Friday 19 July 2019

John Mulligan: 'We all knew O’Leary was never going anywhere anytime soon'

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary. Photo: PA
Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary. Photo: PA
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Deep down, we all knew that Michael O’Leary was never going anywhere anytime soon.

For years, he’s been telling everyone that he was almost ready to hang up his spurs, that Ryanair would need a different kind of leader as it cemented its position as Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier.

He turns 58 next month, and his latest contract extension will bring him to 63 when it expires. Don’t be surprised if he’s still there when he’s 70, and even longer.

But this morning’s announcement still heralds a big change for the carrier.

Mr O’Leary will become group chief executive of the airline group, with Ryanair actually having its own, separate boss. The coveted position of Ryanair’s chief executive will be filled later this year, the group said this morning.

Ryanair now owns Austria-based Laudamotion, which already has its own chief executive, as does Ryanair Sun – its Polish charter arm.

Ryanair is moving to a management system similar to that operated by IAG, whose chief executive is Willie Walsh. IAG owns Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Level, each with their own chief executives.

As group CEO, Mr O’Leary will concentrate on development of the group, backed up by a small team of legal and finance personnel.

Michael O’Leary is known for his forensic knowledge of Ryanair and everything that’s happening at every level. Will adopting that IAG structure see him loosen the reins a little?  The transition to the new structure will take place over the next 12 months. It might take at least another 12 before we can see how it has paid off.

But investors will be grateful that the airline boss will be staying to pilot the group through turbulent times, however.

In the past 17 months, the carrier has undergone significant transformation. Its decision to recognise trade unions was unexpected, and the jury is still out on how its long-term relationship with unions will develop.

The outspoken Mr O’Leary has frequently said how there’s no other executive role he would probably take, and that he wouldn’t be the type of person to take non-executive roles on other company boards.

In 2016, he insisted he didn’t want to be running Ryanair when he was 75.

“I'll only stay if the board wants me to stay,” he said at the time. “I'm not wedded to this place that I want to stay here until I'm 75.”

He added: "One of the challenges for me here in Ryanair, is to step down…and have the next generation of management coming in. It's easy to be the guy who's been here for 20 years or 25 years.

"The acid test of a really good company like Tesco, Lidl and Aldi has been where to get the next management group to come through. I think that's something that's a challenge facing me and the rest of the management team here over the next five years."

Even last September, after the airline’s annual general meeting, he told reporters that he would probably prefer to return to the 12-month rolling contracts he had been on before he signed his first five-year contract in 2014.

“I have no idea when I'll have had enough," said Mr O'Leary after the shareholder meeting. "I like this company. I like working for this company. I don't do it for the pay I get. But as long as it remains interesting and fun and challenging, I see no reason not to continue to try to lead it and lead it forward positively."

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