From suggesting in-flight pornography to dressing up as Batman’s sidekick Robin, outspoken Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has astutely used his media profile to generate publicity and further the growth of his business. But a year ago the airline found itself grabbing headlines in a way it couldn’t control after it cancelled more than 700,000 bookings, prompting the kind of ire that not even its notoriously cheap fares could outweigh. The incident provides a suitable take-off point for Irish journalist Matt Cooper to “lift the veil” on O’Leary in this compelling biography.
The author has previously interviewed O’Leary several times in his day job, although he notes that the bolshie businessman “politely” declined the opportunity to contribute to this book on two occasions.
As Cooper notes, however, that enabled him to tell the story as he saw fit – and there are certainly some revelations at odds with O’Leary’s public image. During his school days, according to one source, he was apparently “quiet, reserved, and, surprisingly, conformist”, and he was quoted in his earlier days at Ryanair as saying he “wanted to make lots of money but not be known”.
There is also ripe fruit for the amateur psychologist in the news that O’Leary once described his father as great at starting businesses, less so at running them, with the family textile firm put into receivership when the future CEO was still at school.
Such turbulence certainly goes some way to explaining O’Leary’s notorious cost-cutting, examples of which include banning workers from charging their phones on Ryanair’s dime and having to provide their own pens.
The ruthless pursuit of “efficiencies” caused increasing tensions between airline and pilots and, Cooper claims, played a pivotal role in the high-profile cancellations last year. He draws the book to a close on the causes and consequences of the “fiasco”.
The author’s journalistic background is very much in evidence – he writes with concision and his chapters are short and to the point.
He doesn’t hold back in highlighting suggestions that O’Leary may have borrowed business tactics from elsewhere, particularly the US low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines. But it’s a balanced portrayal, with the emphasis on O’Leary as a family man and acknowledgement of his phenomenal success in an increasingly squeezed industry. Indeed, even though the firm recently warned over its full-year profits, they are still set to exceed €1 billion.
Cooper keeps the technical detail light; this is an engaging read full of anecdotes, some of which shocked me and made me laugh out loud.
At the same time, the true character of O’Leary remains tantalisingly enigmatic, and there are question marks over how long he will stay at the airline. It’s the kind of “leave ’em wanting more” approach of which O’Leary would surely approve. - Emma Newlands
Michael O’Leary: Turbulent Times For The Man Who Made Ryanair, by Matt Cooper, Portfolio Penguin, £14.99