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In Your Business

By Emmett Fitzpatrick
Seamus Kavanagh’s journey has taken him from Swinford in County Mayo to Libertyville in Chicago’s northern suburbs, with stops in places like Galway, the Netherlands, Texas, and Germany. Through it all, he has built an impressive career in business, and he and his wife Nuala have managed to raise an ever-growing family. Showing no signs of letting up, he relishes his role as a pillar of the Irish community in Chicago and aims to continue to strengthen that community for the younger generation.

The product of a traditional Irish family of six children, Kavanagh’s father was a teacher and mother a nurse. He describes Swinford as a great place to grow up, and he credits his high school science and math teacher as a pivotal influence in setting him on the path of becoming a scientist. That teacher was none other than Frank Gleason, who Kavanagh met decades later at Chicago’s Emerald Loop during an Ireland Network Chicago First Friday event that was co-hosted with University of Galway, where Kavanagh earned an undergraduate degree, a PhD in chemistry, and later, an MBA.

“Frank was a brilliant teacher, a cool teacher with long hair in a ponytail,” Kavanagh remembers. “Needless to say, it was a shock seeing him in Chicago so many years later.”

Upon earning his PhD, Kavanagh began his career as a Research Scientist with Dow Chemical, and his first posting took him to the Netherlands, where he and Nuala, whom he had met in Galway and married in 1988, lived for five years. In 1990, Seamus took on a new role at Dow that sent the Kavanagh’s across the Atlantic to Clearlake, Texas, and they welcomed their first child, Niamh, on the Fourth of July in 1991. After two years in the Lone Star State, they moved back to Europe, this time settling near Hamburg, Germany, for another career opportunity at Dow, where Nuala had also taken a job. 

1994 saw the Kavanagh’s move back home to Ireland, as Seamus took a management role with an Irish company and the family moved to Mullingar, where they stayed for a few years. They then settled in Ballina, where he set up a research and development facility for Hollister Incorporated, thus beginning a decades-long career with the company that specializes in developing, manufacturing, and marketing healthcare products and services worldwide. Kavanagh has been with the company for over twenty-five years, holding several executive roles in marketing, research and development, and, most recently, corporate development, where manages the buying and selling of companies and technologies.

“Hollister is privately held, employee owned. We do what’s best for associates and customers in the long term, which is great.”

As Kavanagh reflects on his career progression, he credits his decision to go back to the University of Galway to earn his MBA as the “best thing I ever did for my career,” so he could complement his scientific experience with business skills that have been valued in the company.

He and his family were enjoying their time in Ballina, which included frequent trips to their trailer in Enniscrone Beach and active participation in the local Gaelic football and rugby clubs, but another move was on the horizon in 2004. Hollister coaxed Kavanagh to return to the United States, so he and the family moved to suburban Libertyville, where the company is headquartered.

“This was a difficult move,” Kavanagh conceded, “as my kids were young and it was a big change for them.”

As time went on, the Kavanagh children adapted to their new home, and the family has been here for nearly two decades. The three children have all went on to attend college in the United States and embarked on their own successful careers.

Of course, no story of Seamus’s life and career would be complete without recognizing Nuala, who was recently honored with the Chicago Sister Cities 2023 International Volunteer of the Year Award for her work leading the Galway Sister Cities Committee. The honor was a long time coming, in that Nuala and Seamus have both been involved in volunteering to strengthen ties between Galway and Chicago for the last twenty years. For his part, Seamus has served as a board member of the University of Galway US Foundation, where he works with the University’s executive team and plans events and other engagement opportunities in Chicago. He is not shy when describing his motivations for supporting the University:

“I have three degrees from the University of Galway, and it has helped me to be the person I am,” he shared, noting the “fantastic” mix of academia, sports, and community at the institution. 

Outside of his work at Hollister and volunteer efforts with the University of Galway, Seamus serves as a board member of a dental insurance company in Ireland, an advisor for medical device companies here and in Ireland, and he leads the Bike Ministry and St. Joseph Catholic Church in Libertyville, where he and fellow volunteers fix up used bikes and deliver them to people in need. Alongside Nuala, he also fosters dogs from a local rescue organization.

Reflecting on his immigrant experience, Kavanagh also issued a call to action to young people in the Irish community in Chicago, a community that now includes his first grandchild, born in October.

“The Irish community in Chicago is strong and vibrant and very proud of their heritage. The Irish have always contributed to the communities they live in and I hope that continues in the future. I would like to see the younger generation getting more involved in the different Irish based organizations and taking over leadership roles and continuing the great tradition of building better communities through generosity and kindness.”