Saturday 16 December 2017

There's life after Largo: Ray Coyle's rollercoaster ride

Ray Coyle is busier than ever with new food startups, building plans and the phenomenon that is Tayto Park, writes Sarah McCabe

‘Tayto was already a phenomenal brand when we bought it,’ admits Ray Coyle from his beloved Tayto Park
‘Tayto was already a phenomenal brand when we bought it,’ admits Ray Coyle from his beloved Tayto Park
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

The view from Ray Coyle's office summarises his life. From one window on the second floor of Tayto Park's headquarters, I can see the enormous €12m Cu Chulainn - Europe's largest wooden rollercoaster and the centrepiece of the theme park.

From another window, I can see steam billowing out from the chimneys of a factory owned by Largo, the crisp company he founded 33 years ago.

From a third vantage point, I can just about make out a few bulky, rust-coloured bison - part of a herd which he farms for meat.

Farming, albeit potato farming, gave him his first taste of success in the 1970s. But Tayto Park is Coyle's main business interest - and his pride and joy. He has just sold his final stake in Largo, the maker of Tayto and Hunky Dory crisps, to majority shareholder Intersnack.

The deal he signed in 2008 which gave control of Largo to Germany's Intersnack gave it the option to buy more shares every few years; over time it has chosen to exercise this.

He will remain a director and chairman of Largo's board until at least 2017.

Does he ever regret doing that deal?

"Of course, when you spend 33 years at anything, it is hard to let it go," he says.

"But at the time I needed the money to do other things. I would have liked to reverse the options - but I couldn't. That's the way it goes. They are an excellent company to work with, very professional."

Coyle knows what it is like to lose things. He made a lot of money early in his career with potato farming, growing rapidly in the 1970s, expanding to 800 acres and hitting turnover of €1m a year by 1975 while still in his mid-20s. It was a heady time.

His mistake, he says, was failing to diversify. Potato farming was too easy to do, everybody piled in and soon the market was saturated. Despite selling some land, he found himself owing €1.2m to the banks, with only a farm in Bellewstown worth €400,000 left.

He decided to raffle it instead, shifting 4,000 tickets at €300 apiece and managing to clear his debts in one fell swoop.

With the little money left over, he started Largo.

"I had been selling potatoes to the likes of Tayto and Perri crisps, so I understood the business and saw an opportunity."

Largo's first brand was Cottage Crisps. Next it bought Perri and the Donegal brand Sam's Spudz. Coyle built several factories overseas, including facilities in the Czech Republic, Moldova and Tripoli, which closed down a year before the Libyan civil war.

The seminal acquisition was Tayto - bought from C&C in 2006. That was the turning point for the business. Largo had been losing market share to Walkers -but by 2007 they had entered growth mode.

"Tayto was already a phenomenal brand when we bought it, going since 1952," he adds, reluctant to claim too much praise.

But it was his clever marketing that made Tayto what it is today - a product synonymous with Ireland, sent in care packages to diaspora all over the world alongside Barry's Tea and Ballymaloe relish.

Tactics included putting Mr Tayto up as a candidate when Bertie Ahern called a general election in 2007, or publishing a Mr Tayto autobiography - "140 pages of advertising that was a bestseller for three months before Christmas. Really good marketing."

Largo and Coyle were also behind one of the country's more notorious marketing campaigns - the big breasted Hunky Dory girl, whose scantily clad billboard attracted significant ire.

"It was classic guerrilla marketing," he says.

The approach for Tayto Park is just as smart. Coyle is adept at using his story and personality to market it, everything from Late Late Show appearances down.

The idea for the park came to him in 2006. "We had nothing like this in Ireland, no family theme parks. There are so many in Europe and the US - but Ireland, for some reason, had just never done it," he says.

It costs an initial €8m to get the project off the ground - buying, landscaping and fitting a vast site near Ashbourne in Co Meath, with tens of millions more invested since then. It opened in 2010. It was a steep learning curve, he says, with lots of visits to US parks for inspiration.

"It took six months for anyone to show up. I thought I had built a white elephant, made a mistake... and then Easter 2011 came along, and the weather was great, and people started showing up in droves.

