When we were shopkeepers-meeting Michael O’Leary (Ryanair) in the 80s

It was 1987 or 1988 when I first met Michael O’Leary, the now Ryanair boss. I was 23/24 years of age at the time and had started in my first business along with my brother at Hart’s Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin.

We had a small convenience store there which in which we started trading in December  1986. It was a lock up shop unit with a small apartment overhead which had ceased trading in the hands of its previous owner who had lost interest in the business.

A friend of mine from UCD came back from New Zealand in 1987 or 1988 and had suggested to me that I go over to the Southside of Dublin, to Walkinstown, to have a chat with a chap there who was from Mullingar who was in a similar line of business as I was.

So, on a Saturday morning in 1987 or 1988 I drove across the city from Glasnevin to Walkinstown roundabout and met this chap outside a newsagent’s shop at the Walkinstown roundabout.

When I got chatting to him it transpired that we had quite a bit in common. I had done a BComm degree in UCD, he had done a Bachelor of Business studies (BBS) degree in Trinity; I had gone to school in Mullingar and he was from Mullingar; I was from Kildare and he had gone to school in Kildare. We were similar ages, knew some of the same people as I still socialized in Mullingar, and we both had an interest in horses.

But when we got to talking about our ambitions and our hopes and our experience, we both agreed on one thing: neither of us wanted to be an accountant or start on a career as trainee accountants. At the time it was the regular course of career path for a BComm or a BBS student to become a trainee accountant and ultimately qualify as an accountant.

Neither of us wanted to do this, both of us were entrepreneurial. We both saw this as scorekeeping, and we wanted to be players.

When we got to discussing our respective experiences however it was clear that he was not that impressed with how his business was going and he had invested in a leasehold unit.

He had expressed frustration about people ripping him off, staff ripping him off and all of the other problems that we would have encountered as small business owners employing staff, handing cash, replenishing stock and all the other problems and challenges involved in the retail business.

That Saturday morning, I went back across the city very happy with myself that I was ahead of the game by comparison with O’Leary. 

I had a freehold unit; he had leasehold and was paying rent. Our business was flying and growing, he seemed to be less successful and struck me as being frustrated with the business and what was involved.

A few years later I discovered that he had quit the business at Walkinstown and had gone back into one of the big accountancy firms in Dublin, one of the things we both agreed we did not want to do when we had graduated with our university degrees.

He became private assistant to Tony Ryan, the founder of Ryanair. This may have come about as a result of the accountancy firm’s commitment to one of its clients, but I am not sure about that.

One of the first tasks O’Leary was given was to go out to Dublin airport to carry out an assessment or review of Ryanair which was struggling at a time.

Having carried out the review O’Leary advised Tony Ryan to sell the business, or it would put him on the road. Tony Ryan refused to take the advice, however, and continued with the business and believed in it. He sent O’Leary out to the United States to copy the business model of the low cost airline founded by Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines in Texas. The ruthless implementation of Southwest’s low cost strategy was the foundation stone on which Ryanair’s success was built.

At some point shortly afterwards the minister for transport in the then Fianna Fail government, Seamus Brennan, in order to keep the unions in Aer Lingus on their toes and in check and in order to foster competition between the fledgling Ryanair and the well-established, union dominated Aer Lingus decided to grant a landing slot to Ryanair at either Heathrow or Gatwick airports in London.

The minister took this landing slot from Aer Lingus and gave it to Ryanair. This gave Ryanair a foothold to grow and helped foster competition between the formerly state-owned Aer Lingus and the new kid on the block. As Ireland is an island nation it is of vital importance that there is a strong aviation/transport sector.

The rest is history insofar as O’Leary obviously did a great job in implementing Herb Kelleher’s low cost flight strategy and growing Ryanair to the massive success story that it is today.

However, it’s always crossed my mind that if O’Leary had been successful as a small convenience store retailer at Walkinstown roundabout back in the mid to late 80s he never would have ended up going back into an accountancy firm, and never ended up working for Tony Ryan or getting an opportunity at Ryanair. In fact, had he been highly successful as a small convenience store operator O’Leary might be running a chain of Centras or Spars or Supervalus across Dublin or in the greater lesser area.

It also struck me that had Tony Ryan listened to O’Leary’s initial advice we would never have heard of Ryanair.

And as a postscript to this story I’ve learned later on that the animus between Dennis O’Brien and Michael O’Leary, which manifested itself in later years in the battle for control of Aer Lingus and its shareholding, stems from the fact that both Dennis O’Brien and O’ Leary acted as personal assistant to Tony Ryan at one time or another.

It just goes to show you that you can be wrong a few times but if you get lucky and you have a skill and the right attitude, and somebody believes in you and you take the chance that’s given to you and you run with it then you can do tremendously well.

And if you have the right attitude, you will get breaks and opportunities. What you do with them is up to you.

2 comments

  1. Nice recollections.
    Yet some facts are missing and others are out of sequence.

    O’Leary had already done 2 years training towards his ACA BEFORE he bought the newsagent’s in Walkinstown. (It was with one one of Ireland’s biggest accountancy partnerships at the time, Stokes Kennedy Crowley – now absorbed into global big 4 accountancy firm, KPMG.)

    While working with SKC, O’Leary apparently specialised in taxation. KPMG had businesses associated with Tony Ryan as audit clients. O’Leary had advised on the personal tax affairs of Tony Ryan.
    After 2 years working towards his ACA, O’Leary left to buy a newsagent in Walkinstown in 1985.
    O’Leary DID make good money in that newsagent’s shop in Walkinstown and bought at least one other newsagent in the Dublin suburbs.

    By 1988 Tony Ryan had sought him out for financial and tax advice. He sold the newsagents at a good profit before he took up a position as adviser on Ryan’s personal and non-GPA businesses, including RyanAir.
    One can sell businesses for reasons other than non-profitability: unsocial hours, lack of excitement, limited contact opportunities and a desire to see more of the world would be enough for most guys in their mid-20s like O’Leary. For the latter reason I cannot believe the notion of O’Leary ever building up a chain of Centra stores or suchlike: this type of enterprise demands a lot of people management skills and I think lends itself more to people who start their families when young – O’Leary isn’t the most patient of people !

    I am not able to glean whether O’Leary finished his ACA training and passed the final exams for qualification as chartered accountant. It is doubtful that he would have. It would have entailed another year of study in an environment that was boring to him plus some post exam in-service professional training before he could hang out his own shingle – and all the while he could be doing his own thing with Tony Ryan, being paid so much more than any new ACA.

    However, I think it is likely that O’Leary would have completed the 1980s equivalent of the CTA (then known as the Institute of Taxation exams) during his 2 years with Stokes Kennedy Crowley. I say this as he would not otherwise have been entrusted with responsibility for handling Tony Ryan’s considerable personal tax affairs: big audit firms are very conservative as regards having the right quals before being given client-facing roles.

    Of course your principal point – that talent and desire will out in the long run – is bang on MOST of the time. Not always of course: there are very talented people who have been broken by random misfortune. There are people who with experience decide to direct some of their energies and aspirations towards savouring life rather than striving after new and more challenging horizons.

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