Sunday 17 November 2019

Bright, personable, and well-liked: how Willie Walsh conquered Aer Lingus

Willie Walsh with Aer Lingus cabin staff Evadne Coogan and Aisling O’Brien in 2003
Willie Walsh with Aer Lingus cabin staff Evadne Coogan and Aisling O’Brien in 2003

Tom Molloy

Willie Walsh's life has been entwined with Aer Lingus since he was a teenager. Walsh, who grew up in north Dublin and went to school with the Christian Brothers on Griffith Avenue, joined the airline at the age of 17 back in 1979.

It was the making of him. With the help of a night degree from Trinity, he became an aircraft captain and later represented pilots in talks with management before hanging up his pilot's cap to join the suits.

One of this first jobs was to turn around the airline's troubled Spanish charter operation, Futura. He became chief operating officer in 2000 and CEO a year later as the September 11 terror attacks decimated the industry.

Walsh quickly cut costs by 30pc; getting rid of business class on shorter routes, eliminating in-flight catering, even cutting back on cleaning. He sold off some of its corporate art collection to keep it aloft, which added hundreds of thousands of euro to its coffers. In less than three years, Walsh brought the state-owned carrier from the brink of collapse to profitability by cutting a third of its workforce and repositioning it as a low-cost carrier.

It was an incredible achievement - but not enough for the restless and ambitious Walsh who then tried to buy the airline in a management buyout. The gambit eventually led to his departure from the airline after he was criticised in the Dáil by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

It was a setback, but it is the measure of the man that he used his very public defenestration to go on to better things before eventually finding himself in a position to launch another bid for Aer Lingus.

In an industry stuffed with larger-than-life personalities such as Richard Branson and Michael O'Leary, Walsh can appear almost low-key, but there is no denying he is single-minded in going after what he wants and getting it.

That determination came to the fore as he dusted himself down and joined British Airways as CEO.

Even here, Walsh demonstrated the same restless energy, merging BA with two Spanish carriers to create IAG and then bidding for Aer Lingus.

Walsh's aggression is often tempered by a softer side. He has taught himself Spanish to communicate with staff.

Despite earning more than €9m last year, Walsh also maintains a frugal lifestyle, driving a 1993 Honda Prelude when he was Aer Lingus' CEO and a decade-old Saab during his trips home these days.

Those in the industry describe him as bright, personable, and well-liked.

Unlike many business leaders, Walsh is careful to avoid casting himself as a superman and swears that he will retire at 55.

"I'm the last person you should model yourself on or seek advice from. I just don't do it the way others have done it. I've never planned my career," he told an interviewer a few years ago.

Walsh, who has a fierce work ethic and rarely goes on holidays despite working in the airline industry, says he has few regrets.

"I don't feel like I've missed out on anything. I'm a crap golfer, but I think I'll always be, so I'm not sure that spending more time on the golf course will actually help me," he said.

Judging by events, Walsh will have even less time on the golf course in the next few months.

Irish Independent

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