In 1984, the Big Brother was expected to rule the world: this was, at least, the prophecy of the English writer George Orwell in a famous novel. He was not so wrong, only too ahead of his time: some of this paranoid and totalitarian society has come true today, 40 years later. But in that very same year, 1984, the only fear for people around the world was the Cold War and an atomic war between the USA and USSR, the former Soviet Union. Society was obsessed with it: from Hollywood, with the scary movie The Day After, to music, with the English star Sting composing the song “Russians” poised to become an international hit. The Cold War stayed cold, and no atomic weapon was ever dropped.
Overwhelmed by all this hype, the real news in 1984, which would have relevant consequences in future decades, went unnoticed: in Ireland, a small airline company was founded. Its name was Ryanair and it would destroy the aviation industry as much as deeply transforming society: certainly, more than the Cold War.
Until 20 years ago, Michael O’Leary was an almost unknown Irish businessman. He has become the biggest disruptor ever in commercial flights, since the inception of airplanes: he invented the “Low-Cost” formula, even the word itself, in aviation in Europe. Ryanair is today Europe's largest cheap flights carrier and the “flagship carrier” in many countries, like Italy. It’s also by far the company serving the most destinations in Europe with direct flights. Curiously enough, the name of the company is not “Learyair”, as one would expect. Moreover, it has nothing to do with its godfather. That’s because, despite being the owner, O’Leary did not create the company. Back in that frightening 1984, it was another Irish businessman who started Ryanair: his name was Tony Ryan, and he did not find any better and simpler idea than naming the company with his last name. O’Leary would arrive only years later. Ryanair initially operated as a regional airline serving Ireland and the UK. However, as most small carriers, the company struggled financially in its early years, facing fierce competition from the incumbents, such as British Airways, and grappling with economic challenges, while in the 80’s all Great Britain was in depression and the Thatcher Government did not immediately bring results.
RUNNING IN THE FAMILY
Destiny had in store a very different future for Ryanair. This future, though, started some 20 years before the fateful 1984 in the small town of Mullingar, in the countryside east of Dublin, called County Westmeath. In March 1961, Ted and Gerarda O’ Leary celebrated the birth of their second son Michael Gerard. He would not be the last: other 2 siblings would arrive in the next years, but one sister died at the age of 10. O’Leary is a county Cork name and O’Learys have been recorded at Kanturk, a small town some thirty miles north of Cork, since the early 1800s. Michael’s grandparents were farmers, perhaps the more prosperous on his mother’s side. That’s why he has always seen himself as a product of farming stock and he understands traditional Irish values: rural, catholic, and conservative. His father Ted chose a different path: he became part-owner of a woolen factory called Tailteann which might explain Michael’s talent for business: he learned something at home. Family’s wealth surely explains why he could be afforded a high-profile education. He attended Clongowes Wood College near Clane, County Kildare. Later on, the family moved to a larger house at Lynn on the outskirts of Mullingar. From there, Michael was accepted at Trinity College in Dublin where he studied business and economics. Soon after his graduation in 1982, he worked as a trainee with an accountancy company called Stokes Kennedy Crowley: it was almost unknown at the time, but it would be later known as KPMG, one of the big four in the consultancy industry worldwide. It was a dull and boring job, mainly focused on the Irish tax system. This background, though, would prove crucial for his future.
LIFE OF THE OTHERS
While working for the future KPMG, Michael got acquainted with Tony Ryan himself: the entrepreneur was a client of the company. Tony used to receive tax advice from O’Leary for his company Guinness Peat Aviation, a leasing company besides his Ryanair operations. In 1987, Ryan hired O’Leary from KPMG as his financial advisor, mostly on matters dealing with tax. A year later, O'Leary joined Ryanair as a financial advisor: his task was to fix the failing airline business. In 1994, he became the CEO of Ryanair. Never had Tony imagined that a tax accountant would take over the company and turn it into a continental powerhouse. “Never was so much, gained with so little” commented American historian Henry Adams when the US purchased Louisiana from France at a fire sale price: the phrase sticks perfectly to O’Leary as well.
From then on, Ryanair would be de facto under O’Leary control and ownership. Tony did not end up badly either, even if he did not join the success of his creature: The GPA side business he had was worth 4 billion US Dollars at its peak, but its value dramatically collapsed in 1992 after the cancellation of its planned IPO. Tony later made 55 million Euros from the sale of the company in 2000. A year later he acquired Castleton Farm near Lexington, Kentucky from the Van Lennep Family Trust. Tony lived in Monte Carlo as a tax exile: in 2007 he was credited to be the 7th wealthiest individual from Ireland with a net worth of over 1.5 billion Euros. At the time of his passing, he owned 16% of Tiger Airways, a discount carrier based in Singapore. Some habits die hard.
