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T.J. Dermot Dunphy

April 15, 1932 - December 6, 2021

Burial Date December 10, 2021

Funeral Home Layton Funeral Home

Obituary Viewed 1348 times

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T.J. Dermot Dunphy, of Far Hills, an innovative executive and philanthropist passed away on Monday, December 6, 2021 at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown in Morristown.  He was 89.  Dermot was somewhat of  a corporate maverick who, as CEO of Sealed Air Corporation from 1971 to 2000, was hailed by many as “a shareholder champion.”  During his tenure, Dermot popped a lot of stereotypical bubbles.  There no golden parachutes, poison pills, or shark repellants, no staggered board terms, no employment contracts for top management, and no executive jets or first-class flights.  From the beginning, he felt that values and attitudes such as respect for the individual, honesty, and fair dealing were the building blocks of a well-functioning company.  As he often said, “virtue is a competitive advantage.”  His philosophy was affirmed when Investor’s Business Daily reported the value of Sealed Air stock appreciated 32,000% during Dermot’s tenure, exceeding that of any other manufacturing company in that 30-yer period.

His high school years in London were notable for Dermot’s skill at rugby and a summer job doing manual labor.  The latter resulted in a life-long appreciation for the challenge of physical labor and the satisfaction that comes from job well done.  Dermot went on to study law at Oxford University where he had the chance to meet some visiting Harvard Law students.  From them he learned about business schools, which didn’t yet exist in Europe.  Having already figured out that he didn’t want to be a lawyer, Dermot decided that going to business school was an opportunity meant for him.

Showing early confidence and determination, Dermot applied to all sixty of the business schools in America, a mammoth task before the age of computers and printers.  Harvard was the only school to offer a full scholarship – what they called a “moral loan”, no interest, no legal obligation, just an understanding that he would pay it back when he was able.  Dermot never forgot this and paid his debt to Harvard many times over by funding a fellowship for minority students at Harvard Business School and two chairs, one at HBS and the other at Harvard’s Divinity School.

Following his first year of business school, Dermot and another HBS foreign student traveled the U.S., reasoning that visiting forty states and meeting people from all walks of life was more valuable than three months as a company intern.  This adventure, the civil rights battles of the 1960’s, and especially the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had a profound effect on Dermot which solidified his desire to help disadvantaged people not just by donating money, but by sharing his skills, knowledge, and business experiences.  So in 1969, Dermot co-founded the Volunteer Consulting Group whose goal was to link minority entrepreneurs with experienced executives who could provide crucial management assistance.  The venture was a such a success that it was an example cited by Time Magazine in its cover story, “The Do Gooders” on the emergence of the new American Samaritans.

Several years later, Dermot, his wife Joan, and some Sealed Air employees adopted an inner-city, sixth-grade class in Paterson, NJ.  The group promised that they would help the class through high school and on to college.  The program achieved much better than average high school graduation and college acceptance rates.

Dermot thought it inherently unfair that America’s inner-city poor paid more and got worse quality food than their fellow citizens living in the suburbs.  Addressing that problem, he funded the start-up and operation of a first-class supermarket in a part of Jersey City where no supermarket chain was willing to operate.  Unfortunately, Dermot and his partner knew nothing about the supermarket business.  The venture operated at a loss until 2004 when they essentially donated the business to a Cuban family with a successful record in supermarket operations.  Happily, the new owners made the store profitable ,and it became the anchor to a shopping center, a successful example of inner-city economic development.  For Dermot it was in his words a business failure for him, but more importantly an economic and philanthropic success.

As Sealed Air’s sales, earnings and share prices increased, Dermot was recruited to serve on the boards of several publicly traded companies.  These included PSE&G, Loctite, United Jersey Bank (ultimately acquired by Fleet Boston Bank), Rockaway Corporation and Formica.

After retirement, Dermot founded Kildare Enterprises, a small private equity firm that looked to acquire and grow small to medium-sized privately held companies.  Unlike most private equity firms, Kildare has used only pledged capital from Dermot and some of his friends, and not institutional funds.  This allowed Kildare to take the time it needed to implement its own investment and management processes.  As Dermot said, “I really enjoyed what I did at Sealed Air and with Kildare, I have tried to build some little Sealed Airs.”

Dermot was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1932, the oldest of Philip and Marian Moore Dunphy’s two children.  Except for the war years, he spent his childhood in England.  His father’s decision to go to England as a very young man was a fascinating example to Dermot of the need to sometimes seize an opportunity despite the negatives.

Dermot was blessed with much good fortune, especially his marriage in 1974 to Joan, “the love of his life”, who in Dermot’s words inscribed on her tombstone, “went to heaven” in October 2015.  He leaves to mourn his passing and celebrate his spirit,  his wonderful children, Deirdre Dunphy and Madeleine Dunphy, children of his first marriage to Claire Richmond, and Siobhan Dunphy Rommel, a child of Joan and Dermot.  Sadly, another much loved daughter of Joan and Dermot, Shannon Ramos died in 2013.  Dermot is also survived by his terrific grandchildren – Lucy, Quinn, Joana and Sofia, and by his nephews and his stepchildren, with all of whom he had a close and loving relationship.

Dermot made the most of his moment on earth.  He will be greatly missed by his family and friends.  When he honored with the Harvard Business School’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2001, he was aptly described as “a distinctive personality – an unusual package combining intelligence, modesty, humor, and above all a deep humanity and regard for people as unique individuals.”

A funeral mass will be held at St. Elizabeth Church, 34 Peapack Road, Far Hills on Friday, December 10 at 11:00am, followed by burial at Holy Cross Cemetery, Basking Ridge.  In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the charity of your choice in Dermot’s memory.  Arrangements are by Layton Funeral Home, 475 Main Street, Bedminster.