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.
Further conflict with board members arose when it became known that Ryan was surreptitiously trying to establish an airline, Irelandia, in direct competition with Aer Lingus, the company that had created GPA and of which it was part-owner.
These conflicts prompted Ryan to overplay his hand in offering his resignation as chief executive of GPA to the chairman, Geoffrey Knight, on November 13th, 1981, some six years after its formation. To Ryan’s surprise and consternation, the board accepted and appointed a successor, Maurice Foley, a senior executive with Aer Lingus, who was to take over GPA as chief executive during the summer of 1982. Ryan simply withdrew his resignation and, perhaps surprisingly, the board accepted that, with the proviso that Foley join GPA as president, effectively number two.
After languid months in the doldrums, Ryan recovered his mojo. In 1983 GPA had net profits of $9 million, in 1989 it was $152 million and by the early 1990s it had got to $242 million. This frenzied growth propelled him and GPA into huge risk. It had ordered 300 aircraft at a cost of $9.2 billion, payable by March 1996. GPA desperately needed to raise equity finance, which it sought to do via a flotation. The flotation was a flop, in part because Ryan insisted on a high share price. His instinct was to push everyone and every negotiation to the very edge. Inevitably, he was going to fall over the edge at some stage. He did.
This brought about a coup within GPA, and eventually Ryan was removed as chairman and then sidelined completely. For once it was he who was humiliated.
He was also “broke”. He owed $35 million to Merrill Lynch in 1992. Denying he had any concealed wealth, he persuaded Merrill Lynch to accept a settlement of $5 million, which still left him with a huge wealth trove, along with his (also concealed) shareholding in Ryanair.
Ryanair had been started in 1985, financed by him and fully under his control, but he managed to mask this from his GPA colleagues and shareholders – or at least he denied any involvement. He invested more than $20 million in Ryanair, from the monies he had concealed from Merrill Lynch.
With the goodwill of the Progressive Democrats (he was a generous financial contributor to the party at its inception), he was able to enjoy the benefits of airline deregulation and a licence for Ryanair to fly to Luton and later to Stansted. Following a succession of Ryanair chief executives, all or most of whom he fired, he appointed Michael O’Leary, his personal assistant, and the rest is fortune piled on fortune. But he fell out with him too, and O’Leary attempted to have him removed from the board.
Part of the book deals with Ryan’s involvement with me and the Sunday Tribune in 1983 and 1984. Almost everything that is written in the biography about that is wrong. For instance, there is a dramatic account of a confrontation between Ryan and me about the publication of an interview I had done with Dominic McGlinchey, an INLA leader, a confrontation that, Aldous writes, ended in a brawl. It never happened. There was no brawl, no row, not even a hint of criticism.
I am partly to blame because I declined to be interviewed for the book, but, although this is small-fry stuff, it raises doubts for me about the reliability of the biography as a whole. These doubts are compounded by Aldous’s acknowledgment that although he had access to Ryan’s papers, he decided not to make specific reference to them in the body of the book or in footnotes, “because the papers are privately held”. He does refer to sources here and there, but only sparingly. Hardly good enough for a distinguished historian.
There is much else that is unsatisfactory about the book. For instance, there is a passing reference to a traffic accident in Ibiza involving Ryan that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old local man. No elaboration on what had been involved and what culpability, if any, Tony had for the outcome. Neither is there much about Ryan’s personality, nothing about his mischievousness, his social awkwardness, his shyness, his loneliness.
O’Leary is quoted in the book as saying about Ryan: “He was one of the great Irishmen of the 20th century.” He was not. But he deserves a better biography than this one.
Vincent Browne, a former editor of the Sunday Tribune, presents a current-affairs programme for TV3 and writes a weekly column for The Irish Times.
Tony Ryan: Ireland’s Aviator by Richard Aldous is published by Gill & Macmillan, priced €24.99