Tony O'Reilly, the Irish businessman who went from working for Irish semi-State companies Bord Bainne and Irish Sugar to becoming CEO of global food giant Heinz, has died aged 88 following a short illness.

O'Reilly also owned Independent News and Media (INM) and was the main shareholder in Waterford Wedgewood in a colourful career. He also played for rugby for Ireland and the Lions.

O'Reilly shot to fame in the business world when developing the iconic Kerrygold brand while working in Bord Bainne when in his mid-20s. It transformed Irish butter from a commodity, often sold at a discount, to a premium brand.

O'Reilly then became CEO of Irish Sugar. He engaged in a joint venture with Heinz and Erin Foods, the Irish Sugar subsidiary that produced frozen vegetables and soups.

This brought him to the attention of Heinz head Henry J Heinz, who offered him a senior position in his company's UK operation. In 1970, O'Reilly joined Heinz. He rose to the very top of one of the planet's biggest food companies,becoming CEO of the Heinz corporation in 1979 and subsequently chair in 1987.

Public consciousness

O'Reilly had sprung to public consciousness even earlier, being selected for the Irish rugby team aged just 18 in 1955.

He was selected for the Lions tour that same summer and went on to gather 10 caps for the Lions across two tours, scoring 37 tries, a record that stands to this day, as do his six test tries, all scored by the age of 23.

As his business career blossomed, rugby took a back seat, although he was recalled after a seven-year absence to play for Ireland against England in 1970.

This appearance gave him a 15-year career for Ireland, one of the longest in international rugby history, only matched by Ireland's Mike Gibson in the amateur era.

Business mogul

As well as his career with Heinz, O'Reilly developed significant personal business interests. He became the major shareholder of INM in 1973, purchased a controlling interest in Waterford Wedgewood, Arcon, a mining company, and had a major stake in Providence resources.

O'Reilly was chair of INM until 2009 and was part of a consortium that bought Eircom in 2001. He beat a rival bid from Denis O'Brien, who later fought a bitter battle for control of INM.

Tony O'Reilly's business empire came under significant pressure during the economic downturn that began in 2007.

He filed for bankruptcy in 2016, following AIB securing a judgement for €22.6m against him. His Castlemartin Stud in Kildare was sold.

The Ireland Fund

Tony O'Reilly was associated with a large number of philanthropic endeavours. He set up the American Ireland fund in 1976, along with future US Ambassador to Ireland and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

This, and the subsequent Ireland Fund, raised hundreds of millions of dollars with the stated aims of investing for "peace, culture and charity" at a time when the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its height.

The O'Reilly Foundation supported education and culture in Ireland and abroad.

Businessman, sportsman, media mogul and philanthropist, Tony O'Reilly, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, was perhaps the most famous Irishman of the second half of the 20th century. He is survived by his six children, his second wife Chryss having passed away last year.