Michael O'Leary: 'I don't understand the point of holidays'
Ryanair's Michael O'Leary tells Carissa Casey how fatherhood has changed him, going on movie dates with his wife Anita and why he won't be leaving his three children much of his multimillion-euro fortune
Published 16/01/2010 | 05:00
A tornado touches down in the reception of Ryanair head- quarters at Dublin airport. With a whoosh worthy of Harry Potter -- or should that be Lord Voldemort? -- Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary materialises, grinning from ear to ear.
He's smaller in person than the giant publicity machine he operates so skilfully, with all the pent-up energy of a top jockey. And he's surprisingly genial, in a super- efficient, I've-got-a-company-to-run kind of way.
He bounds up the stairs and trots along a narrow corridor to his office, gesturing at tiny cubicles on either side, from which Europe's largest airline is run. His office is relatively spacious and perfectly bland. The interview gets off to a bad start. Travel, it emerges, is not one of O'Leary's favourite topics.
Mrs O'Leary has insisted for the past few years that the family go on a two-week break to the Algarve, because "that's what normal people do". But he gets bored building sandcastles with his children.
"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."
You could read a book. "I read lots of books, but I don't want to go on holidays."
What about sightseeing? "I live in Mullingar, what the hell do I want with the sights of the world?
"Look, I'm just a boring old bastard," he finally announces.
O'Leary plays the media like a maestro. He's rarely out of the headlines, given his penchant for outlandish statements, politically incorrect asides and often unprintable excoriations of... well, the list is endless. But we know very little about O'Leary the man.
He grew up on a farm in Mullingar, the second child and first son in a family of six. He went to boarding school at Clongowes, one of Ireland's top private schools, although he says he did not grow up with lots of money.
After university he owned his own shop in Crumlin, where he boasts about doubling the price of batteries when he opened on Christmas Day. He worked for Tony Ryan, the founder of Ryanair, and turned the company from spluttering wreck to soaring success.
In 2003, he married Anita Farrell and the couple have three small children now, Matt (five), Luke (three) and eight-month-old Tianna. The family live on a farm in Mullingar and O'Leary commutes each day to Dublin airport in his much-famed taxi.
The usually loquacious O'Leary deftly side-steps any further questions about his interest, or lack of it, in travel by launching into a long and excitable monologue on the brilliance of Ryanair.
Isn't it ironic, given his own dislike of travel, that he would run an airline? "Yeah, but if I was off taking holidays all the time maybe Ryanair wouldn't be as successful as it is," he shoots back.
Do you accept you're different to other people? "I think I'm perfectly normal. It's other people that are weird."
Why do you think you're like that? "I don't know what it is; I don't give a shite."
You've never thought about it? At the age of 48 you've never thought: 'Why am I the way I am?' "No."
Never? "No. What the hell would I be worrying about that for? I am the way I am."
He relaxes somewhat when the focus shifts to the joys of Mullingar, or, more specifically, life on a farm in Mullingar.
"I grew up on a farm and I like that existence. The reason I live on a farm now is that I want my kids to grow up on a farm. You see lots of rich guys, they want to be tax exiles and all the rest of it. Their kids are running around and they don't know whether they're coming or going.
"I'd rather my kids know where they come from, that they grow up on a farm, whether it's Mullingar or anywhere else. They're on a farm, they have pet animals, horses, pigs, cats, donkeys, whatever it is. But they're rooted in a community down there, which all sounds a bit barfy but that's what it is."
Emboldened, I suggest he's a nature lover. His face crinkles with disgust. "When you ask is there a love of nature, there you're off trying to be 'Oh yes, I'm a great lover of nature and I'm in harmony with the natural order of things'. No! I just like the countryside. I grew up on the countryside. I grew up on a farm. It's not a love of nature; I'd quite happily eat the bull in the field if he made a nice steak.
"You start off with 'Why don't you go on holidays?' The reason I don't go on holidays is I'm having too much fun either working here or spending time with my wife and children. Why would I want to go on holidays? Holidays don't hold any attraction for me."
It's time for a change of subject. O'Leary doesn't suffer stress and has enjoyed the past year. The boom times were boring. It was too easy to make money. "We had a difficult year. Earnings are down; traffic is up; fares are down; profits are down. But that's always much more interesting than when everything's going well."
What of this year? He predicts more bankruptcies across the travel industry. The biggest trend will be away from package holidays and towards people booking flights to top holiday destinations independently, on Ryanair of course. The airline will fly direct to all four of the Canary Islands for €59 this summer.
The company may have cancelled negotiations with Boeing for 200 new aircraft, but it will continue to expand. It carries 60 million passengers at the moment. In three years' time, that will rise to 90 million passengers.
Because of that expansion, fares will continue to get cheaper. He sees no limit to how low air fares can go. "But there's a limit to the lack of imagination of the regulators or the half-wits in the Department of Transport."
For the next 15 minutes, O'Leary vents his spleen on the incompetence of the 'establishment', which includes, at various points, senior civil servants, bearded sandal wearers and Bertie Ahern, to name but a few.
