Analysis

Friday 25 July 2014

Emer O'Kelly: Loudmouth protests just a little too much

Michael O'Leary likes to portray himself as a complete rotter but Emer O'Kelly suspects this is not really the case

Published 07/10/2012|05:00

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Airline boss Michael O'Leary likes to play the bad boy of Irish business and has spent years carefully promoting himself and Ryanair as part of the same bargain

Michael O'Leary has done it again, bless his cute little heart. He gave what has been described as a "lighthearted" interview to UK business magazine Management Today last week, and it might as well have been Moses' exposition of the Ten Commandments in the attention it has received, excerpts being quoted in all national newspapers in Britain and Ireland, and probably quite a few across the globe as well.

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And what did our Michael say? He said that in his opinion holidays are a waste of time. And he added that he thought he was underpaid for his job.

But Michael O'Leary and by implication Ryanair are once more in print. And it didn't cost Curlytop a red cent, which is exactly, one suspects, what the idea was. Michael O'Leary has spent years carefully promoting himself and Ryanair as part of the same package.

The package screams "outrageous" because Michael himself is indefatigably and predictably outrageous, and he figures, I suspect, that people will thus think that Ryanair fares are equally outrageously low ... which, to do him justice, they are.

But you don't hit the headlines merely by quoting a load of figures in a dry and pompous tone. If you can be depended upon to be funny and a bit offensive, you have a guaranteed readership. Michael O'Leary has spent his business career trying to convince people that he's a bit of a rotter, the sort of fellow who is only interested in making money, and who despises all the poor plebs who are the fodder for his vast fortune. He did it again last week, in the Management Today interview.

He pointed out that he got paid €1.2m last year for carrying 80 million passengers, while his rival (in Ireland) the boss of Aer Lingus, Christoph Mueller, got paid €1.3m for carrying a mere nine million passengers. Put like that, Michael would seem to have a point. But everyone is so used to ticking the "outrageous" box every time the Ryanair boss opens his mouth, it was deemed worthy of international headlines.

He seems to revel in being the bad boy, not just of the airline business, but of business in general. But the more impish he gets, the more people refuse to believe that he's a monster, despite the relish with which he says he drives his staff without compunction. Maybe it's that he drives his passengers the same way: we can't go crying to Michael when his airline charges for baggage, and we know it. He's fair. It's like expecting mummy to reward us when we break the rules: good mummies don't. They say we were warned bad things would happen if we broke the rules.

But I suspect that having once publicly lost his temper and said exactly what he thought, Michael O'Leary discovered that people found it refreshing. He also found it got him massive publicity, and now he does it as a matter of course.

He even admitted that a couple of years ago in an interview for the woman's page of the London Independent, in which he said he was now a parody of himself. And he also said in that interview that he hated taking holidays. The exact quotation is: "The problem I have with holidays is you go and waste two weeks of your life sitting on a bloody beach. I don't understand the point of it." And a few days ago, he made international headlines by saying exactly the same thing. Clever old lad.

But interestingly, he does take holidays. He takes two weeks on the Algarve every year with his wife and children, and flies Ryanair. He claims it's at his wife's insistence: to behave "like normal people". But he also claims that he, the one who built a tiny airline into Europe's largest, having started in business by running a little sweetie shop in Crumlin in Dublin, is the normal one. He's not weird, he says, it's other people who are weird. But not all self-confessed bombasts do what they don't like just to please their wives and children; really nice people do.

Like the late Tony Gregory before him, he refuses to dress corporately and wears jeans and open-necked shirts as his working uniform, for comfort, he claims. But when he married Anita Farrell in 2003, he was dressed immaculately and conventionally in morning dress. Nor were his wedding celebrations splashed over gossip columns and celebrity magazines.

The proceedings were as private as they were elegant, with the reception being held at his own long-time home of Gigginstown House near Mullingar, the place he describes as a farm. It is indeed a farm, but the house is a Georgian gem, although as far as I know it has never appeared in glossy magazines, and nor have his wife and children.

Michael O'Leary may be a self-made man, and one of Ireland's richest, having triumphantly survived the crash. But he is personally discreet rather than secretive, and reserves his ferocious loud-mouthing for business.

Perhaps the only element of delusion in what he says is his denial of a privileged childhood. He is one of six, who attended Clongowes Wood School. Even with modest parents who have their priorities in order, it costs a great deal to send so many kids to Clongowes. O'Leary also recalled his time at Clongowes in an interview as teaching him that it was a good idea to stay quiet in front of your seniors. It's a lesson that he seems to have forgotten in his adult life, as various minor "setbacks" have shown. Always quick to rush to printed judgement, he has got himself into considerable trouble from time to time, trouble which for a lesser and poorer man might have been disastrous.

Judge Peter Kelly said in the commercial court that truth and Ryanair are "uncomfortable bedfellows". The model and former Miss World Rosanna Davison sued him when he issued a press release saying her remarks were verging on racist and elitist. Contacted to comment on the Ryanair charity "girlie" calendar which featured company employees, she had criticised the non-inclusion of Irish girls. She sued. He had to pay her €80,000.

He had to withdraw, publicly and humiliatingly a claim in 2007 that Ryanair had cut its emissions of carbon dioxide by half. It later emerged that he meant half per passenger.

Most people admit that when they fly Ryanair, they hate Michael O'Leary. His reply, as quoted, in general terms rather than in reference to his customers is: "I don't give a rat's ass what people think of me."

So Michael O'Leary should be on the list of everyone's "most hated". Yet when we talk about how the country should be run, many people suggest handing it over to O'Leary. Somehow he just can't make us hate him unless we're queuing to get on one of his planes, only to be told the flight has been cancelled.

And maybe the secret is in that interview of 2009 when he held forth passionately about being determined that his children would grow up "rooted", with pets, in the country, and attending the local school rather than a private prep school.

It makes their dad sound very rooted himself. Somehow, the self-proclaimed "boring old bastard" and "ranting idiot in the corner" hasn't quite perfected the image. A thing called a nice man with principles keeps breaking through.

Sunday Independent

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