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Alex Findlater (1937-2019) – Dublin Merchant

Alex Findlater

‘It’s hard to talk to Alex Findlater,’ a friend of his once remarked. ‘Not in the business or social sense but in a physical sense. You see, he walks a lot, and very fast too.’

Alex Findlater, who died at the age of 81 after a riding accident in Jaipur, was one of the most determined, fun-loving, charitable men of his generation.

It was in his blood.

As chronicled in his immensely readable book, ‘Findlater – The Story of a Dublin Merchant Family,’ his forebears were Scots excisemen who founded the Dublin wine and grocery firm in 1823.[1] Distinguished family members include the only person to win a Victoria Cross for playing the bagpipes and a man who once brought an elephant into the Four Courts to testify. Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national bard, was a family friend, while James Joyce name-checked Alex’s great-uncle Adam Findlater in both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.

In Dublin, the Findlater’s prospered. By 1906, the company had expanded into groceries, tea and provisions, with fourteen shops. They built ‘Findlater’s Church’ on Parnell Square, as well as the Todd, Burns department store on Mary Street. The Mountjoy Brewery, which they established in 1852, was Dublin’s second largest exporter of stout by 1866.[2] They also operated hotels in Howth and Bray, and dallied in publishing. During the Easter Rising, the fire brigade paid close heed to Findlater’s headquarters on O’Connell Street, alarmed by the prospect of so much liquor catching fire.

There were 21 shops by the time Alex’s father Dermot took over in 1955.[3] His premature death a decade [check] later placed the future of the ailing family firm company on Alex’s young shoulders.

Born at Hatch Street, Dublin, on 25 September 1937, Alex was educated at Castle Park School in Dalkey, Repton in Derbyshire and Trinity College Dublin. Always sporty, he adored riding, squash, angling, tennis, dancing and skimming across Dublin Bay in a yacht. However, his greatest passion was hockey. He was one of the stars of Trinity’s team during a golden age for the club and had several international trials; his mother played hockey for Ireland in the 1930s.[4]

Alex was not long out of Trinity when his father died, leaving him a business that was desperately struggling to survive amid the new age of 1960s supermarkets. His complete overhaul of the company came just too late.

In 1968, the 30-year-old endured perhaps his darkest days when he was obliged to close all 21 branches and sell ‘Findlater’s Corner,’ the company’s signature block by the Parnell monument on O’Connell Street.[5] Newspapers were impressed by how young Alex assured the firm’s 178 jobless employees ‘with grey-haired gravity’ that he had made provision for their future.[6]

Closing a business with ‘honour’ meant a lot to Alex. In 2015 he wrote to this paper expressing his great dismay at the disrespectful manner in which Clery’s employees were treated when the iconic Dublin store closed. An interview with Pat Kenny followed.

Alex was always a man of action, eager to ‘do rather than talk.’ From 1969 to 1974 he went on what he described as a ‘peregrination’ to Europe, learning German, Spanish and French at language schools in Germany and Switzerland, followed by a stint at Insead, the International Business School, in Fontainebleau.

The Findlater Brothers.

One of his forebears built the Olympia Theatre in Dublin and the Empire in Belfast. Perhaps such genetics encouraged Alex in 1974 when he co-organised cabaret shows starring Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis Jr in London. Twelve years later, he was one of the key players responsible for bringing the Bolshoi Ballet to Dublin; 16,000 people watched them perform over four nights at a purpose-built 4000-seat theatre in Simmonscourt.[7]

However, his success as a concert promoter had to play second fiddle to his determination to rekindle the family firm. With tremendous boldness, he relaunched Findlater’s (Wines Merchants) Ltd.  at 147-149 Upper Rathmines Road in [year].[8] Boosted by his personal charm, and strong word-of-mouth support from the old Findlater’s friends and contacts, the business boomed.

Assisted by Froede Dahl, his Norwegian brother-in-law, he kept it afloat though the rocky spells of the 1970s and 1980s.[9] Findlater’s supplied all the wines and spirits for the State Banquet for Ronald Reagan in 1984; Garret Fitzgerald was a devoted customer; their ‘Millennium Wines’ were one of the most recognisable symbols of Dublin in 1988.

Always thinking ahead, Alex installed a pioneering, computerised invoicing system in 1984. Three years later, he opened the popular ‘Wine Epergine’ restaurant beside the Rathmines shop, which was initially run by his first wife, Seong Findlater, and latterly by Kevin Thornton.[10]

In 1991, ‘The Chairman’, as he was affectionately known, took the daring step of leasing the spacious Victorian stone vaults beneath the abandoned Harcourt Street station. This became the headquarters of Findlater’s importing and wholesale business for the next decade.[11]

One of Alex’s greatest attributes was his sense of charity. In 1993, a speech he gave while accepting a Business Heritage Award from the Dublin Junior Chamber, inspired the annual Bloomsday Bike Rally, which raised over €1 million for the Irish Youth Foundation. As part of the project, Alex, who had a fine [baritone?], teamed up with Renault’s Bill Cullen (who started as a messenger boy with Findlater’s) and Fergal Quinn and Patrick Campbell of Bewley’s to sing a fund-raising charity song, ‘Messenger Bike’.[12]

Dorothea Findlater, whose father Harry de Courcy Wheeler, accepted the surrender of Markiwicz and Pearse in1916. She was a rugby enthusiast who met Paul O’Connell, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara. For more on her, see here.

