Tony Ryan: wizard of the skies15 July 2016
Ryan made and lost a fortune leasing aircraft before recovering it all by kick-starting low fares air travel.
His lasting legacy may be the undertaking of a preponderance of worldwide civil aircraft leasing in Ireland, with ongoing repercussions for the Irish economy.
One of the 41 new lives added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography online in June 2016, read the entry on Ryan, by Terry Clavin below.
Ryan, Tony (Thomas Anthony) (1936–2007), businessman, was born on 2 February 1936 in a railway cottage at Limerick Junction, Co. Tipperary, the first child of Martin Ryan, a train driver, and his wife Elizabeth (née O'Donnell). He grew up in modest circumstances and moved with his family to Thurles, Co. Tipperary (c.1945), where he took his leaving certificate at Thurles CBS. A lifelong hurling enthusiast, he played Gaelic games as a youth.
Joining Aer Lingus in 1955 as a dispatcher at Shannon airport, Co. Clare, he was a dependable, easygoing worker. After marrying Mairead Ryan from Thurles in 1958, he worked at Heathrow airport, London (1959), and as duty manager at Cork airport (1962). Promotions to deputy station manager in O'Hare airport, Chicago, USA (1966), and station manager at JFK airport, New York (1968), kindled his hard-edged ambition. In 1972 a homesick wife and a wish to raise his three sons in Ireland prompted his transfer to Dublin, where he filled a chance vacancy in aircraft leasing.
Charged with finding takers for surplus Aer Lingus aircraft, in early 1973 he persuaded a small Thai airline, Air Siam, to lease the Boeing 747 idling in Dublin and, with Aer Lingus pilots and support staff continuing to operate the jet, went to Bangkok in September to oversee the lease. Struck by its profitability, he unavailingly sought permission to broker leases between other airlines, and increasingly resented the academically distinguished technocrats populating the Aer Lingus senior management.
His threatened departure in early 1975 drew a response, and in May he became chief executive of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), which brokered the sale and leasing of aircraft and was capitalised at £30,000, with Aer Lingus and London merchant bank Guinness Peat each having a 45 per cent shareholding. Extracting an equity holding, profit-sharing entitlements, and a guarantee that his stake could not be diluted, Ryan remortgaged his house to raise the £3,000 needed for his 10 per cent shareholding.
On a wing and a prayer By basing his small operation in the Shannon industrial zone, Co. Clare, Ryan gained tax exemptions on profits and dividends and also offices at subsidised rents. Conversely, this bleak backwater hampered recruitment and suffered from unreliable telecommunications and unsatisfactory services at the adjoining airport. As Ryan assiduously projected reputability in a brokerage sector abounding with shady opportunists, his hard-necked hustling and pursuit of personal contact with potential customers drove GPA's advancement. The relentless travelling ended many GPA marriages, including Ryan's own in 1976. Although not a practising catholic, he never divorced and pursued subsequent relationships discreetly.
Benefiting from Aer Lingus's provision of technical support and of legal and financial advice, in 1976 he began brokering and managing 'wet leases', whereby flight crews and maintenance workers were supplied along with an aircraft. GPA allowed Aer Lingus and other carriers to contract out personnel and hardware while eschewing the murkier aspects of doing business in corrupt, underdeveloped countries. Despite his unsupportive shareholders, Ryan transformed GPA into one of the first specialist aircraft lessors, as its lucrative, late-1970s role training pilots and engineers for Nigerian Airways funded first the leasing and then the purchasing of ageing aircraft for wet leasing, originally with onward lease and sale contracts in place.
The lessees were mainly cash-strapped national carriers in Africa and Asia, with Sri Lanka's Air Lanka emerging as a valuable customer in the early 1980s. (In 1987 a Sri Lankan government commission condemned the closeness previously existing between GPA and Air Lanka, noting that Air Lanka bought unsuitable aircraft from GPA at questionable prices.) Resourcefully expediting its clients' often erratic and pressing requirements, while tolerating late payments and barter arrangements, GPA had remarkably few bad debts and when necessary always retrieved its asset and found another lessee.
Ryan continuously strained GPA's threadbare financing and outmanoeuvred his tight-fisted shareholders by covertly negotiating an investment from Air Canada in 1980, thereby becoming a paper millionaire. Amounting to £100,000 for 1980, his burgeoning dividend income allowed him in 1976 to purchase Kilboy House, a dilapidated Georgian mansion at Dolla, Co. Tipperary, and inharmoniously renovate it into a Californian-style ranch. He enjoyed country pursuits, and stocked the parkland with a prize-winning herd of Blonde d'Aquitaine cattle.
