Tony Ryan: Ireland’s Aviator, by Richard Aldous (Gill & Macmillan, €24.99/£21.99)
1936 wasa vintage year for Irish entrepreneurs, Tony Ryan, Tony O’Reilly and Michael Smurfit were all born that year. But Ryan’s life story as told by academic historian, Richard Aldous, cannot be matched by his contemporaries for dramatic twists and turns in the high risk business of global aviation.
Likewise, while O’Reilly and Smurfit were launched early into a successful business trajectory, Ryan was almost 40 before his big chance came with heading the Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) aircraft leasing company. Before that he was in Aer Lingus middle management. Even his arrival in GPA in which Aer Lingus had a 45% stake was fortuitous. Ryan had attracted attention for his dedication to work in Chicago, London and New York but no one could have foreseen how far this single-mindedness would take him in the new career.
The broad lines of what followed are well known. GPA thrived under Ryan’s ruthless leadership and made him a fortune thanks to his 10% shareholding and tax-free dividends. Almost as a sideline he was establishing under Aer Lingus’s nose the rival Ryanair to be run by his three sons. He bought 5% of the Bank of Ireland. He dabbled briefly in the media when he financed the start-up in 1983 of the second Sunday Tribune under the editorship of Vincent Browne. This tempestuous relationship ended up in virtual blows 15 months later. His personal assistant at this time was Denis O’Brien, future telecoms billionaire.
The first significant setback for Ryan came with the failure to float GPA as a public company in June 1992. Ryan had ignored warning signs and pressed ahead while the world economy was slumping and aviation was suffering. The result was he lost most of his money (other GPA executives and former Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, also lost large sums). Ryan had to accept humiliating rescue terms from General Electric which saw him reduced to employee status himself. He managed to get Merrill Lynch to write off almost 90% of his $35 million borrowing to buy the Bank of Ireland shares. More importantly he kept Ryanair out of creditors’ reach
He could now devote more time to Ryanair which was losing money heavily as it took on Aer Lingus. Ryan sent his personal assistant, Michael O’Leary, to investigate the finances. O’Leary urged Ryan to shut it down and spend his money on some other venture. Ryan’s son, Declan, did likewise but the father refused. Instead he put O’Leary in charge and the rest is history. Ryanair is now one of the biggest airlines in the world.
Ryan and O’Leary soon fell out over how the latter was running the airline. Ryan hated the ‘cheap’ approach of his pupil and his despising of customer service but O’Leary simply ignored him and put cost-cutting first and last. Ryan wanted to resign from the board but was persuaded to stay on until his death from cancer in 2007. Ryan and his sons made an estimated €500 million on their shares.
Ryan’s late interest in art and architecture under the influence of Miranda Guinness with whom he had a romantic relationship after the breakdown of his marriage is detailed in the book. The Hunt Museum in Limerick and the magnificent restoration of Castle Lyons near Celbridge are monuments to his munificence. Two years before he died he decided to set up a foundation to bridge relations between Christianity and Islam involving Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and to be housed in Castle Lyons but the project fell through.
He also financed and endowed the Ryan Academy of Entrepreneurship at Dublin City University and a marine biology research institute in University College, Galway, named after his father, Martin.
The allusion in the book’s title is to that famous Martin Scorsese film with Leonardo DiCaprio film as Howard Hughes, another man of the skies with huge ambitions and ambiguities.
Though Tony Ryan was not quite in that league, people will continue to puzzle over how the son of an engine driver born in a cottage at Limerick Junction and without any university degrees twice became one of the richest men in Ireland and had the vision to set up a low cost airline in Europe dominated by national airlines.
A former head of Aer Lingus, Michael Dargan has observed: “The magnitude of Tony Ryan’s success is baffling. The historian may record it, but he can hardly explain it.” Richard Aldous makes a good stab at it.