By 1999 Alex had restricted his liquid intake to ‘good white wine’ and tea. ‘I must admit to my love of good food and wine,’ he remarked, ‘but remember that “input” must be matched with “output” in exercise if you want to remain fit and healthy.’

In 2001 he sold the firm to Cantrell & Cochrane.[13] He was wisely retained for ‘ambassadorial’ duties but the free-time enabled him to fulfil his long-held dream of penning the family history. Kevin Myers hailed his book in the Irish Times as ‘a hugely entertaining and ravishingly illustrated account of a commercial caste which is now all but gone.’

Alex always enjoyed the company of ‘bright and sparkling young ladies.’ In 2011, he married equestrian artist Trish Fitzpatrick at Ashford Castle. They settled in Cong, Co. Mayo, where Alex could enjoy fishing, with occasional visits to Inishlacken island in Connemara.

Another of his great joys was his late mother Dorothea Findlater, a rugby enthusiast, who died at the astonishing age of 108 in 2017; she was Ireland’s oldest woman at the time.

Gregarious yet modest, confident but self-effacing, impulsive, interested, contemporary, and completely at ease sporting a topper, Alex was one of the last of Dublin’s merchant gentlemen, a scion of that old Protestant community that once dominated the southside suburbs such as Rathgar, Rathmines, and Sandymount.

[1] Alex Findlater came from Greenock in Scotland to Ireland via indentured service in Newfoundalnd in 1820, where his brother was already based.

[2] It was largest exporter of stout in 1866. Sold to Malone Distillers in 1891, although a Findlater remained on the broad until 1913. Findlater’s Church was built in 1864. At its peak, the firm had outlets in Dublin, London, Brighton and Dun Laoigaire.

[3] Alex’s grandfather William Findlater used to hand out pints of whiskey to the cabbies freezing on the street outside Findlater’s Corner.  William also introduced the Rotary movement to Europe; there were 21 shops by the time his son Dermot took over in 1955. Dermot was also co-founder of Bulmer’s Cider and a director of the Dolphin Hotel.

[4] When Repton played the Dutch hockey team in 1956, it was noted that Findlater was ‘the most prominent figure in the school attack,’ even though they lost. (His father G.D. Findlater had been president of the Irish Hockey Union).  While at Trinity, his name regularly appeared in Irish Times reports as the club went on one of its most successful period; he lifted the Universities Cup and Leinster (Mills) Cup in 1959, narrowly losing in the Irish Senior Cup Final. He won the All-Ireland Seniors Cup (which year?), had several international trials and was on the cusp of being capped for Ireland.

[5] Findlater’s Corner occupied most of the block between Parnell Street and Cathal Brugha Street.

[6] In 1967, the 29-year-old Deputy-MD orchestrated a complete overhaul of the loss-making grocery, wine and spirit merchants. Launched the Findlater Herald, described as one of the most unusual staff magazines ever seen … He hived off the company’s tea blending and packing operations and began closing shops but by 1968, the business was in tatters, unable to compete with the new age of supermarkets. Much was made of how Findlater’s ‘honour’ held so firm. [Galen Weston bought it, with Ronald Lyon and Fitzgerlads!!?]  [145 years after its founding]

[7] The Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis Jr concerts took place at Grosvenor House in London; his co-organisers were Cork’s Robin Davidson and Londoner, Robin Courage, with whom he also organised the Bolshoi. Ian Craigie also involved. Also linked to a Liza Minelli concert … and may have helped Noel Pearson out at the Olympia, again 1974. He was a patron of the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society; in 1986, he launched Blanquette de Limoux at the same night as Gigi began at the Gaiety

[8] He’d promised Galen Weston he’s never trade food again, but was allowed back into the wine trade after three years. The firm had an outlet in Rathmines since 1839. He also promoted it with special notices in the Irish Times.

[9] Froede brought in Baden wines from Germany, and Ruddles Country Ale. Alex’s sister Suzanne married Froede Dahl from Skien, Norway, where Henrik Ibsen came from … “When did the squirrel get home?’ asked Ibsen in “The Dahl’s House” poem.

[10] They reluctantly closed ‘Wine Epergine’ when they moved to Harcourt Street.

In 1981 he was married in St Patrick’s Cathedral before 500 guests to Trinity-educated Seong Loh of Singapore, who was dressed in a ‘ravishing’ Pat Crowley gown.  Alex wore his grandfather’s Victorian topper for the occasion. John Hamilton was his best man.

[11] The vaults had room for 2.4 million bottles, and also served a museum for his Findlater memorabilia. His management team now comprised of David Millar, Nigel Werner and Keith McCarthy Morrogh. Alex was the Chairman. They also opened a branch at CityWest Business Park in Dublin. The company became Ireland’s leading agency for Australia’s Penfold and Chile’s Concha y Toro, and distributed brands such as Bordeaux Baron Philippe de Rotschchild and Veueve Cliquot champagne

[12] The Irish Times published a pic of the rally on its front page. The song was released on a 4-track cassette to raise additional funds

[13] Alex reputedly sold the firm for €10 million.

His pals: Peter Smith, Anthony Tindal, Ian Craigie, Noel McMullan, John Hamilton, Tony Colley, Chris Pringle.

Lived off Bushy Park Road in Rathgar …

Somebody likened a meeting at Alex’s office to ‘trying to match his eye on a private game of tag played through paper mountains’ across his mahogany desk’.