Smurfit, who was born in St Helens, England, was educated at Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare, Ireland. He left school aged 16 and joined his father's company, Jefferson Smurfit & Sons Ltd, in 1955. In 1967, he was appointed joint managing director and was made deputy chairman in 1969. He was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Jefferson Smurfit Group in 1977, a position he held until his retirement as CEO in November 2002.
During his tenure at the helm of the Jefferson Smurfit Group, Smurfit led the early expansion of the Group in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. He followed this with a series of acquisitions in the U.S., Latin America and Continental Europe, creating in the process Ireland’s first international company and a global leader in paper-based packaging. As chairman, Smurfit has recently overseen the merger of the Smurfit Group with Kappa Packaging BV to form the Smurfit Kappa Group, employing 42,000 employees in 33 countries on 5 continents. The group had sales of €6 billion in 2009. He currently owns 4.9% of Smurfit Kappa. He is also a director of Ballymore International, a property development and investment group, and has investments in other small companies.
Smurfit is a member of many sporting and social clubs in Ireland, the United Kingdom, United States, Monaco and Spain. He owns the K Club in County Kildare, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup. He also owns a €53 million super yacht and the Smurfit Art Collection, worth over €50 million. Smurfit also commissioned Anna Livia, a bronze monument formerly located on O'Connell Street in Dublin. It was affectionately known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi.
He has two daughters and four sons and lives in Monte Carlo. He is uncle to Irish actress Victoria Smurfit. His son Tony Smurfit, also based in Monte Carlo, is the current CEO of the Smurfit Kappa Group.
In 2005, Smurfit was appointed to be a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) in HM The Queen's Birthday Honours List 2005, published on Friday 10 June 2005. He is honorary Irish consul to Monaco and has been honoured by the governments of Colombia, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Venezuela. Leading national and international universities have also recognised him for his philanthropic work and business success. The postgraduate business school of University College Dublin, the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business, is named after him as a result of his financial support.
- "Ireland's Rich List: 21-30". Irish Independent. 31 March 2010. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
- "Dublin's Floozy in the Jacuzzi returns to the city". BBC News. 25 February 2011. Retrieved 25 February 2011.