Books: In the slipstream of O'Leary

What started life as an MT feature has crystallised into a life of the turbulent boss of Europe's most successful budget airline. Matthew Gwyther tightens his seatbelt.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We're a bit short of colour in business these days. The iron grip of corporate PR machines allows few truly quirky bosses to parade on public view - anything out of the box and off-message is suppressed because of a presumed risk to the share price. Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, by contrast, is a Sony Bravia ad of exploding rainbow paint. He's a street-fighting, foul-mouthed, ruthless and utterly driven adrenalin junkie in jeans and a shirt who could pick a fight in an empty room.

When O'Leary took over the controls at Ryanair in 1994, it flew 700,000 passengers annually on nine routes and was losing money. By 2007, after 14 years of his stewardship, it carried more than 52 million passengers on 499 routes, had a bigger capitalisation than British Airways and made £272m in profit.

Ryanair is the most successful airline in Europe and the most outstanding business success story Ireland has ever produced. He is the real deal.

Thousands of people out there loathe him. Here's Mary O'Rourke, not a business rival but an Irish minister for transport: 'I have never met anyone like him in my life. It is not persistence - I've met persistent people. He is obsessive, about himself and his business. He's not interested in a good business relationship, or a social relationship... it's just me, me, me, me. I just think he is a horrid, horrid little man.'

O'Leary and his airline are the Millwall FC of the skies - 'No-one likes us. We don't care. (We just count the euros).' Just when you think they've reached the limits of outrageous behaviour, they go and pick a fight with their one-millionth passenger, who was promised free flights for life; or they say global warming is bollocks and just the fault of the Chinese.

One of the most telling stories that Ruddock has uncovered concerns the establishment of the Ryanair website. O'Leary was suspicious of the web at first, but, persuaded that a web-based sales operation meant cutting out travel agents and generating more cash, he went for it. He wanted a simple and above all cheap site. Ryanair likes things cheap. Says Ruddock: 'He did not want to be surrounded by computer consultants with ponytails and cargo pants.'

The first quotes that O'Leary got from conventional web design companies came in at about £3m. Instead, he went to two students: 17-year-old secondary-school pupil John Beckett and dentistry student Thomas Linehan, 22.

The pair had done work experience one summer at Gateway Computers but were complete novices. They were bemused and flattered to be considered and quoted £17,500, £16,500 and £15,500 for various options. O'Leary went for the £15,500 option. The pair then created one of the most successful websites in commerce. It can suck money out of consumers faster than a nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner.

How were they rewarded? When it was finished, O'Leary tried to hardball the kids into taking £12,000, rather than the £15,000 agreed and for which a purchase order had been issued. Such behaviour is typical of the way he does business: no sentiment, no breaks, no humanity - just a cold, unrelenting focus on the bottom line.

The problem with doing business like this is what it does to your reputation. You need to have friends out there and Ryanair has very few indeed - except for customers like me who use it like a bus and appreciate the rock-bottom ticket costs and its unrivalled punctuality. On the rare occasions that you are delayed - I once sat for 11 hours in the godforsaken Pescara airport - you get zero help, sympathy or information. That's the way it goes and you take it or leave it. Short-haul planes are just like buses - there's no romance in flying any more.

But not one of those many enemies can be expected to show him or the organisation any mercy if it stumbles. Neither will he expect it.

This book began life, we're proud to say, as an MT feature. Ruddock curses the day we commissioned him to write his article back in 2001 and hasn't stopped moaning about it since. But the effort was worth it - Ruddock extracted some truly eye-watering O'Leary quotes. Take this, for example, in reference to the media, the City and some of Ireland's more traditional business people: 'Most of them hate me because I'm a loud-mouthed, arrogant, rich bullyboy. Some of them think I'm great because I'm a loud-mouthed, arrogant, rich bullyboy. Does it matter? No. I swore when I hadn't two shillings to rub together that if I ever got rich I wouldn't give a f*** what people wrote about me in newspapers. I could be rich and get abuse, or not be rich and get no abuse.'

The 439 pages Ruddock has come up with in this book are hugely detailed and, I'll bet, 101% accurate. If you want a soup-to-nuts account of O'Leary's bloody battles with the Irish CAA, the trade unions in Dublin, the EU, the Catholic church, the baggage handlers... this is for you. His analysis is spot on.

But the psychological analysis isn't there. Ruddock doesn't make any attempt to get inside the mind of this extraordinary man and tell us what made him. From his mundane upbringing in Mullin-gar, where on earth did O'Leary acquire these mad levels of drive, rudeness and ruthlessness from?

I read A Life in Full Flight at the same time as I consumed Tina Brown's bright pink, luridly outrageous but completely compelling book on Princess Diana. I felt I understood Diana, Charles, Philip and the whole royal shower inside out by the end. But I still don't get what makes O'Leary O'Leary. And I think I'd like to know.

Michael O'Leary - A Life in Full Flight: The story of the man who made
Ryanair take off
Alan Ruddock
Penguin £14.99

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime