The Scent of Success... Ryanair heiress Danielle Ryan means business
As an heir to the Ryanair fortune, Daniell Ryan's lineage comes with some baggage - but the 31-year-old is determined to be an independent business success. Here, she tells how her company, which includes a fragrance line, is changing the face of luxury branding. Photographs by Mark Nixon
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
One night after a play at the Project Arts Centre, I witnessed a successful Irish playwright turn into an inarticulate buffoon. Danielle Ryan had just brushed past him. "That's - that's, she's - you know," he was trying to tell someone. His eyes were wide and washy. She smiled and chatted away, impervious.
It was just a passing moment. But it made you ask, what does it take for a smooth, highly intelligent, handsome (married) man of letters to become a gawping fool in just seconds? What has this girl got?
It isn't enough to be the eldest granddaughter of Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, and a daughter of the late, brilliant but troubled aviator, Cathal Ryan. It takes more than such a rare lineage, a vast fortune and terrific beauty to melt a man on the spot. People who are born rich have to grasp the proverbial silver spoon and make use of it - something Danielle acknowledges.
"What can be created are amazing opportunities. It's how you use it, and what you do." Since her father's untimely death eight years ago, she has done a lot, skilfully portioning out his legacy in war-ravaged Sri Lanka, into setting up a world-class national theatre academy called The Lir, and her own bold new cultural enterprise, Roads.
Being a Ryan comes with baggage - public scrutiny, great expectations, presumptions about who you are. At 31, Danielle Ryan carries all this, a woman of the world who seems decades older (though not in looks). But she sure travels light.
On arriving, she kisses me on the cheek and hops up to our table in her spiked metallic heels, smiling ear-to-ear. She smiles constantly. The cringy, yet appropriate word 'jet set' just shimmers from her.
Does she fly Ryanair? "I do fly Ryanair!" Danielle laughs. "In Europe, absolutely." Does she get special treatment; do they know who she is? Her tone drops a few pitches. "I get no special treatment. And I wouldn't be looking for special treatment. No, I don't think that would go down well. I wouldn't be particularly comfortable with that either."
Her voice! The words pour forth, deep, crisp and clear, with an elocution that shouts of Swiss finishing school but actually she boarded at the fairly ordinary Our Lady's in Rathnew. London's RADA, where she trained as an actor, must have provided that tremendous voice, which sometimes dissolves into sweet, girly laughter.
In torn denims, a gauzy blouse and stiff black blazer, gold jewellery glinting, French manicure clacking, she means business. I think Danielle Ryan would make a very proficient pilot too, cool-headed in steering the topic away from a past and private life she does not want to go to, back to the main destination, Roads. It's the reason we are meeting.
Roads is very unusual - a luxury brand in three separate companies: fragrances, publishing and entertainment. It seems like a curious constellation of forms and ,indeed, when Danielle launched the brand two years ago at the Pitti Immagine Fragranze fair (new to me too) in Florence, she took her competitors by surprise.
"I was nervous," she says in a rare admission, "Going: 'Will people understand this idea of the three companies going together?' And they did, they really got it. I found there's a lot of cross-over. There's an element of bringing different cross-disciplinary ideas in and meeting them together." Roads looks to be a hotbed of opportunities for Irish artists. The small creative team, headquartered in Dublin, have 11 films in the pipeline, including Trade, written by Mark O'Halloran "who I admire a lot". The story, adapted from a play, is about an older gay man who falls in love with a rent boy. "It was an LGBT issue. That felt current," she says. In books, they have designed beauteous editions of the classics and clever picture titles. A book with the artist Maser is on the way.
The coffee table books are succulent status symbols - Paparazzi, a weighty and gorgeous collection of Roman paparazzi shots, stands on my shelf and is never opened. But the Roads tastemaker insists that luxury is not all about wealth and display.
"Luxury is changing. Luxury is the considered, a project that takes time to do, as opposed to being easy mass production. It's not always that if it's expensive, it's luxury."
The idea for a fragrance label came from a relatively frugal setting - theatre, in particular, The Lir, of which she is a director.
"A lot of immersive theatre at the time was using fragrance, which was quite emotive. So, in my normal way, I went and researched it. I thought: 'That's quite interesting, the impact it has on the brain, how subtly and subliminally a scent can have an effect on your opinion or your mood.' It's a very basic, very original form of human communication, so I was kind of fascinated."
And she entered a notoriously elitist industry, met with perfumers in the French compound houses and designed the 10 niche eau de parfums now marketing all over Europe and in the US, Moscow, Middle East and "hitting Asia". You can purchase one in Selfridges, Barney's, Liberty and Brown Thomas for €98.
Has she had to convince (Irish) people that beautiful things aren't necessarily frivolous? "What you wear identifies who you are," she shrugs, and smiles.
"You can create the atmosphere that you want to surround yourself in. I don't see that as frivolous, it's actually quite an interesting concept."
Danielle Ryan was born in Dublin on November 1, 1983. She has an older brother, Cillian, "we're almost twins", and a younger sister, Claudia, from her father's relationship with the model Michelle Rocca - who also has two daughters with the footballer John Devine, and two smaller children with Van Morrison. She also has a younger brother, Cameron, from her father's relationship with Sarah Linton. "Miss Linton" was at the centre of the Ryan vs Rocca court case in 1997, which followed events at a birthday party on a Kildare stud farm. Cathal Ryan was found to have assaulted and injured Michelle Rocca in a celebrity case so heavily reported it will unfortunately never be forgotten.
Danielle was raised by her father from when she was a baby. Her mother, Tess de Kretser, is from Sri Lanka. "She was an air hostess and he was a pilot for Air Lanka so, there you go!" Danielle gives a little laugh. They divorced when she was a year old and Cathal's job as a Ryanair pilot took them all over the world. "I grew up all over the place. I was born in Dublin, via Sri Lanka, Nigeria and back in Ireland."
In 1985, the year her parents' marriage ended, Danielle's grandfather launched a modest airline with a 15-seater plane that flew Waterford to Gatwick.
Tony Ryan was the son of a train driver from Tipperary who had started out as a traffic assistant at Shannon Airport, "the lowest rung on the ladder of Aer Lingus", as told by his biographer Richard Aldous in Ireland's Aviator.
He went from handling baggage to managing crews to leasing aircraft for the company, then grew the aircraft leasing giant Guinness Peat Aviation. When it crashed on the stock market, Ryanair was launched to resurrect the family fortune.
"I'm extremely proud of my family. I'm proud of what they achieved, I'm proud of the way they did it," says Danielle, but with reserve. Her interests lie in the Arts, not Ryanair, and she makes this crystal clear. "I was never involved in that business, so it's hard to comment on it."
"I like aviation, I always liked aviation," - casually, as if liking the colour pink. "The aviation was going on there, the guys loved it, it kind of felt like the guys club. For me, I was lost in this world of Arts. I'd be off painting, or doing my little things... But then the business was there. I always knew... Ryanair is a very good business. That's what inspired me. Good business."
One does not associate planes with art. "Actually, my family were very literary. And huge appreciators of art."
Danielle was 11 when her father bought Stacumny House in Celbridge. When Cillian went to boarding school at Clongowes Wood, Danielle had to entertain herself in that 18th-century mansion filled with literature and running with animals - "dogs and birds and an old horse".
I wonder if she was shy. "I'm still shy." But also confident, she agrees. "I think maybe just more introverted, keeping myself to myself, a little bit."
Her great-uncle Simon, Tony's younger brother, was a special mentor to her. "He was really big into theatre and into plays. He was always introducing me to everything." Her father and her uncle Simon converted the old barn into a theatre and set up an amateur company, Stacumny Players, which Danielle performed her first plays with. She loved to paint; even now, she says: "If I was left in a room long enough, I'd end up making something."
She went to NUI Maynooth and studied anthropology. After a year, she left. "I was really craving the conservatoire-style hardcore training," and so she got through the punitive RADA auditions and became an actor. She had a few roles, appearing in the Tudors and with Vanessa Redgrave in a film written by Maeve Binchy that never went to cinemas. "I'm more comfortable being part of the creative side, putting it together, that's what suits me." It is impossible to picture her being bandied about by an agent, or constrained by a director. Her ideas are too big. "It's hard to start off as an actor. It can be totally heartbreaking. It's a tough industry."
That is why we like having Danielle Ryan in Irish film. At Roads, she says, "One of the big things for us is looking for female directors, strong female lead characters, that will challenge actors of all different ages. There's so much to be done about looking at things from a woman's perspective." In October 2007, as Danielle's career was setting off, Tony Ryan died in his palace in Kildare, Lyons Demesne. He was 71. The closely knotted family lost its patriarch.
