'I really don't like turbulence – and there's very little of it in Ryanair's boardroom too'
Interview: Michael Cawley
For a man who has clocked up millions of air miles, Michael Cawley admits he prefers to have his feet planted on the ground.
"I'm a nervous flier, not too bad, but I don't like turbulence. Isn't that stupid?"
Well, maybe not stupid. After all, each of us has our little fears and foibles. And for Cawley, it's just as well he didn't let a discomfort with flying interfere with a decision to join Ryanair as chief financial officer in early 1997, a year before the airline listed on the stock market (he was appointed the company's chief operating officer and deputy chief executive in 2003).
Cawley, a chartered accountant, had never even heard of Michael O'Leary before he hopped on the Ryanair express, having been introduced to him by former KPMG executive Gerry McEvoy. O'Leary had worked with McEvoy at KPMG predecessor Stokes Kennedy Crowley, while Cawley knew McEvoy through previous roles.
In nearly 30 years, Ryanair has grown to be one of the world's biggest and most profitable airlines, carrying 80 million passengers a year. Having transformed aviation in Europe, the 'Ryanair effect' percolated across the globe, from Australia and Asia to South America, as former executives with the carrier helped others replicate the success of the Irish upstart. But there has been plenty of turbulence to deal with along the way, and little of it in the skies.
And as he gets ready to leave his executive role at Ryanair next month, Cawley isn't finished with the surprise admissions. But more of those later.
What's on his mind, despite having just weeks left in the job, is the new customer-focused service ethos that Ryanair has thrown itself into lock, stock and barrel.
Minutes before he sits down for a grilling, he's trawling through data on a screen with two other Ryanair executives, and describes how Tesco has used its Clubcard data for maximum impact, carefully targeting customers.
"We've done nothing like individual communications," he explains. "You could be travelling from Knock to Alicante and you get an email about flights from Sweden."
They call it the 'Amazon Project' at Ryanair. Maybe the 'Tesco Project' didn't sound sexy enough (although Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary said in 2010 that the airline needed to become "more like Tesco", in terms of its sales strategy).
"We're doing what they do essentially," says Cawley, sitting across the table at what feels somewhat like an Ikea showroom. The company has only recently moved into its swish new headquarters near Dublin Airport. Pool tables, games machines, and giant chess sets are just some of the features ostensibly designed for staff downtime that are dotted around the place. One suspects that if you ever have downtime at Ryanair, someone will ensure it only ever happens once.
"We find that people might go to Pisa six times a year. So we can interest them in things in Tuscany, maybe give them special offers in Tuscany – that sort of thing."
Alright then, next admission: "I'm very ignorant of these things."
Say it's not true.
"I'm just imagining how we might do it by reference to other websites," he insists. "We're partners with Booking.com for instance. They're fantastic. My wife has an account with them. They're constantly referring her to stuff, in a very sympathetic way."
Cawley, who confesses he "hated accountancy and auditing", is resigning from his executive role (he'll remain as a non-executive at the airline) at a time of huge change at Ryanair. It's been beating the drum about embracing the customers it once preferred to stick two fingers at.
Major changes to its operations are a key component of its own Operation Transformation.
Gone are many of the punitive penalties for not printing out boarding passes or turning up without having checked in luggage (charges still exist, but they're massively reduced). Allocated seating has been introduced across all its flights, the website's been revamped, and all the rest. The list goes on. Most companies have always put customers at the centre of their business. For Ryanair, this is new territory.
Last year, the airline was the centre of the wrong kind of media whirlwind when it emerged that a British surgeon working in Dublin had been charged €188 to change his flights to the UK. He needed to return home urgently after learning that his family had been killed in a fire. Ryanair later apologised and refunded him the money, but it was an unmitigated PR disaster for the carrier.
So was there an epiphany around the Ryanair boardroom table that something needed to give, that the strategy of telling passengers to f**k off if they didn't like the service, the price or the penalty fees, was past its sell-by date?
