Tony Ryan: ingenious, driven, reckless, avaricious
The Ryanair founder was untrustworthy and treated his underlings appallingly, but he deserves better than this unsatisfactory biography
Tony Ryan in 2005 at home in Co Kildare: his instinct was to push everyone and every deal to the edge. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Tony Ryan was “the epitome of what it meant to be an entrepreneur”, writes Richard Aldous in this biography of the founder of Ryanair. If so, entrepreneurs are a more unpleasant species than even Marxists portray them to be. For, as an entrepreneur, Ryan, while driven and ingenious, was reckless and avaricious. He treated his underlings appallingly. He was untrustworthy in much of his dealings and survived the collapse of his personal wealth by concealing from his debtors the wealth he secretly retained.
But there was a remarkable energy and imagination about him. I recall him talking in 1982 or 1983 about building an air bridge to Britain, which would overcome the geographical isolation of the country that was detrimental to its economic wellbeing. He didn’t do it then but partly did it later through Ryanair. He had the capacity to open his mind to issues outside his comfort zone.
Although his interest in the arts was partly vanity-driven, there was also a genuine interest and some knowledge. His politics and personality resembled those of Genghis Khan, but without the Mongolian warlord’s feminine side.
Ryan’s foremost concern was the accumulation of wealth and its attendant power, but there was a patriotic bit to him too. We got on like a house on fire while in business together with the Sunday Tribune in 1983-4: hysterics, alarms, terrors, water cannon and blistering heat. Afterwards we almost became friends. I liked him although I disliked so much about him.
His worst feature was his treatment of underlings. He told one senior executive as he was firing him: “Business is made up of f**kers and f**kees, and in our relationship you are my f**kee.” This is in the biography, but I had heard it previously. According to Aldous, he had read Winning through Intimidation, a New York Times bestseller by Robert J Ringer. Intimidation was certainly part of his management armoury.
He insisted that all Guinness Peat Aviation executives, wherever they were in the world, had to attend the Monday-morning meeting at Shannon. These meetings were brutal affairs, with Ryan regularly humiliating even senior colleagues. What is really extraordinary about this is that nobody among the GPA staff stood up to him, although among them were several people with robust personalities (or seemingly robust personalities).
It wasn’t just GPA staff he treated badly: he treated the board of directors similarly.
The commercial success of GPA right from the beginning was phenomenal, and within a few years Ryan wanted to change it from a mere broker of aircraft – a firm that arranged for airlines to lease aircraft from other airlines – to a lessor of aircraft, which involved the purchase of aircraft. This prompted him to seek other shareholding partners, along with Guinness Peat and Aer Lingus. He arranged a partnership with Air Canada; when he presented this to the board of GPA, almost as a fait accompli, the Aer Lingus representatives among the directors were incensed.