Tuesday 20 November 2018

Nothing low budget about this Ryan heir

Danielle Ryan is a one-woman luxury superbrand. Just over a year after its creation, her lifestyle company Roads is shifting 20,000 bottles of its 10 fragrances annually in the world's top department stores

SHE DIDN'T LICK IT OFF THE STONES: Danielle Ryan with a copy of the biography of her grandfather, Tony Ryan
SHE DIDN'T LICK IT OFF THE STONES: Danielle Ryan with a copy of the biography of her grandfather, Tony Ryan

Roads' headquarters is an exercise in good taste. The lifestyle company overlooks one of the busiest corners in the country, the intersection of Dublin's South Great Georges Street with Dame Street. Home to a team of nine designers and executives, its whitewashed walls and solid woods floors feel chic and minimalistic.

Step into chief executive Danielle Ryan's expansive corner office, however, and you are hit with a riot of colour. One long wall is filled floor to ceiling with framed paintings and photographs, treasures picked up on her travels around the world.

The 31-year-old founded Roads in 2013. It is a luxury brand with three divisions: film financing, publishing and fragrance. Her timing was perfect. Though it was decimated by the recession, the luxury consumer goods industry is returning to rude health. Bain valued the sector at €223bn for 2014.

In little more than a year, Roads has launched 10 perfumes, brought its award-winning art books to bookshops north and south of the equator and worked behind the scenes on some of Irish film's most promising releases. But the company is still relatively unknown in Ireland.

Raven-haired Danielle is far better known - being one of the youngest members of aviation dynasty the Ryan family, and an heir to its fortune.

Her grandfather Tony Ryan has been described as Ireland's answer to Jay Gatsby. Born in a railwayman's cottage, he rose to enormous success, building up a little airline called Ryanair as well as aviation leasing business Guinness Peat Aviation. By the time he died of pancreatic cancer, aged 71 in 2007, he was fabulously wealthy. The tycoon had three children - Cathal, Declan and Shane.

"I had a very normal relationship with my grandparents," says Danielle. But "there was an attitude in the family by osmosis that you could create things. And a really strong work ethic as well - they worked really, really hard. There was no cut-off between life and business, everything was the same."

Cathal was Danielle's father. He died just months after Tony, when she was 23, finishing drama school in London. A glittering career beckoned, but Cathal's death brought her home.

Setting up a lifestyle company was already on her mind. "I had been thinking about Roads for a number of years but I needed certain big projects behind my belt to feel like I could tackle it," she says.

The first of these was establishing the Lir Academy, the theatre school in Dublin's trendy Grand Canal Dock district. The Lir is modelled on London's famous Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) where Danielle studied in her early 20s. It is the only organisation in Ireland to offer conservatoire training, an internationally recognised performing arts qualification.

She also began work on a major humanitarian project with Unicef in Sri Lanka. Cathal Ryan's estate has donated $14m to the country, restoring three towns decimated by the civil war that ended in 2009. This took her all the way to the UN General Assembly in 2011, where she spoke about implementing a large relief effort in a limited amount of time.

"I was pregnant virtually the entire time, too" she recalls. She has two children, aged three and five, with barrister Richard Bourke, nephew of former president Mary Robinson. Having sold the Celbridge manor she inherited from her father, the family lives in Dublin's Georgian oasis, Fitzwilliam Square.

The Ryan family is no longer involved in Ryanair but her uncle, Declan Ryan, stayed in aviation, founding the hugely successful Irelandia Aviation. Was she ever tempted by that industry?

"I loved aviation but I didn't grow up with it in the same way the last generation did. For me, it was always arts. From the beginning. But I also had a love for business - the mental challenge of it, figuring out problems and trying to find solutions.

"I've always had the idea for a cultural brand that could be a little bit dynamic, that could collaborate and commission but also be commercially successful as well; that would mix business and arts in a way that would be fresh and relevant."

"I had done a bit of film financing before - not a huge amount, but some work on a small indie documentary called Dreams of Life and some other stuff. It was a world I knew anyway, I was comfortable with film. I was fairly comfortable with publishing too. I have a big library of cocktail books, it has always been something I wanted to do. Fragrance kind of just came along."

