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Who will replace this giant of business?

Northern Ireland's business world last week lost one of its leading lights when Almac founder Sir Allen McClay passed away.

Tributes unsurprisingly flowed in for Sir Allen (right), an understated, plain speaking, no-nonsense industrialist who had a real affinity with his workforce and a genuine commitment to using his wealth for good.

The death of Sir Allen at the age of 77 leaves a huge gap, not only at Craigavon-based Almac but also in the local business community.

He was proof that Northern Ireland can produce a global business leader and that void he has left will not be easily filled. Few of today's entrepreneurs can rival his achievements.

It also speaks volumes about his stature that the unreserved praise for him came from across the political spectrum.

"I think he is an impossible act to follow, he was very much unique," says Almac's vice president of corporate market development Philip Diamond, who worked with Sir Allen for more than 30 years.

For all his achievements - he was knighted in 2005 - Mr Diamond notes that he was 'Allen' to everyone from operational staff to top management, not Sir Allen or Mr McClay.

He respected those who worked hard as he himself was usually first in the office in the morning and often last to leave.

"He was totally focused on this business. He would have talked about the company as being his family, it was a very personal thing for him," says Mr Diamond.

After founding Galen Pharmaceuticals in 1968, McClay weathered the turbulence of the the Troubles to build it into an international company, gaining huge loyalty from his employees.

He took Galen public in 1997, establishing the first £1bn company in the province, but resigned from the renamed Warner Chilcott amid plans to move operations to the US.

Buying back five divisions he formed another drugs company Almac - which now employs 2.600 people (one of the biggest private sector employers in the province) - starting from scratch with a drive to create sustainable employment in Northern Ireland and make a real difference to medical research.

"How many other men approaching 70 would make that commitment and then build it from there by investing millions in buildings, people and research?" says Mr Diamond.

From humble beginnings in Cookstown, Sir Allen qualified as a pharmacist in 1953 after completing his apprenticeship and ran a pharmacy for two years before spending 13 years as a representative for Glaxo.

He admitted he only had a limited interest in science at school and initially pursued a career in pharmacy when he found out he would be paid while indentured rather than having to pay for his apprenticeship as in other professions.

Though at the end of his life Sir Allen was worth £190m, he was well known to have little time for the trappings of wealth, famously eschewing flashy new cars for one with a lot of miles on the clock.

He also expressed a lack of interest in the 'bloody old boats' and holidays in the Bahamas beloved of many millionaires.

Instead he channelled money into philanthropic causes, forming charitable trust the McClay Foundation last year with £20m to advance research into cancer treatment. The Foundation is now the sole owner of Almac.

Late last year the entrepreneur told the Belfast Telegraph he had no plans to retire and was still in the office before 8am every day.

"Retirement's not for me. It would drive me insane," he said.

"It's ludicrous to cast people aside at 65. It simply doesn't make sense to lose all that expertise and experience, not to mention the fact that so many people simply don't want to retire at that age and face a life of boredom."

Sir Allen was also greatly admired by his staff, many who have worked with him for decades.

Anne Carroll, who worked in Almac's canteen, said: "We simply loved him. I used to make him strawberry cheese cake which was his favourite.

"What said the most about him was that he refused to have his own parking space in the grounds, even though he was chairman of such a major company. He said he was just like the rest of us."

Elaine Gibson, global and events manager recalled: "I organised all his travel and he appreciated everything I - and everyone else - did.

"I was also deeply involved in the annual firm party in the marquee in the grounds and he loved that.

"His greatest joy was to see the numbers growing year on year, as that meant the firm was prospering and more and more people were given a meaningful job and a positive livelihood."

Sir Allen was taken ill unexpectedly in November last year while on business in the US, personally overseeing the building of Almac's new $120m base in Pennsylvania.

While receiving treatment in the US he married his longterm partner Heather in hospital.

Sir Allen's ashes returned home last week and a memorial service is expected to be held in Northern Ireland next month. Multi award-winning Almac scooped business of the year at last year's Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, and also took home the prize for exporting achievement.

The judges praised Almac for its continued growth in a difficult economic climate and were impressed by its proactive approach to seeking out new markets.

A homegrown company that operates in a high tech field, creates skilled and well paid jobs, has a dedicated north American base and works with a truly international client base, the firm is exactly the sort of business that Northern Ireland aspires to have more of as it pushes towards becoming a knowledge economy.

If entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland can learn from the vision, determination and innovation-driven approach of Sir Allen McClay, perhaps more of our companies will be able to emulate Almac's success on the world stage.