A city is only as strong as those who forge ahead for its best interests despite the many obstacles in the way of progress. Fortunately for Townsville there are many big-picture thinkers we’re proud to call our own. In this series we celebrate some of the doers who’ve helped put Townsville and the North on the map.
Known for his unwavering commitment to social causes, Tony Ireland is a doer who has helped take Townsville from Brownsville to the capital of North Queensland.
THE DRIVING FORCE
Born and raised in Cairns, Tony moved to Townsville in 1985 when, as an ambitious 31-year-old, he seized the opportunity to buy the Holden dealership that had come on the market. “When I first arrived I had no intention of staying,” he admits. “After three or four years it had grown on me and after 10 years there was no way I was leaving. The sense of community in Townsville drew me in.”
As Tony’s dealership grew, so did his involvement with the community. So much so that at one point it outweighed the time he spent on his own business. “In 2009 I sat down and worked out that for the previous five years I’d averaged more than 25 hours a week on projects that had no relationship to my business,” says Tony, who was giving his time to various industry bodies, Townsville Enterprise, the Townsville Crocodiles and multiple charitable organisations.
“Someone suggested the exercise because they recognised the imbalance. So I resigned from a few things and kept my commitment to those closest to my heart.”
Among the keepers was The Salvation Army, whose work Tony views as critical to the community. Tony and other chairmen who championed The Salvos had their sights set on establishing a bigger base for the organisation. “The Salvation Army centre in town is the same set-up that was built just after the war,” Tony says. “The population had boomed but they were still operating from the same building, so it was a big drama. Construction of the new centre at the airport is now underway and it’s five times the size of what they’ve got now.”
“When I first arrived I had no intention of staying,” he admits. “After three or four years it had grown on me and after 10 years there was no way I was leaving. The sense of community in Townsville drew me in.”
Getting the V8 Supercars to Townsville was another pet cause for Tony, who says it was eight years in the making. “It was difficult because you had to coordinate local, state and federal government money and it was a big sum,” says Tony, who was joined by other local visionaries who all wanted to see the idea cross the finishing line.
“The biggest problem was changes of government. The project had been reviewed by several bodies and while it hadn’t been rejected, it hadn’t been approved either. Peter Fowler did a phenomenal amount of work and, in hindsight, the numbers he created were spot on… but no one believed him. “In the end we got lucky with the federal election because it was a close call between the Liberals and Labor. We were able to convince the community that we deserved the V8s and if one party didn’t give the funding to us then they had no chance. I was so caught up in the cause my wife Merilee joked that I had ‘V’ tattooed on one bum cheek and ‘8’ on the other!”
All the effort was worth it, with the event bringing big tourism dollars to Townsville. “In the first year the crowd was terrific but most people just came for the race and went again,” Tony says. “In the second year 50 per cent of the people who came to watch the race stayed for four or five days before or after the race and by the third year they were staying in North Queensland for a month. It’s exactly what we hoped would happen. As a family event there’s nothing better. I get such a thrill seeing hundreds of kids in their Holden and Ford gear.”
After 31 years in business with the Tony Ireland Group, and a health scare where his immune system broke down causing temporary blindness, Tony decided 2016 was the year to sell up. “The business has changed and I formed the view that you have to get much bigger or get out,” Tony says. “We could have kept going but I decided that, health-wise, it was better to have a break.” The settlement took place on Friday 30 September, with the multi-million-dollar car and truck retail businesses in the Tony Ireland Group going to Brisbane-based AP Eagers.
But that doesn’t mean Tony has ‘retired’… “I’m having a gap year, I’m not retiring,” Tony insists. “I’m still self-employed, I just haven’t got these great big businesses. I’ve got a couple of smaller ones and some properties that we rent and in the next 12 months we’re going to build a new house and do some touring and cruising while working out what comes next. “I’m really interested in the new technology hub. I really enjoy seeing people develop and if I can mentor business owners I’d get a buzz out of it…”