Business Irish

Saturday 16 December 2017

'Time is the most precious thing we have and yet we don't realise it'

Travel firm boss Gillian Bowler, who has died, proved women can succeed in business in Ireland

CONFIDENT: Gillian Bowler could command a room full of business people but felt happier at home reading a book. Photo: David Conachy
CONFIDENT: Gillian Bowler could command a room full of business people but felt happier at home reading a book. Photo: David Conachy
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

She was confident without being brash, a woman in a man's town who wore a beaming smile that would entice you effortlessly into her charmed circle.

Gillian Bowler was an English woman in Dublin at a difficult moment in Anglo/Irish history, but that was something nobody seemed to notice.

Around this time of the year, the catalogue for Budget Travel and the saucy advertisements that accompanied it - a semi-naked girl wearing a yellow thong with her back to the camera - carrying the legend, "Get your seat in the sun" would result in queues forming outside the Baggot Street office for the January travel sale.

Collateral damage was a string of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority which were successfully upheld. She then amended the offending line to "Don't get left behind" and said "it was worth £1.2m in publicity for a poster that cost us £20,000."

She knew marketing by instinct long before it turned into the pseudo-science which it is today.

It was an era of long lunches, endless receptions ending in Scruffy Murphy's in Mount Street, and a business aristocracy in which she appeared to find herself by accident.

IN CHARGE: Gillian Bowler. Photo: David Conachy
IN CHARGE: Gillian Bowler. Photo: David Conachy

Gillian Bowler could charm Charlie Haughey or his arch enemy Hugh Leonard, could hold her own with a coterie of 'new' women like Terry Keane and Noelle Campbell Sharp, but maintained that she was happier at home reading a book than being dolled up for the social scene.

I first met her in the old Dobbins Bistro at one of those brochure launches and was captivated by the gleaming white teeth, the sunglasses on the top of the head and the sheer confidence of a woman who could command a room.

Much much later, when she was chairwoman of Irish Life & Permanent, and things were going pear-shaped, I saw a different woman - the confidence shaken, her health deteriorating, the bank floundering. But as she told us in 2008: "I'm a fighter, not a quitter."

Back in the glory days a business magazine dubbed her 'Charlie's Angel' - a reference to an American television series that was popular at the time and her friendship with the sulphurous Charlie Haughey.

Gillian Bowler in her role as chair of Irish Life & Permanent. Photo: David Conachy
Gillian Bowler in her role as chair of Irish Life & Permanent. Photo: David Conachy

But it was actually Michael O'Leary, the former leader of the Labour Party, who had a keen eye for strong women, who put her on her first State board.

"People used to say I was having an affair with Charlie Haughey," she once told me with a gleam in her eye. "Even my secretary believed it."

She was unmarried at the time but in a long-term relationship with Harry Snyder, her partner in business and life who became her husband in 1989.

She used publicity as a tool to draw attention to her travel business, but also to draw a veil over her own private life. She was always ready with a quote for reporters looking for a story, but when you look back through the cuttings you realise there is little or nothing about her own private life.

Gillian Bowler running her successful Budget Travel business. Photo: Colin Keegan
Gillian Bowler running her successful Budget Travel business. Photo: Colin Keegan

"I got a lot of publicity because I was a woman in business when there were no women in business," she told me.

"It was a huge advantage. If you're in the service industry or the holiday business, you are willing to do almost anything. It's a bargain with the devil. You are willing to expose part of yourself, but not all of yourself. But if you live by the sword, you can also die by the sword and there is no point in complaining."

The brash publicity attracted huge traffic to Budget Travel at a time when young people suddenly had money for two weeks in the sun and so-called 'courting couples' were beginning to go on holidays together for the first time.

Her husband Harry and her stepdaughter Rachel were content to keep well clear of the limelight. The family lived in a mews house in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, and spent long weekends at their Wexford retreat where only close friends were invited.

Born in London in November 1952, Gillian and the Bowler family moved to the Isle of Wight when she was about 12. But after a long illness and without finishing her education, Gillian headed back to London at the age of 16 where she lived in a hostel for a time.

Foreign travel was blossoming and she got a job with Greek Island Holidays, set up its office in Manchester and by the age of 19 was earning £1,000 a week selling Greek holidays through the newspapers. Her real education was "the University of Life".

When she had money, she simply took off to Greece, so by the time she came to Ireland to set up Budget Travel in 1975, she knew the holiday business inside out and specialised in the sun-soaked Greek islands.

According to company documents, Gillian Bowler, described as a travel agent, and Elizabeth Frost, a housewife of Orwell Park, Dublin, were the original directors in Budget Travel. It was by no means an overnight success and she would later say that for the first year the bank manager called in to the office every morning to check on his loan.

It was a good investment for all concerned. She sold Budget Travel to the British group Granada for €5.7m in 1987, disposing of her final 10pc in 1996 for a further estimated €3m when Thomson Holidays bought the business. By then she was something of a 'quango queen', appointed to the boards of the Irish Goods Council, VHI, the Tourism Task Force and the Irish Tourist Board, as well as the boards of a number of commercial firms.

"I liked him then and I like him now," she said of Charlie Haughey in 2004, when others from the golden circle were trying to distance themselves from a man in disgrace.

"I didn't really know him before he first appointed me to the Tourism Task Force. It was typical Charlie. I got a phone call from him to ask if I'd take part at 1pm as it was going to be announced at 4pm - and that evening a journalist told me I was chairwoman - Charlie hadn't bother to ask. I accepted anyway."

Gillian Bowler was appointed to the board of Irish Life & Permanent (ILP) in 2004 and quickly succeeded Roy Douglas who stood down as chairman, later provoking Shane Ross to ask: "What was a travel agent doing running a major bank and insurance company during the boom?"

She had the misfortune to be in charge when €7.5bn was deposited with ILP by Anglo-Irish Bank and later returned as a "customer deposit" in a circular transaction to make Anglo's balance sheet look better.

She defended the transaction at the time, saying it was done "to support the policy objectives of the Financial Regulator". She eventually stood down as chairwoman of the bank in 2010.

Without really trying, Gillian Bowler broke the 'glass ceiling' in Ireland.

She made it acceptable for a woman to be successful in her own right and not just as an appendage to a successful man.

"There is a lot of work, and then there are the social things, and I am very bad at that," she told me in an interview in 2004. "I get no joy standing around in high heels. I like to get home and read a book. Time is the most precious thing we have and yet we don't realise it."

Sadly time ran out for Gillian last Wednesday at the age of 64. And another light from what some of us remember as a golden era was extinguished.

Sunday Independent

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