He would never consider politics because, as he probably rightly points out, he's unelectable. But he could sort out everything from the decline in the tourism industry to the failings of the health service "tomorrow".
Does he harbour a secret desire to be appointed to some position of authority?
The sneer reappears. Even to suggest such a thing is "mindless waffle".
"I don't want to be rescuing the nation. I'm a pretty good boss of an airline but that doesn't mean I can do anything else."
But you do talk at length about everything else. "I'm asked questions and I answer them," he counters indignantly.
The Michael O'Leary persona -- the one we read about in the papers -- how close is that to who he actually is? "I'm sure I'd say a mirror copy of it."
Is there a quieter, gentler side? "Yeah," he finally concedes. "A lot of what I do for Ryanair is all a put-up job. It's all about being brash and creating publicity. Am I like that with my family and friends? No!"
It's true he doesn't appear in the gossip columns or show us round his wonderful home through picture spreads in celebrity magazines. "I'm not interested in that stuff," he says. "Outside of Ryanair I live very quietly. That's the way we like to live. That's also why we like to live in Mullingar. You're out of the Dublin jet-set or the business elite or the Chamber of Commerce and black-tie dinners. And that's where I'd rather be, a million miles away from it."
Are there aspects of things you'd wish you'd done differently? "Of course I wish I'd done some things differently."
Name one? There's a long pause. "I wish I didn't swear so much. I wish I had more patience. I wish I wasn't as critical of people who make mistakes. I wish I'd gotten married at a younger age and had children earlier than in my late 40s.
"But then I didn't meet the right person until I was in my early 40s. There are lots of things I wish would be different but they're not. Would I change my life if I had it all over again, would I change lots of things? Frankly, no. I'd have made much the same choices. But I'm very happy with my life. Why wouldn't I be?"
He says his early drive was to make money and seems confused at the idea that not everyone who grew up in the 80s recession shared the same dream. Some wanted to travel, perhaps.
"You can only travel for so long. I know nobody who wants to spend the rest of their life travelling. It's a fairly aimless existence. I can understand people who want to go to the States, Australia, Asia and see different cultures. But it has to have some end in mind. I think your life would be very unfulfilled if all you do is fluting around."
Is there a spiritual aspect to you?
Do you have any kind of religious faith? "Am I Catholic? Yes. Would I go to Mass? Yes. Do I believe in a lot of the teachings of the Catholic church? No. I think a lot of it is complete bloody tosh.
"Did I believe contraception is wrong before marriage? No, absolutely not. I was an active participant in contraception. But it didn't interfere with my going to Mass. So am I spiritual? Not very. Am I practising Catholic? Yes."
Are you interested at all in the arts? "No."
"I like reading and I would go to a play, but nothing highbrow. I would go to the movies with my wife once or twice a month. But does that take me into the arts? I hear sometimes I've a great art collection; that's a load of old rubbish. I've no interest in art."
I suggest in an alternative universe he could have a career as a stand-up comedian. "I wouldn't. I get away with a lot of things because I'm perceived to be a rich, successful businessman. And rich successful businessmen are normally boring bastards in business suits pontificating about the world. And I tend not to be. I wear jeans because it's comfortable. So I'm slightly different from the run of the mill. In the past few years I've become a parody of myself, in any case."
Do you ever feel like saying, listen folks there's more to me that this or that?
"Of course there is, but I'd have to care what people think about me."And you don't? "No."
Really? "I couldn't give a rat's ass. It's the great thing about being generally happy in your own skin. I never felt the need for approval, or to be loved. You can be loved by a dog."
Do you want power? "I have no power. If you listen to me, I rail against the Government, the civil service, the bureaucracies but no one listens to me. I'm just there as the ranting idiot in the corner but at least I am the ranting idiot in the corner."
He says fatherhood has changed him. He says he won't leave his kids lots of money, citing Warren Buffet's adage that you should leave your kids enough money to make them feel like they can do anything they want, but not enough money that they can do nothing.
What if they want to travel, or become actors and painters? "Funnily enough I don't think I'll have a problem with that. If you want to be an actor, Godspeed, but you put your own bread on the table. If you want to be an accountant, Godspeed. If you want to be a lobbyist for the gay and lesbian association for Dublin, off you go as long as it pays you, that's fine."
His determination to keep his kids grounded is genuine. The oldest is about to start at the local national school. The family flies Ryanair for that annual beach holiday.
"It's important with kids," he says. "They have to go through the same experience as best you can as all of their friends. You can't have them in some private prep school and flying on private aircraft. They have to be going to their local school and flying Ryanair. If kids aren't doing the same thing as their friends they become isolated."
It's time for the photographer to get to work and, with the microphone off, O'Leary's I've-got-a-company-to-run impatience emerges again.
For the past hour he has consistently denied any tendencies towards introspection. But he suddenly volunteers a memory.
"Don't ask me why -- I was not precocious -- but I was always a loudmouth. In my first year at Clongowes I used to get killed by the sixth years mouthing off at them. Boarding school is very good in that it teaches you to shut up occasionally."