Cawley insists the debate has been going on for years at Ryanair, and that the change of heart hasn't been sparked by any single event or issue, although he concedes what easyJet and other airlines have done in terms of focusing on service did make Ryanair sit up and take notice.
The late Ryanair co-founder, Tony Ryan, was also peeved that under Michael O'Leary's leadership, customer service at the carrier barely rated as an after-thought, if at all. (Interestingly, Cawley met Ryan around 1980 after he was offered a job, which he didn't take, at GPA subsidiary Air Tara. Cawley says he didn't warm to the aviator).
Cawley even admits that he might have liked to see the changes having been made even sooner.
"This has been a constant discussion," says the six-foot-plus Corkman who turns 60 in April. "My job is to sell seats, so I was very concerned. There would have been a sense from people like myself and some others who said, you know, we might do better if we have a different approach to customers. But on the other side, operations wanted a clean, clinical operation. The debate was hard fought over many years."
But while around the top table, Cawley and Howard Millar (a former FCA army officer who's chief financial officer and deputy chief executive) on the face of it present a formidable bulwark to O'Leary, there's a sense to the outsider at least, that what Michael wants, Michael gets.
Cawley shakes his head. Not true.
"Can he dominate the situation? Sure, he has a very strong personality. But there are a lot of strong personalities here. Ultimately, he has the prerogative, being the chief executive. The fact that he's in the position, he doesn't exercise that abusively by disregarding other people's opinions any more than any other chief executives I've experienced. He's strong, very vocal, but he gets it between the eyes from a few of us as well."
There are no punches pulled at Ryanair, says Cawley, whose father was among the first recruits in 1922 to the newly-created Garda Siochana.
"There is no office politics at Ryanair," he adds. Come on, really? Human nature is human nature, after all. The son of a detective who investigated a few murders during his time must have learned that lesson early.
"There's nobody here being looked after or promoted or demoted because of the type of person they are rather than the value they are to the organisation. That's the only thing that matters," he says.
"You're found out very quickly – good or bad. You can tell Michael one minute he's a b****x, and the next minute it's forgotten about. He equally will tell you you're a b****x, but it's not meant to be insulting. It's just a way of dealing with an issue quickly. It's the end of an argument. There's no point in being nice to him personally. You can't ingratiate yourself to him." But with all this Ryanair reinvention, isn't one of the fundamental problems for the airline that, quite simply, no one believes it?
It has always had a perception problem. Its promise to transform Aer Lingus into a far bigger carrier if Ryanair took it over, to create hundreds of maintenance jobs in Dublin if it rather than Aer Lingus was awarded control of a hangar, and any number of pledges across Europe have fallen on deaf ears.
Around the time of the Dublin hangar debate in 2010 (look it up, if you're interested), Cawley says Ryanair was "politically toxic" in Ireland. The then Tanaiste Mary Coughlan didn't believe Ryanair's plans to create 500 jobs and said she wouldn't meet O'Leary.
"Michael Dell can come into the country, move jobs around, and the Taoiseach will drop everything to meet him. That's fine, and this particular Taoiseach has met with Michael O'Leary many times, but there was Coughlan and she wouldn't even meet us," says Cawley.
"Whatever got us to that point, whether it was overexposure, or whatever, we're interested in radical change and it brings us up against vested interests."
But the battles, at least for Cawley, are now a thing of the past. He's a non-executive director at Paddy Power and will probably take on another couple of similar roles.
He has two daughters, one in Australia, another in Holland and two sons in Ireland (both on the accountancy trail). A first grandchild, born in Oz, has focused the mind more on the meaning of life and all that. A few trips Down Under are on the cards, not to mention finally getting to properly visit many of the countries where Cawley has only ever seen airports.
"I've been to about 130 of the 180 airports we fly to. I'm not going to visit them all though."
Please have your boarding pass ready for inspection.
CAWLEY IN BRIEF
Position: Chief Operating Officer, Deputy CEO, Ryanair.
Past: Worked at companies including Kodak, Athlone Extrusions and Gowan Group.
Studied: UCC, Bcomm, 1975. Qualified chartered accountant.
Personal: Married, four adult children.