Saturday 14 December 2019

The men who would be king: Execs leaving for challenge

Imagine this: you're in your 50s with a cushy job at a big firm pulling in millions every year and a long, successful career behind you. Would you coast to a comfortable retirement - 
or leave it all behind for 
one last play 
for the top?

Howard’s End: Howard Millar will step down from his role at Ryanair in October. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Howard’s End: Howard Millar will step down from his role at Ryanair in October. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

'MY next move is really important because it's probably my last… as somebody said to me over the weekend, "you've got to make sure you back the right horse in the last race".

So sayeth Howard Millar, Ryanair's chief financial officer, who this week made headlines from California to New Zealand with the announcement that he will leave the second-most powerful position at Europe's biggest airline.

He departs not to retire early at the respectable age of 53, but to take a brave leap into the dark to fulfil a career ambition that the carrier, for all its resources, just can't offer him - the position of chief executive.

"My working career is now finite, in terms of full-time work. You get to a stage where you say to yourself, 'well hang on, I have a finite number of working years left, that window is closing'. Now some people say they want to retire and go off and play golf, but I want to work for the remainder of my available career. I'm in a situation where I can't get promoted - Michael O'Leary is not going to leave, he owns 4pc of the company," he said.

Few expected this of Millar, who alongside O'Leary and chief operating officer Michael Cawley - who also recently announced his resignation - effectively built up the airline from scratch. Most presumed that the accountant would finish out his career at Ryanair. He has been there for 21 years, steering the company through everything from increasingly massive Boeing orders to disastrous oil price spikes and a total reformulation of its fuel-hedging strategy. It is one of the biggest CFO jobs in the world, responsible for €8bn in dollar purchases, €4.4bn in cash and €4bn worth of debt every year.

But while his decision has taken the market by surprise, it is by no means unusual. He is far from the first senior Irish executive to leave a very comfortable, well-paid, high- profile job in their golden years because of a desire to fill unsated ambitions, or because the chief executive job just isn't an option at their company despite decades of service. Almost every major Irish business, from AIB to Eircom, 
has lost senior people for this reason.

"Senior people move late in life for a lot of reasons, ambition chief amongst them," said Peter Cosgrove, director of executive recruitment agency CPL. "If the person above you isn't going to go anywhere, there is nothing you can do. Especially in a company like Ryanair, where the chief executive is the face of the company and part of the brand."

"It's not only the number twos who leave - chief executives quit very cushy, lucrative jobs late in their careers to do other things too," he added. "The chief executive job has to evolve in itself or people get bored, regardless of pay."

He points to the recent shock resignation of Paddy Power boss Patrick Kennedy. Shares in the bookmaker fell the most in almost six months in May after the 44-year -old announced his plans to leave. He was one of the highest-paid chief executives of any Irish listed company for years. Kennedy has presided over Paddy Power since 2006, leading its expansion online and outside of Ireland and pioneering a controversial, all-publicity-is-good-publicity approach. The value of the company has almost quadrupled during his tenure.

Whilst insisting he didn't know what he'd do next, Kennedy said it was just time for a change. "I have always had a personal view that after ten years at the helm, change is good, both for the business and the individual," he said.

Could the as-yet-unfilled vacancy Kennedy is leaving at Paddy Power be Millar's next move? "I haven't considered anything yet."

One thing is clear - most late leavers are not motivated by money. "Financially, I'm secure. But I've been deputy chief executive, chief financial officer - and I think I should have a shot at being CEO," said Millar.

Their key motivator, instead, is age. Longevity is not the commodity it once was. Chief executives are getting younger, not older; FBD's Andrew Langford made the top job at 38. The rapid growth of technology companies which place heavy value on youth are partly to blame. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is 30, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer is 38 and Google's Larry Page is 40.

Even politicians are feeling it. Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte brought the issue to national attention this week when asked on RTE breakfast show Morning Ireland about whether he planned to retire and take up gardening. The minister responded genially enough with a joke about being bad at gardening - but then added, bitingly, "For a programme that's normally so politically correct, this trend towards ageism is very disturbing".

Ryanair's lucrative share option scheme, the primary method it uses to reward senior executives, would have tied Millar in for at least another five years. "I'm almost 53 now. That would make me 58 leaving Ryanair. If you are 58 you won't get another full-time role… you will be considered too old at that stage for another senior executive role."

But there's still no trumping experience, says Cosgrove. "Someone with Millar's experience won't be waiting long for an offer," he said.

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