Just weeks later, Danielle's father found out he had months to live. Cathal died a few days before Christmas. He was 48. Both father and son had battled cancer. Two years later, Danielle's uncle Simon died suddenly. He left a €250m legacy. More millions were left to charity. But what effect did her father's death have on Danielle, who was just 24?
"Just that I had to get on with things, really. Be independent. I needed to grow up quite quick." She shows no emotion. She has total poise.
"It was time to go: 'ok, you're no longer under your parent's guidance, that helping hand that was there. You're going to have to go and figure this out for yourself.' Which was fine. I was 25 when I began The Lir and I was sitting on some big boards. That made me feel unusual because it was not something that my peer group were doing."
The four half-siblings are close. "Everyone's always been quite chilled. We don't see each other all the time. It's just a relaxed thing, everyone's on their own vibe, their own little journey."
Hers, with Claudia and little Cameron, was with Unicef to Sri Lanka, where the Cathal Ryan Trust pledged €11m to rebuild villages. She announced the donation at the UN General Assembly in New York, while pregnant.
"I've a very good husband who's very helpful," she smiles. That's Richard Bourke, her "childhood sweetheart", a barrister, nephew of the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and genuine golden boy who sits on the boards of Amnesty International and Educate Together.
"Richard I've known since I was 16. He was in school with my brother, so quite ordinary. He was my best friend first. He's always been a rock throughout everything. He's a very intelligent, very kind person. And very calm. I could hit a problem and be like [she makes the sound of a scared animal] and he'd be like, 'Shhhh'. We're kind of ying and yang, so, it's helpful."
Danielle was 28 when they married and they have two children, Carla (5) and Ethan (3). They live in a Georgian townhouse on FitzWilliam Square with their dogs - Erica, her aging Dogue de Bordeaux and Kevin, a "very bold French puppy".
"Family life is very gentle now, and it's very comfortable. Which is a good place to even try and create a brand like this." She glides back to business. "It needs to come from a bedrock of solidarity. The kids are involved, very much so. My son picks up everything in the supermarket and smells it."
She takes the little ones away if it's a long trip, like recently to the Berlin Film Festival and Milan for a fragrance launch. "They're curious. I like that, I like them seeing me work.
"For me, Roads is very much a platform for the way we would be going forward, once I had kids, that we would travel and that we would do interesting projects, that we would research things together."
I have to ask her "how she does it". That's what we ask working mothers. Together with a childminder and a rigorous approach is the answer. "The only way that I could find that I could work for all the aspects of my life was to compartmentalise them. When I get into work, the first hour-and-a-half is emails, it's really quite structured. And then I have a work zone." Then she goes off for lunch. "And I have a second work zone, the emails have to go, and I just concentrate on one project for two hours, then the emails again. It's amazing what you get done.
"So when I'm with my kids, I'm with my kids. I forget about everything else. They force me to unwind, I just have to put the phone and the laptop to the side. I've got quite regimented about my focus. I put them to bed, and then usually the States wakes up, so I have calls, and whatever... And then I'll go to bed."
"Things like social life go out the window, but that's fine." They enjoy, she says, "a good restaurant every so often. I like the Winding Stair, I like 777 for dangerous margaritas, Thorntons, The Fumbally." Does she worry about money? "About money? Of course. A lot. Every day." She talks clean corporate governance, water-tight accounting, risk averse, good business. Does she worry about money day-to-day?
"I worry about money in other ways. I worry about the effects of it. I worry about sometimes, the responsibility that it gives you. The effects of it on my kids, the affects of it on my own mentality. You've to be careful of things like that, it's not the way I want to live my life." Like what? "That I wouldn't still have my ear to the ground. You can lose touch with reality a bit, and that's never something I intend to do.
"In fact, it's the opposite, I'm trying to more keep in touch with everything that's going on as a purpose of my business. So the price of milk - it's not something I want to lose touch with, it's not the way I want to live my life. It's dangerous to not be in touch with reality. God knows where that could lead down to."
She likes to be detailed, involved in every aspect of a negotiation. "I think, so far, the Unicef and The Lir projects that have come out of this have been very detailed, and they've only been detailed because I've been in touch with reality. Because I've been in touch with every detail that has meant efficient use of money, it hasn't been just writing massive cheques."
The 10 Roads fragrances are available at Brown Thomas, Dublin. For information on the Roads publishing and film production divisions, visit roads.co