'I never in my dreams thought I'd be running an airline like BA'
As Willie Walsh approaches 50 – just five years from his ideal retirement age – he reflects on an extraordinary career, talks about his intentions towards Aer Lingus and has a word of advice for the Government
WILLIE WALSH turns 50 in 10 days, but there’ll be no big celebration. It will be just another working day in the life of the high-flying London-based airline executive.
“I’ve nothing organised. I’ve been too busy,” he says from the boardroom of the business school at Dublin City University where he gave a talk to students on Thursday.
This is not false modesty. Walsh turned 40 just six days after taking over as chief executive of Aer Lingus, in October 2001. He started work that day at 6.30am. At 10pm a friend rang and said it was time to go for a pint.
“A party had been planned in my house, and everybody had been there since seven o’clock that evening. I arrived in to a big ‘surrrpriiise’,” he says. He had two pints of Guinness, went to bed and left for work at 6am the next day, which was a Saturday. The party was still going on.
“I’m not going through that again,” he says with a sigh. “So I’ve told everybody that I don’t want anything this time around. I’m hoping my 50th will be just another day of the week.”
To many people Willie Walsh runs British Airways. In fact he’s chief executive of International Airline Group (IAG), a holding company formed from the merger of British Airways and the Spanish carrier Iberia in January. It is one of the world’s biggest airlines, carrying 55 million passengers a year. BA and Iberia both have their own chief executives. Walsh’s overarching role involves strategy, co-ordination and finding acquisition opportunities.
He is effectively Mr Consolidator within the global airline industry, and is prepared to open his cheque book if the right deal comes along. “IAG is about facilitating consolidation in the industry,” he says. “That’s why we created it.”
Last week, as he attended the Global Economic Forum at Dublin Castle, Walsh was quizzed persistently about IAG’s interest in buying Aer Lingus now that the Government has indicated its willingness to sell its 25 per cent shareholding, and even Ryanair has said it would be prepared to offload its 29.8 per cent stake.
“I spent two days fending off questions about my interest in Aer Lingus – the last time I did that I had to leave the country,” he jokes.
In 2004 Walsh, who was then Aer Lingus chief executive, and two other executives, Seamus Kearney and Brian Dunne, expressed an interest in putting together a buyout of the then State-owned airline. Walsh had rescued Aer Lingus from near collapse post-9/11 by changing it into a low-cost carrier. Their proposal was very publicly slapped down by the taoiseach of the day, Bertie Ahern.
“I never met him while I was at Aer Lingus, never spoke to him while I was at Aer Lingus. He had a few things to say about me, but I’d never actually met the guy.”
So does he want to buy Aer Lingus now? “We’ve made no secret that there are airlines we’re interested in at the moment, but Aer Lingus is not one of them. There are other things that are more important,” he says, citing IAG’s interest in the Portuguese airline Tap, which is slated for privatisation, and the Heathrow-based BMI, which its German owner, Lufthansa, is keen to offload.
“Those two are alive at the moment, where Aer Lingus is all rumour.”
He says Aer Lingus must resolve the uncertainty about whether it will help to plug a €500 million deficit in a pension fund – operated jointly with Dublin Airport Authority and SR Technics – before a suitor will emerge. “Nobody is going to have any interest in Aer Lingus if there’s that uncertainty.”
As it happens, he is a deferred pensioner of the scheme and has a passing interest in the matter.
WALSH, PRESIDENT of London Chamber of Commerce – the first Irishman to hold the prestigious role – is one of the highest-profile business leaders in Britain.
Earlier this week he was invited to New Scotland Yard to address 70 senior officers. “You can’t imagine what it’s like for an Irishman to walk in there.”
He even spent two days with the RAF, doing some manoeuvres over the North Sea in its new Eurofighter Typhoon jet. “I had a smile on my face for weeks after that,” says the former pilot.
But he has not forgotten his roots, either. His appearance at the forum last weekend was followed by an address to Dublin Chamber of Commerce on Thursday night, which brought out a bumper attendance of 1,600.
He jumped up on stage and grabbed the Sam Maguire trophy, which was on display. “I’m Willie Walsh and I’m a Dub,” he said with a beam.
He’s impressed with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. “I think the difference between Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen is that Kenny looks like he’s enjoying the job and he’s portraying confidence. At a time like this, that’s absolutely important.”
Walsh’s advice to the Government is to drive on with reform of the economy. “The real risk is that most people think we’re almost through it now or we’re doing okay and we can start relaxing. My own experience of going through these sorts of programmes in business is that as you relax you get yourself back into trouble. You can’t afford to slow down. In fact, if you’re making good progress you’ve really got to accelerate.”
He still has a house in Donabate, Co Dublin, and intends to settle back here eventually. “I’ve always felt Dublin was home. My view has always been that I would be back in Ireland at some stage.”
Walsh has long stated his intention to retire at 55. “I’d always had that as a target for myself. I don’t know why. I was 17 when I started in Aer Lingus. I’ve worked quite hard over the years.”
He’s a self-confessed workaholic. He hasn’t taken a holiday in years and hates being “idle”.
This approach to life might be softening, though. “I’m going to look at taking a cruise on the Shannon ,” he says.
Earlier this year, Walsh bought a cabin cruiser that he moors on the Thames in London. “I bought it with a view to ultimately putting it on the Shannon. That to me is a great holiday.”
Does he have any regrets that life – particularly with his wife and 16-year-old daughter, Hannah – might have passed him by while he was working so hard?
“Quite honestly, I’ve no regrets. I’ve loved working, and I’ve had great opportunities that I never expected to have. I never thought I would get the opportunity to run an airline. I ran Futura at 36. It was a fantastic experience. I was CEO of Aer Lingus at 39.
“I never in my dreams thought I would be running an airline like BA. You can’t look back and say, ‘I wish I’d played more football,’ or, ‘I wish I’d bought that bike.’ I’ve loved every minute of it, and I don’t believe in looking back.”
Will IAG be his last full-time executive job? “I’m not looking for anything else, and I’ve no plans to. If I retire from IAG at the age of 55 I’d be really, really happy.”