Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: Tony Ryan – Ireland's Aviator

A high-flier who started off with his feet firmly on the ground

John Mulligan

John Mulligan

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It's easy to forget that Ryanair was ever an underdog. But as it began an assault on the cosy fiefdom of Aer Lingus, British Airways and Dan-Air in 1986, when it launched its first Dublin-London route, the cheering from the stands was all directed at the upstart airline that was being bankrolled by Tony Ryan.

And it's easy to forget, too, just how close Ryanair came to being obliterated, not least because it was losing a stack of money in its early years. Yet Ryan kept the funding tap on as it was in danger of being squeezed out by rivals.

Tony Ryan biographer Richard Aldous weaves a tapestry of tales about Ryanair's (and the entrepreneur's) fortunes, recounting the fact that it canned its new Dublin-Manchester route in the late 1980s after Aer Lingus increased frequencies and cut prices for its own service, sending its fledgling enemy flailing back to the nest.

But as Ryanair really began to make a nuisance of itself, Aer Lingus made a play to buy it. Tony Ryan put a £35m price tag on the airline. The deal obviously never happened, but for Tony Ryan it was the beginning of a renaissance after his previous major venture – Guinness Peat Aviation – had lost him virtually all his fortune.

It's ironic now that the tables have turned, with Aer Lingus now the put-upon victim of three failed hostile takeover attempts by Ryanair since 2007.

The success of Ryanair has been phenomenal and it made the Ryan family a new fortune.

With Aldous having explored the late Tony Ryan's life in the capacity of an official biographer, it's fair to say that one approaches a work such as this with a strong degree of trepidation. Forebodings of a fawning eulogy abounded.

But it does reveal the warts as well as the successes of the Tipperary native.

Having spent the guts of 20 years working for Aer Lingus from 1955 onwards, starting as an ordinary member of the ground staff at Shannon, Aldous explains how Ryan – having been exposed to a more ruthless and efficient business environment in the US during later years spent there with the national airline – evolved into a hard-nosed executive.

His success at Aer Lingus, and subsequently as the boss of Shannon-based aircraft leasing firm Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), took a personal toll, not least the separation from his wife and a distant relationship with his three sons – Cathal, Declan and Shane – while they grew up.

"It was an area of his life that Tony was very sensitive about and felt regret about," Declan Ryan tells Aldous. "There was great regret about the marriage, that it broke down; and, like any relationship, there was a lot of sadness associated with that for all of us."

Tony always accepted that he had asked too much of his wife, Aldous says, pointing out that she was frequently uprooted to go and live in another part of the world as her husband pursued his ambitions.

But there's no easy compromise to be found between being hugely driven and having a young family. The latter will always lose out when the former is pursued unequivocally.

Through interviews with billionaire businessmen Denis O'Brien – who was at one stage Ryan's PA – as well as Michael O'Leary and many others, Aldous delves into the highs and lows (and there were many of both) that characterised Ryan's life. At one stage, he owned the now defunct Sunday Tribune newspaper, which eventually lost him a mint as he sold it on to Vincent Browne, who was editor and with whom Ryan had a highly volatile relationship.

As GPA soared in the 1980s, it made the businessman his first massive fortune.

He owned 10pc of the business that was a joint venture with Aer Lingus and London's Guinness Peat bank, and reaped tens of millions of dollars in dividends from it.

But a planned stock market flotation in 1993 was pulled, and the company – spiralling towards oblivion – was eventually sold to General Electric.

It ruined Ryan, who had massive debts he was unable to pay off in full following a failed investment in Bank of Ireland that had cost him millions. But GPA also spawned an aircraft-leasing business that has made Ireland one of the world's top centres for such activity.

But before Ryan lost a large amount of his wealth, he had ploughed money into Ryanair.

It would, eventually, make him and his family extremely rich.

And his biography also details just how much his relationship with Michael O'Leary soured as Ryanair soared.

O'Leary, having been pursued by Ryan to work with him, later went on to try and get Ryan to leave the Ryanair board prior to the airline's stock-market flotation.

O'Leary tells Aldous that Ryan needed to leave because he couldn't have been associated with the flotation following the mess over the planned stock-market debut of Guinness Peat Aviation years earlier.

Ryan stayed on the board, but was wounded by O'Leary's attempted corporate putsch.

Remembers Denis O'Brien: "Tony was quite hurt."

Tony Ryan was a businessman, so it inevitably means that his biography almost completely revolves around the world of commerce.

As such, it won't appeal to everyone. But for many others, it gives an irresistible insight into the machinations of the man who helped to create what is now Ireland's second biggest company – Ryanair.


Tony Ryan - Ireland's Aviator

Richard Aldous

Gill & Macmillan


Irish Independent

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