"The park very unusually made a profit in its first year and continues to make a profit. We were blessed."

Another €41m has been invested since then on developing the land and adding rides and facilities like restaurants.

The single biggest spend took place last winter with the installation of Cu Chulainn.

It was the only European rollercoaster to make it on the list of 'Best New Rides' in 2015 at the biggest amusement park awards in the US, the Golden Ticket Awards.

"The other big rides we have are a little more aggressive, popular with teenagers. But this is something for everyone - everybody loves it, even I love it," he says. It also boasts a zoo, with full membership of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (the official zoo accreditor), plus a falconry that will soon be home to the biggest eagle in the world, the Steller's Sea Eagle.

It regularly hosts themed events, opening at night from Tuesday to Friday this week for a Halloween celebration complete with terrifying haunted house and chainsaw-donning costumed staff. About 120 media professionals descended the evening after our interview to try it out. At Christmas, it will host the country's biggest Santa's Grotto.

Some 730,000 people have visited the park so far in 2015. Though winter is its quietest period, he expects another 20,000 to visit before the end of the year.

The majority has been funded by Coyle himself, though bank loans and the reinvesting of profits have played a part too. He estimates he has invested €30m personally.

"At the start I could not get a loan. So I sold the factory in the Czech Republic to do it. I'm not a big believer in loans - and today most banks will only give you 25pc of the cost of a project anyway.

"Of course in the early days of Largo we took money from wherever we could get it, you never asked how much it cost - the main thing always was and still is that you need money to make money," he adds.

The park closes in January and February for maintenance. New rides, expanded facilities and more access points will be added. He wants to grow the number of rides by 60pc and has a spending plan for the next two years.

"What we will have then is a park with over a million visitors a year, employing 800 people at peak, here for your grandchildren. These parks last a long time - 80 to 100 years. It will be creating wealth in this region for a long time.

"Ultimately, if I have the energy and finance I'd like to build a themed family hotel."

He is not finished with the food industry either. Coyle has invested in three fledgling food businesses, taking on equity stakes and planning to move their manufacturing to a factory in Donegal that was closed down by Largo.

The first is Natasha's Living Foods, the health food brand known for its kale crisps and raw cacao brownies, founded by raw food fan Natasha Czopor. Coyle is taking on a 55pc stake in the business in exchange for an investment of over €500,000.

"She has got it dead right," he says of Czopor. "Her products are exactly what today's health-conscious consumers are looking for. My daughter uses them - and she is an Olympic athlete."

Daughter Natalya is getting read to complete in the pentathlon in Rio 2016, having finished ninth at the London Olympics in 2012. His son Charles helps to run Tayto Park.

Coyle's other two new food investments are SynerChi, the country's first kombucha brewery, and Irish Cone and Wafer, Ireland's largest manufacturer of cones for 99 ice creams.

The food business is tough, he says.

"You have high entry costs, distribution challenges, and of course now there are big concerns around the health implications of products too. Plus fewer customers today than ever before, thanks to consolidation of the grocery market."

His other interests include manufacturing - he is in the process of buying half of Windsor Motor's commercial fleet - and residential construction. He is financing a new development of about 45 affordable residential homes in Maynooth, with prices expected to start at €270,000. Work will begin in a fortnight.

"We're nowhere near back in boom territory," he says of the housing market. "We are going to see a slow rise in property prices. There is certainly an urgent need for more housing but it will not go the way it did."

He recently exited the oil business, selling Ashbourne Oil to the Reihill family's Top Oil.

He has recovered from a throat cancer diagnosis and at 63 looks a decade younger. He has no plans to retire.

"I don't play golf, I don't have too many hobbies, I can't stand sitting on a beach. If there is a business opportunity where there is a reasonable chance of success and it is a subject that I know something about, then I will go for it.

"I may do less, or something different, but I will never do nothing."

The secret to his success, he says, is a combination of luck and experience.

"I had some really classic failures. But I have been lucky too... and overall I chose more good ones that bad. You just have to be persistent, to be dogged about it."

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