Danny O’Neil: An appreciation

DANNY O’Neil, rightly renowned for his achievements as a youthful and brilliant high-flyer in Scotland’s fund management sector, found himself reluctantly in the limelight when he resigned as chief executive of Britannic to spend more time with his family.

He was 41 when he made this decision in January 2002. By that time he had overseen spectacular growth at what was by then Britannic Asset Management. This major player on the Scottish financial stage by then managed funds of £17.6 billion, built up from a few hundred million pounds when Danny had taken the helm around a decade earlier. This success had seen him promoted to the top job at Britannic the previous year.

In spite of speculation that the highly regarded and much-liked Danny, who has died suddenly at the age of 60, was poised for another big post when he left Britannic, spending more time with wife Tricia and their four children is exactly what the boy from Castlemilk did. Triplets Patrick, Conor, and Caitlin were nine in January 2002; Siobhan was about to turn 18. It is a time that the family treasured, as is clear from Conor’s description of his dad as his “hero”, and as “one of the most kind, generous, intelligent men – so highly regarded in all walks of life”.

Among Danny’s many great career achievements, what really mattered to him was creating a people-focused culture wherever he worked.

Danny mentored many people, in his business and personal life, passing on wisdom and experience in his unassuming manner.

His family highlights the instrumental part he played in supporting all four children with their passions and shaping their future careers.

Conor emphasises his father’s role in helping him become a professional golfer. Danny was watching when Conor hit the opening shot in the Scottish Open at Gullane in 2018. Danny himself always had the time to act as a sounding board for Siobhan as she pursued her career in law, and to support Caitlin in becoming a social worker.

He also helped Patrick realise his ambition to become a professional footballer. One highlight for Danny was watching Patrick, as Brechin City’s goalkeeper, who had done a sports scholarship in the US, pull off a brilliant penalty save against St Mirren in the Paisley club’s packed stadium in 2018.

Danny, who enjoyed watching all sports, also attended ballet performances with Caitlin and concerts with Siobhan.

He enjoyed family holidays in Cape Cod. Tricia, a retired nurse, recalls that during one such vacation just before the triplets started school, Danny was on the phone for hours on several days to seal the deal to acquire £830 million of third-party funds run by Scottish Amicable Investment Managers, which was being closed by owner Prudential, and bring on board key SAIM personnel.

Danny was born, the second of four children, on June 8, 1960, to Harry and Moira. He met Tricia when they were both 15 and attending St Margaret Mary’s Secondary, Castlemilk. They married in 1982, a year after Danny graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in pure maths and joined FS Assurance as a trainee actuary. He moved swiftly to an FS Assurance investment operation then headed by Colin McLean, which was led by Danny from 1991 and evolved into the Britannia and then Britannic fund management business. Danny ultimately qualified as an actuary in 1991.

A Celtic season-ticket holder and keen golfer, he captained the Hares & Hounds running club when he was at the University of Glasgow. He was later junior convenor at Pollok Golf Club, and played for Newlands Lawn Tennis Club’s team.

Always generous with his time, he was happy in 2002 to talk to The Herald about his reasons for leaving Britannic. He had been seen at the time as a likely candidate for the Standard Life top job but declared then: “If I was going to do something like that, I could maybe have done it before now.

“People might think 41 is quite young to do this. I was chief executive at 30. It depends what you do in your life. I have been doing these lead roles for a long number of years. I have not had any great pressure from Tricia ... It is not that I have had any ultimatum.’’

However, there was only so far he was willing to go when it came to discussing family life. The Herald business desk once received a call from a researcher looking for Danny to talk about his Britannic departure on breakfast television. When the message was relayed to him, he responded with good-humoured exasperation, making plain this would not be his cup of tea.

Leaving Britannic did not mark the end of Danny’s successful efforts in building businesses and creating jobs. He played a key role in the major expansion and diversification of Glasgow plant, tool and equipment hire company, GAP Group, as its chairman for 14 years, before stepping down in the spring.

Douglas Anderson, co-owner and joint managing director of GAP, said when Danny left: “We are sorry to see him go.” This chimed with comments back in 2002 from then Britannic chairman Harold Cottam about the considerable time he had spent trying to persuade Danny to stay.

Among the people Danny enjoyed meeting during his career was George Bush Senior at a private dinner with a small group of fund management executives in Scotland in the early 1990s.

Danny’s genuine interest in people was no doubt a major part of his success in building a fund management business of real scale and importance to the Glasgow and broader Scottish economy. However, his ability to make people feel good about themselves extended to so many situations. In a Scottish financial sector not without its cut-and-thrust, you never heard a bad word said about the personable, engaging and witty Glaswegian.

Danny, who died on November 2, is survived by Tricia and their children.