petrol doubled its value. It was a quip which was not just typical of the jovial nature of the public man but, as his shattered widow Heather reveals, was also a big part of the private Sir Allen whose sense of humour lit up her world.
“He had a wonderful sense of humour. He made me laugh every day. The fun has gone out of my life,” she said.
Speaking for the first time ever about the closely guarded private life of Northern Ireland’s most successful businessman, the woman who knew him better than anyone and who was by his side for 30 years reveals how despite his vast wealth he remained a man of simple tastes who shunned the high life and never lost sight of his humble beginnings.
Bereft without the man she describes as “more than a soul mate” she seeks out his presence every day and draws comfort from visiting his grave.
The couple shared a very special bond that was obvious to all who knew them and life without Sir Allen who died in hospital in America on January 12 this year has been agonising for his widow.
She said: “It’s like losing my right arm. He was my everything, my whole life. It is like losing a part of you that you can’t do without. We were more than soul mates. Everything I was thinking, he was thinking or what he was thinking, I was thinking. “
A rare July sun is shining into the conservatory of her modest yet immaculately finished bungalow near Gilford and its brightness seems to heighten the sombre mood as Lady Heather bravely battles to keep her emotions under control.
It’s only six months since her shock loss and looking out at the beautiful garden she has lovingly nurtured over the years even proves painful to her.
“Allen hated gardening; he used to joke that he would never sleep easy in bed at night if there was a spade about the house,” she said.
“I’m the one who does the garden but he loved to sit in the conservatory with me at night and would comment on it and notice what flowers were coming on and what new plants there were.”
She breaks off at the obvious pain the memory brings and we move on to how they met and the start of a romance which saw them become inseparable over the years.
It was 1979 and Heather, a successful businesswoman in her own right, was in charge of personnel and buying for Allen’s Connor’s Chemist chain.
As Heather had responsibility for overseeing the opening of 24 of the chain’s 27 stores over the next couple of years, it involved working closely each day with “the boss”.
A mutual attraction which neither acted on for two years finally blossomed into romance when Heather booked a three week holiday in New Zealand in 1981.
The thought of being separated from her for three weeks finally prompted Sir Allen to act on his feelings.
“Allen gave me a letter before I left telling me how much he felt about me and saying he hoped I felt the same about him.
“He rang me every morning and every night while I was away. It was the start of a very big romance and after that we couldn’t do without each other,” she says.
The very special bond they shared together was obvious to friends and colleagues and life for Sir Allen evolved around his business and Heather.
He supported her when she decided to leave Connors and launch her own company designing and manufacturing corporate uniforms.
After selling the successful Sally Garner business which is credited with introducing uniforms to many leading businesses including banks, Heather wanted to give Alan full support when he decided to set up Almac in 2001.
“I wanted to be beside him as I knew it was important for Allen that I was there for him,” she says.
Like Galen before it, Almac soon became a world leader in the pharmaceutical services sector confirming Sir Allen’s place as one of Northern Ireland’s most successful businessman and the most significant philanthropist the province has ever known.
Galen had been floated on the stock market in 1997 becoming Northern Ireland's first billion-pound company, making Sir Allen a rich man — the Sunday Times Rich List at one time estimated his wealth at around £300m — something which Heather insists made little difference to his lifestyle.
“Allen’s wealth was having me by his side, his home, food, family and no worries. I looked after him like a prize bull,” she laughs.
“During the week he worked from 7am until 7pm and then came home and we spent the evenings together here in Gilford.
“At the weekend we went to Allen’s house in Cookstown and that was our own wee bolt-hole. I enjoy cooking and we loved eating at home. Allen liked simple food, his favourites were tinned salmon and Heinz tomato soup.
“Outside of our home life, Allen loved the company and was very attached to his workforce who he called his family. From the Board of Directors right down to the cleaners he knew every one of them and would take an interest in their lives.”
Sir Allen was also known for his huge generosity.
In 1997 he established the McClay Trust which donated £20m to Queen's University, which helped fund the £3.5m McClay Research Centre at the School of Pharmacy, which opened in 2002.
Last year he also set up the McClay Foundation to ensure the perpetuity of the Almac organisation — this gesture also typified the generosity of the man.
True to his nature, the extent of his largesse to others is something which he preferred to keep private and according to Heather the full extent of his generosity will never be known.
His widow explains: “He always said that any information about donations should be shelved. That was the word he used. He didn’t think the public needed to know about it and it will never be known just how much he gave away to individuals and organisatitons.”
Heather adds: “He always quoted an old saying ‘If you have a kindness shown pass it on’ and that’s how he lived his life.”
After 30 years together the couple finally decided last year to marry. They had agreed on a quiet ceremony in late November, followed by a holiday to celebrate over Christmas. But they could never have guessed how tragically their plans go awry.
Instead of enjoying life as a newlywed, distraught Heather spent Christmas 2009 by her gravely ill husband’s hospital bedside praying for a miracle that never came.
Painfully she recalls the trauma of that fateful trip to the US on November 4 last year from which Sir Allen would never return.
“We had planned to go for just four days so that Allen could take all the staff from the Philadelphia plant out for an early Christmas dinner. He was very well and in absolute perfect health and in great form on the day we left.
“On the morning of the party he was dressed for a business meeting and suddenly took a pain in his finger and then in his arm. I called an ambulance. It wasn’t good after that.”
The rawness of her harrowing ordeal overwhelms her for a moment and silent tears slip down her cheeks as she pauses and bravely fights for composure.
With great fortitude she continues and recalls how she never left Sir Allen’s hospital bedside where in his final weeks he bravely battled terminal cancer.
Sir Allen had two tumours in his brain and one in his lung and was given courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Heather rented an apartment to store her clothes but slept in the hospital, only leaving Sir Allen’s side to shower, change and buy food. She did everything for him that she could including cooking all his meals herself.
While both of them were very aware of how grave the situation was, their strength came from each other, with Sir Allen insisting that they go ahead with their plans to get married.
Heather says: “Throughout it all Allen remained great fun and took it in his stride and was still joking and never once said ‘I’m sick’. I only cried two or three times in front of him as I tried to be brave for him.
“I was in shock. How do you take that? I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t true, this isn’t happening.’ I just kept hoping things would get better.
“Alan woke me at 6.30 in the morning just three days after he went into hospital and said ‘I want to get married to you and I want to get married now, today’.
“It took some time to get the paper work sorted and the staff at the hospital surprised us with a wonderful wedding on November 18.
“They decorated the boardroom with flowers and even had a floral wedding arch and petals on the ground and had a beautiful wedding cake.
“Allen was allowed two hours without his tubes and drips and our good friends from Almac, Alan Armstrong and Heather Stevenson, flew over to be our best man and bridesmaid.”
As the champagne flowed, the then terminally ill Sir Allen mustered all his strength to ensure his new wife had as special a wedding as possible, singing a love song and reciting a poem to her.
Now all Heather has is her memories and must face a future without her beloved Allen by her side.
She adds: “Alan always said life is for the living and he would want me to get on with it, but without him I am simply lost.”