She deliberately launched the company with three separate divisions already in place, to avoid any one activity feeling like an add-on. She compares it to Virgin, which operates very disparate businesses under one brand. Studies show it is a strategy that works well for the luxury goods sector, which enjoys strong brand loyalty from physical shoppers.

Despite its status as an afterthought, the fragrance division has proved the most successful. The 10 Roads perfumes are niche and high-end - retailing exclusively in luxury department store Barneys in the US and in Liberty and Selfridges in the UK.

The scents are also on sale in the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, Morocco and Russia.

Ryan developed them herself with the help of a hired "nose" and has them manufactured in the UK. The inspiration behind them was, unusually, theatre.

"I was researching for the Lir about the use of scent in the auditorium, scent as part of performance. It's a big thing in New York where they incorporate the smell of the atmosphere you are watching. If a play is set beside the sea, you can smell the sea. It is very emotive. Smell is a very strong sense, something people don't understand.

"I couldn't find out enough about it so I went and met a few people involved and started to understand the world of fragrance. Before I knew it, I had developed about 150 fragrances and met up with a great distributor, Intertrade Europe. It was kind of a 'why not' moment."

Each has a different idea behind it. White Noise is based on technology while Harmattan is based on a wind that crosses that Sahara. "I think people are starting to see fragrance differently, treating it a little bit more like fashion - rather than wearing one religiously, they play around with it and mix more than one."

Its publishing division is Roads' second most lucrative. What prompted her to launch a book operation in the age of digital? "I get asked this question a lot, but I think there is space in the market for both. Where we are in publishing is a slightly different animal to, say, bestsellers, or novels that have a set shelf-life. These are art books and gift books. That sector is actually doing very well.

"They are books that must be produced in the old way, with photo editors, lots of people working on one concept. In an age where you can get virtually every image online, it has to be a little bit different."

Those published so far include a collection of work by the Irish artist Alice Maher, a tome on the world's most spectacular theatres and libraries (her favourite is La Scala in Milan) and Paparazzo, a selection of photographs from the archives of Italian photographer Elio Sorci. He was the world's first celebrity snapper, snatching candids of Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins before the "pap shot" had even been invented. It retails for €75, while a limited edition copy including an archive-quality print can be yours for €1,250.

Stockists span the globe, from the US to the Middle East, South-East Asia and South America. "We are starting to talk about translation rights," she adds.

The film division is the smallest. There are nine films in development but nothing finished yet. The first will begin filming this year. "We have an interesting one in the works with Mark O'Halloran, who wrote Adam & Paul and Garage, based on his play Trade. He's got a really beautiful script. We were at the Berlin Film Festival last week discussing it. I am very excited about it."

Roads' films "tend to be about issues that have not been brought up before, or else they are really talent driven - here is a fabulous director, let's see what they have. There is no exact science to it."

So the crucial question - how profitable is it all? "We are only up and running a year. But the fragrances are looking very well," she says. "We sold about 20,000 units in the first year of fragrance." A bottle retails at around €100, which suggests €2m in turnover from that division alone.

"These things grow in a very different way than people expect. There are choices that you have to make - keeping exclusivity with Barneys or whoever it might be, even though they might only have 10 stores, that's a choice you make to build a brand."

She owns the company outright, presumably because her resources meant she did not have to seek outside financing. Her family's wealth "is probably grossly exaggerated," she says.

"I am very comfortable but I am also not the type of person that could do nothing... That is not the way I was raised, not the way I think. I've had people ask me why I'm not sitting on a yacht somewhere and I ask the same thing back. I'd get pretty bored."

She is constantly on the lookout for new ideas. Roads' success depends on her ability to keep ahead of trends, to spot exciting and emerging designers and concepts. She travels constantly, from Cannes to Basel to London.

"It's kind of a philosophical way of living... everything becomes relevant. I'm always looking out for things, reading a newspaper thinking 'oh that's kind of an interesting story, I wonder is that worth doing... if there is a documentary in that?' Or, if I liked an artist, I'd find myself wondering if any work has been done on them before.

"I think I drive my husband mad, looking at things all the time."

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