THE FABULOUS WORLD OF CHEAP FLIGHTS
In 1990, when still working as a financial advisor, O’Leary came up with a new business strategy for Ryanair: the low-cost model. He believed it could revitalize the company fortunes and compete effectively in the European market. At the time it was a pure gamble, even more a crazy and hazardous move. This was not his intuition: as a consultant, he just copied from elsewhere. The Low-Cost formula had been pioneered by Southwest Airlines in the United States. He had been the first to bring the model to Europe and adapt it to a different market. Under O'Leary's leadership, Ryanair underwent a radical change: he introduced no-frills, basic service flights, from inconvenient and far away airports, where costs were nil or, even, airports were keen to pay Ryanair to fly there. In return, customers could fly at ridiculous prices compared to flagship or official carriers: a return ticket to an international destination could be as cheap as 19.99 Euros. This revolutionized the way people traveled in Europe. At the same time, millions of people who never traveled in their life started spending holidays or having getaway weekends in international cities. O’Leary introduced hitherto unseen commercial and marketing strategies into aviation: drastically reducing operational costs by forcing customers to fly at very unpleasant times of day and night; unbundling prices, which means charging passengers separately for usually included services like checked baggage, priority boarding, and in-flight meals. Most of all, the very secret of Ryanair’s success is labor cost reduced to the bone. Ryanair pays the lowest wages in the industry to its crew members. It was also the years of the Single Market Union, of the birth of the Euro currency, which made everybody feel rich even if they were poor, of living abroad without needing a visa or a passport. So, thousands of youngsters from southern Europe moved to the UK and Ireland and they were keen to accept any wage, just to be away from home. Basically, O’Leary just adopted the Marx lessons he studied at university: capitalism prospers on spoiling workers. His commercial strategies are borderline as well: Ryanair overcharges passengers for any minor fault: forgot to do the online check-in? Is your baggage just 1 cm more than the allowed measurements? You will find yourself forced to pay a fortune.
These strategies proved highly successful. Today, Ryanair is a dominant force in the European aviation industry, carrying millions of passengers annually: Stansted Airport, which is the UK hub for the airline, every year welcomes some 25 million people (about the population of Texas). Before the Irish accountant, it was a minor and derelict airport in the Cambridge countryside.
O’Leary will ironically say about paying for using the toilets: “a new visionary strategy and a wonderful idea.
LOW COST, RICH OWNER
In every pub in Dublin, even in the touristic ones at Temple Bar area, there’s someone who can tell customers the story of Art and Conn: they were two drunkards who wanted to get out of poverty. They convince Olcàn to lend them a barrel of whisky: they would sell it to the market and make money. While rolling it down the street, Art finds a shilling in his pocket and offers it to Conn in exchange for a sip of the precious spirit held into the barrel. He accepts and now he has a shilling in his pocket: he now turns to Art with the same request. They will go on and on, until the barrel is empty, poor as before: they only have one shilling which just changed hands many times, and a debt burden with Olcàn. The pub story epitomizes the culture of a historically poor land, from where people constantly emigrated (especially to the US, and especially to Boston). These days Ireland is not a poor country anymore: the 300 richest people have a combined wealth of around 87 billion Euros. It’s a lot of money for such a small and low populated island: 865 million of that wealth belongs to O'Leary, as his annual net worth falls around 167 million. His treasure is going to increase, though: his base salary has jumped to 1.2 million Euros per year, some 23,000 per week. In the past year, he earned a total of 2.7 million including bonuses. He will need many salary increases, though, if he wants to reach the 11 billion Euros of the Weston Irish family, who own the Weston retail empire, which includes everything from Penneys (Primark), to Brown Thomas, to Selfridges.
O’Leary is a very controversial figure in the business community. In 2004, he acquired a taxi plate for his Mercedes S-Class, to get a taxi classification. This action allowed him to use Dublin’s designated bus lanes to help him get across town conveniently. With time, he employed a taxi driver with a full PSV license to drive him around. The action led to a massive outcry from the public, with the Irish transport minister expressing his thoughts on the abuse and irresponsibility portrayed by the entrepreneur. He is known for politically incorrect remarks, for a management style punctuated by outspokenness, unconventional approach, which have earned him both praise and criticism. His comments against Muslim males generated a global backlash: O’Leary admitted that single Muslim males traveling alone posed a terror threat to airlines because people fear they might be terrorists. He made dozens of similar statements during his career: despite accusations of being racist, he has always been as unapologetic as he can be. The Irishman has made PR stuns a trademark for Ryanair: on November 5, 2021, the day after the presidential election in US, Ryanair tweeted a screenshot of Eric Trump, son and trusted advisor to the defeated US president, inviting him to return to using commercial lines instead of Air Force One. Very caustic irony, indeed.
HOUNDS & HORSES
When not at his office, O’Leary will tend to his horses and cattle on his farm in Westmeath County, where he was born. The “Aviator” loves racecourses, and his horses have some championships to their names, such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National. Pictures of his horses are shown in his office: there is no information whether similar family pictures are there as well. That may say something about his temper. He has been married to Anita Farrell since 2003: they have four children, though he rarely exposes his family to the media. In one interview, he came clean on declining an opportunity to appear in The Apprentice, where he would have taken a starring role. He made the decision for family reasons.