The mouthy airline chief who annoyed too many passengers; Ryanair’s polarising public face may now move off the radar

November 8, 2013 7:02 pm

The mouthy airline chief who annoyed too many passengers

By Andrew Parker and Jamie Smyth

Ryanair’s polarising public face may now move off the radar, say Andrew Parker and Jamie Smyth

“Michael. Big bollocks. Loudmouth. You’ll find me not very sensitive.” That is howMichael O’Leary replied to a question from the Financial Times two years ago about how he preferred to be addressed. And this is what the chief executive of Ryanair – arguably Europe’s most reviled airline – said back then about the case for being nicer to its customers: “Couldn’t possibly be nicer … Our service consists of the lowest fare, an on-time flight on a brand-new aircraft. Anything over that: go away,” he declared, amid some trademark expletives.This week, Mr O’Leary had a rather different message as he outlined the biggest improvements to customer service in the Irish low-cost carrier’s 29-year history. “I want to be loved by my customers – I want my customers to love me the way I love them,” he said.

His sarcasm could not disguise what is a significant U-turn by one of the most powerful people in global aviation. Ryanair had just issued two profit warnings in as many months, and the airline is belatedly realising that it must treat its customers better if it is to succeed with an ambitious growth strategy.

This comes after Ryanair shareholders in September expressed concern about the company’s macho culture – personified by 52-year-old Mr O’Leary. That month, Muhammad Taufiq Sattar, a surgeon whose family died in a fire, was charged €188 by the airline to change his flight after the tragedy. Ryanair eventually apologised and refunded the money, but only after a public relations disaster.

The man who has transformed Ryanair into Europe’s largest low-cost, short-haul carrier, flying 79.3m passengers in 2012-13, likes to portray himself as a man of the people, championing air travel for the masses. But he comes from a comfortable background. The son of an entrepreneur, he grew up on a farm near the town of Mullingar, about 50 miles northwest of Dublin. There, thanks to his father, Ted, he developed a passion for horseracing. He still lives in this area with his wife and four children.

Mr O’Leary was educated at Clongowes Wood College, an elite all-boys Jesuit boarding school. He read business studies at Trinity College Dublin and then trained as an accountant with KPMG.

Tony Ryan, the Irish businessman who founded Ryanair, hired him as a personal assistant in the late 1980s, when the nascent business was losing money. He was despatched to Dallas to visit Herb Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines, the company that pioneered the low-cost carrier business model.

That trip gave Mr O’Leary a blueprint for Ryanair that he has implemented with zeal since becoming chief executive in 1994. A low-cost ethos is embraced at every level, including his attire, which usually consists of an open-necked shirt, jeans and trainers. He talks – and walks – very fast. “He is the most energetic man I’ve ever worked with. He goes all day and never stops,” says a former colleague.

He may be exhausting to work with but he has delivered. Ryanair has the leanest cost structure in European aviation, enabling it to report industry-leading margins and become the fifth-largest airline in the world by market capitalisation. His 3.6 per cent stake in the company, worth about €290m, makes him one of Ireland’s richest businessmen.

Dublin-born Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG, parent of British Airways, says Mr O’Leary “has transformed the airline industry, particularly in Europe, and he deserves credit and admiration”. And while many Irish people complain bitterly about their experiences flying with Ryanair, most remember the huge cost of air travel before the airline emerged to compete with Aer Lingus, the Irish flag carrier.

“He is very much a local hero – people either love him or hate him but most Irish people have a grudging admiration of O’Leary,” says Siobhan Creaton, author ofRyanair: How A Small Irish Airline Conquered Europe.

The haters may take their cue from how Mr O’Leary has displayed an insatiable appetite for publicity stunts and outrageous statements – many of them crude. But as notable as the jokes is the ruthless efficiency with which he and his lieutenants run the company.

He has repeatedly rejected the case for unions engaging in collective bargaining. He has thrived on battles – notably with Irish politicians and the European Commission, which has twice blocked efforts to buy Aer Lingus. One Ryanair executive said in 2011 that Mr O’Leary had “made a virtue out of antagonising and provoking people – although he is quite tolerant, actually, at a personal level”.

So is Mr O’Leary really going to be nicer to his customers? The proposed customer service improvements are substantive – and Ryanair’s chief executive seems committed to them, not least because the airline is buying 175 Boeing aircraft and seeking to add 30m customers over the next five years. Acknowledging he is an “irritant” to customers in some markets, he plans to stop being the public face of the airline.

But Mr O’Leary is unlikely to change all his spots. On Wednesday he told the BBC he had the right attitude, in spite of previously confessing to “personality deformities”. He defended Ryanair’s use of pictures of female cabin crew in bikinis – notably in its calendar that raises money for charity.

Marriage and children do, however, appear to have mellowed Mr O’Leary. He came to both relatively late; he married Anita Farrell, a banker, in 2003, and all their children are under the age of eight. His lieutenants like to joke that the only way he will leave Ryanair is in a coffin, but his youngest child – who is just two – has provided his best gag yet on when he might quit.

“They’ll be going to boarding school in 10 years’ time, which seems to me about the right time to retire and spend more time at home,” he says.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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