Having started his career running a small chemist in Northern Ireland - "I was the world's worst pharmacist,"
McClay was already in his 70th year when he founded the Almac Group in 2001, which now has 2,600 staff in the UK and the US, providing services in cancer and other research to 600 companies worldwide, including Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.
Galen and Almac, both based in Craigavon, County Armagh, turned McClay into Northern Ireland's most successful businessman. He was personally worth £300m before he began giving huge chunks away to health-related causes, particularly cancer research, following Andrew Carnegie's adage: "To die rich is to die disgraced." An even greater influence than Carnegie was his Aunt Minnie, whose favourite saying was: "The Lord will send you nuts when you have no teeth left."
McClay always avoided the trappings of wealth, living in a modest house near his birthplace and driving a 1996 Renault Safrane. He joked to employees - he called them his "family" and they adored him as a father figure - that his "old banger" doubled in value every time he filled her up with petrol. He refused to have a private spot in the company car parks, preferring instead to arrive earlier than everyone else, at 7.45am. "I don't like caviar, and champagne gives me flatulence,"
In the early days of Galen, he would grill his managers while peeling potatoes to cook them his homemade potato and leek soup or Irish stew in the company kitchen. The Troubles caused investment in Northern Ireland to plunge, yet McClay said it also produced "incredible camaraderie"
After taking Galen public in 1997, the first company in Northern Ireland to be floated on the London Stock Exchange, McClay bought the US company Warner Chilcott. Yet he soon realised that the expanded company's board was shifting its emphasis towards the US and "scattering my family of loyal employees in Craigavon to the four winds". On Friday September 28, 2001, he resigned as president of Galen, a decision that "took 12 seconds, as easy as taking off dirty socks". The following, chilly Monday morning, he stepped into a disused, hut-like industrial unit across the road from Galen's plush headquarters. The unit had no furniture, no water, no electricity and no telephone connection. Using an oil drum and a plank of wood as a desk, and with a cushion provided by his longtime partner and employee, Heather, he used his mobile phone to start building a new empire.
Selling his Galen shares to raise funds, he re-acquired the company's five Northern Irish divisions, and the rights to the company name. The US operation reverted to what remains its current name, Warner Chilcott. He founded the Almac Group in 2001 to provide pharmaceutical research, development and manufacturing services to companies worldwide
At the time of his death in Philadelphia, from cancer, McClay was expanding Almac across the US but denied that this meant reversing his earlier stand over Northern Irish jobs.
"I go back to my Aunt Minnie. She had a saying: 'If you're going to launch big ships, you have to go where the water's deep.' Some 65 per cent of medicines are taken in America. We've got to have a presence there."
The youngest of six children of a tailor and a schoolteacher mother, Allen James McClay was born in 1932 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, a small town devastated by the loss of its young men in the first world war, and struggling in the wake of the great recession. He recalled some schoolmates showing up with bare feet. One of his sisters died of diphtheria, which first sparked his interest in medicine. Another incentive, he admitted, was that he could get paid to train as a pharmacist - five shillings a week - whereas he would have had to pay for apprenticeships in most other trades.
After attending Belfast College of Technology, he qualified as a pharmacist in 1953, took a job managing a pharmacy and then joined the giant Glaxo pharmaceutical company, where he became a sales rep. Touring Ulster to visit hospitals, doctors, chemists and vets, he decided he knew enough to start on his own. In 1968, he set up Galen, named after Claudius Galen, physician to Roman emperors.
In his latter years, McClay became Northern Ireland's greatest philanthropist through the McClay Trust and later the McClay Foundation, donating £20m to Queen's University, Belfast, including a £4m Pharmaceutical Sciences Research Centre and a new library, both named after him.
Among his few extravagances were a string of racehorses - he had a private box at the Down Royal course in County Down - and membership of the renowned Royal Portrush and Royal County Down golf clubs.
When he was hospitalised last year, Heather remained by his bedside and they married in November in a ward turned into a chapel bedecked with flowers. He serenaded wedding guests with "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen". (By Phil Davis, Financial Times)
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