Ryanair's O’Leary is the 'Marmite' of Ireland Inc

Both detraction and support of Ryanair boss’s rants show little more than prejudices

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary: His outbursts are tailor-made to court controversy  but even   journalists   who fawn over him didn’t allow his charms to prevent them reporting on his airline’s profit warning that suggested   as much as €75 million could be wiped off its earnings due to Brexit. Photograph: Toby Melville/File Photo/Reuters

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary: His outbursts are tailor-made to court controversy but even journalists who fawn over him didn’t allow his charms to prevent them reporting on his airline’s profit warning that suggested as much as €75 million could be wiped off its earnings due to Brexit. Photograph: Toby Melville/File Photo/Reuters

 

The problem with writing commentary involving the utterances of Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary is his Marmite quality. Most people either love him or hate him.

Depending on how his rants fit with their ideological predilections, many commentators’ long-held positions on the man soon shine through their analyses.

The recent manufactured outrage over his pointed comments about RTÉ – “a rat-infested North Korean union shop” – at a Fine Gael breakfast meeting in the Shelbourne hotel was a good example.

It usually plays out like this. O’Leary’s detractors – mostly derived, predictably, from the left of the political spectrum – berate him for being full of hate and an all-round terrible human. Sure, he’d probably steal the bon-bons from a kid in a wheelchair if nobody was looking.

His fans – mostly those with an ideological zeal for unfettered free markets – spring into action after his comments hit the fan, usually to lionise him for speaking his mind and “calling it as it is”. He could run this country as well as he runs his business. He’d sort the place right out, so he would.

Both are dumbed-down, knee-jerk responses based upon their propagators’ prejudices: caricatures more than characterisations. Anybody who has ever met or observed O’Leary for more than five minutes will tell you he is a mass of contradictions.

But with the Ryanair chief executive, you’re expected to be either with him or agin him. This is the world we live in, where gut feelings trump reason and complexity is for idiots.

Ready-made quotes

Business journalists, in particular, are often accused by the anti-O’Leary brigade of being in thrall to the Ryanair boss. Thrall is probably too strong a word, but objectively there is no doubt that O’Leary’s views – even his flippant ones – receive an elevated level of attention in the financial pages of Irish newspapers.

There are several reasons for this, but the main one should be obvious: O’Leary is almost always interesting to listen to and he delivers ready-made quotes that capture the attention of readers.

This is not an insignificant consideration. Many Irish chief executives, and almost all executives of any level from the US, are media-trained half to death and generally as dull as dishwater. They are so scared of upsetting their shareholders or customers that they overplay it on the safe side.

I am regularly driven to the point of despair trying to make some colourless sod sound interesting because I don’t want to put my readers to sleep. O’Leary, on the other hand, is usually entertaining and, even when he is being unfair or downright wrong and insulting, he is usually funny about it.

It is not a crime nor is it lazy for journalists to seek out interesting quotes and observations. It is an imperative. O’Leary understands this more than most, and he tailors his entreaties to match. Journalists should make no apology for reporting something that someone says simply because it is interesting.

The other thing about copy derived from O’Leary’s rants is that he has an unerring ability to zero in on the nub of an issue. This holds true whether you agree with what he is saying or not. He doesn’t dance about a concept, he punches it in the face.

On to something

When O’Leary says British politicians are acting like “headless chickens” and “haven’t a f***ing clue” about how to approach the upcoming Brexit negotiations, it is hard to argue that he isn’t on to something.

When he says Ireland should tell Brussels to “f*** off” over the Apple tax ruling, you can agree with him or not. Either way, with one vulgar sentence he encapsulated the choice for the Government: either accept the ruling or fight.

But even if business journalists in Ireland – or the UK, where they genuinely fawn over O’Leary – give the man too much prominence, what matters most is whether they also give due attention to O’Leary when it doesn’t suit Ryanair.

This week, the airline issued a profit warning, suggesting that 5 per cent, or as much as €75 million, could be wiped off its earnings due to Brexit. This was reported extensively all over the Irish media. O’Leary’s charms didn’t obscure the bad news. Nor should they ever.

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Footnotes

Accounts were filed this week by a UK holding company, Algarve Golf Courses (AGC), which sheds a chink of light on the operation of Denis O’Brien’s Quinta do Lago golf course in Portugal.

AGC doesn’t trade, but it owns the Portuguese company that operates Quinta do Lago. A note to the UK company’s accounts show the course is profitable – it made £818,000 last year, up from profits of £521,000 the prior year.

The AGC accounts also show that the golf course holds capital and reserves of about £12.3 million. This is up from £8.8 million the prior year, suggesting that perhaps O’Brien pumped in a few bob extra, or its reserves were boosted on paper by some sort of revaluation.

O’Brien wanted to sell Quinta do Lago last year and reportedly sought €220 million for it. Prospective buyers didn’t bite.

He has since appointed his nephew, Emmet O’Neill, as chairman of his European golf interests. O’Neill has also taken a 10 per cent stake.

The last business of O’Brien’s in which O’Neill took a 10 per cent stake was fuel group Topaz, where he was chief executive. Former Topaz retail director, Seán Moriarty, is also now chief executive of Quinta do Lago.

O’Neill sold Topaz for O’Brien last December, although it ended up in court this week with the Canadian buyer Alimentation Couche-Tard.

Might the young gun also find a buyer soon for Quinta do Lago?

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I have a love/hate relationship with the O’Neills sports brand. On the up side, it has produced some gorgeous vintage Ireland tops down the years.

On the downside, it makes GAA balls. Anybody who, as a child, got a bang in the face from an O’Neills ball on a cold,wet day will tell you how much it stings. It is total agony. I now can’t think of O’Neills without also thinking of the pain.

It seems the most Irish of sports brands is now making a push into Britain. O’Neills this week signed a three-year kitwear deal with professional rugby outfit Huddersfield Giants. It is its third such deal – O’Neills now also supplies kit to St Helens and Widnes.

British rugger buggers think they’re well hard, but I bet they’d all crumple into sobbing heaps if they got a bang in the ear from a O’Neills ball on a cold, winter’s evening.

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Charles Brandes, the US billionaire whose investment company is now the fourth largest shareholder in C&C, is renowned as a value investor.

He isn’t so frugal in his private life, however. In the midst of the financial crisis, he paid Christina Aguilera €1 million to play at his private Halloween party. Elton John was the entertainment at his (third) wedding.

His $60 million Californian ranch is so large, the architect carved it up into wings that could be shut down when not in use. His private garage holds 37 cars and he reputedly owns 10 Ferraris.

The drinks are on Brandes at the next C&C shareholders meeting. Premium cider, anyone?

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