Mid-career turbulence The tension between Ryan's drive and his shareholders' prudence served GPA well, but he clashed bitterly with the Aer Lingus representatives on the board. In November 1981 he announced his intended departure just as his headlong expansionism threw GPA into financial and administrative disarray. The board called his bluff and, while permitting him to retract his resignation in June 1982, imposed Aer Lingus executive Maurice Foley as his deputy. Succumbing to depression, Ryan temporarily withdrew from GPA before accepting that his fast-maturing company, then attracting higher-calibre staff, was benefiting from Foley's assured management. Foley in turn grasped aircraft leasing's potential and backed Ryan's ambitions. Preferring to continue as a globetrotting aircraft dealer, Ryan delegated routine administration to Foley while ferociously asserting himself at GPA's weekly meetings. His volatility owed much to jet lag and insomnia.
He overcame his 1982 personal crisis by cultivating an interest in art that was deepened by his relationship from 1985 with the glamorous socialite Miranda Guinness (1940–2010), countess of Iveagh. Blossoming into a discerning connoisseur, he switched from modernism towards the ornate artworks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An enthusiastic carouser, as well as a determined social climber and networker, he hosted lavish, high-powered parties at the tastefully redesigned Kilboy House. He was neither gregarious nor charismatic, and shunned the media, remaining an inherently insecure, even gauche, provincial, whose partially suppressed Irish nationalism poisoned relations with British financiers.
Take-off GPA availed of leasing's growing respectability within a more competitive and uncertain aviation sector by morphing from the early 1980s into a purveyor of aircraft on four-to-seven-year dry leases (i.e., without operational backup) to budding airlines in the liberalised American market and to chartered operators in Europe. Boosted by the Shannon incentives and a favourable network of Irish double-taxation agreements, GPA attracted additional credit and capital, as world banking trends and new tax laws turned niche specialists into the ideal medium for aircraft financing.
Insisting that investors pledge copious loan support, Ryan gathered a dispersed, 100-strong shareholder base (spanning prestige corporations and banks in Europe, America and Japan), which allowed him to dominate the board as chairman from 1985. Buoyed by the proliferation of aircraft leasing and by a surge in aviation-based lending, from 1986 he borrowed voraciously to achieve bulk discounts on buying from manufacturers. In driving up prices and lengthening manufacturing backlogs for the most sought-after models, he intensified a supply shortage that inflated the value of GPA's aircraft and obliged airlines to lease from him at premium margins. His obsession with extracting the utmost from every deal unnecessarily antagonised shareholders, lenders, manufacturers and airlines.
He assembled sizeable legal and accounting teams that inventively packaged aircraft as financial assets and delivered supercharged profits from the mid 1980s by selling aircraft within one to three years to investors (mainly Japanese) seeking tax write-offs; GPA then leased back the aircraft for onward leasing to airlines. The Irish accounting standards permitted GPA to book premature profits by treating such transactions as straightforward sales, and also to hide debt in satellite companies. Unversed in GPA's esoteric financial engineering, he concentrated on buying aircraft and triumphantly leading leasing operations in the late 1980s into Latin America, Asia and eastern Europe.
Also supervising recruitment, he hired the cream of the Irish university graduates, public sector and professional firms, while packing the GPA board with deferential trophy directors drawn from international industry and politics. Isolated by Shannon's remoteness and an eighty-hour working week circling the globe, his employees exhibited a cult-like sense of mission and were pressured into buying GPA shares, paying the attendant loans with dividends comprising most of their income. This highly motivating combination of profit sharing and personal debt enabled Ryan to amass 300 employees while preserving a venturesome, administratively minimalist corporate culture. Lacking in managerial proficiency, he used such incentives and his incorrigible brinksmanship to spur his workers.
Flying high Thus, in 1989 GPA decisively surpassed its main rival, the California-based aircraft-leasing pioneer International Lease Finance Corporation, when Ryan concluded a $17 billion order for 308 planes, the largest in aviation history. His refusal to halt this buying binge pressured GPA's finances and trading operations and necessitated the sale of 20 per cent of its fleet yearly, typically through potentially costly leaseback arrangements that involved underwriting the aircraft's future value. Keen to maintain his authority and avoid external scrutiny of GPA's accounts, he was slow to tap the publicly traded debt markets and resisted pressure from shareholders and staff to float GPA on a stock exchange; he also feared an exodus once his employees could readily sell their shares. Accordingly, GPA developed a debt-heavy funding structure, composed mainly of a short-term banking facility.
In 1990 GPA reported profits of $242 million (up from $9 million in 1983), leased 240 planes (up from twenty in 1983) to sixty-eight airlines in forty-one countries, and claimed 10 per cent of all aircraft to be manufactured until 2000. Benefiting from performance-related share bonuses, Ryan held an 8 per cent shareholding worth $304 million in 1990, and reaped $84.5 million in dividends during 1985–92. He accumulated an impressive art collection (often after bidding wars with other Irish oligarchs) and residences in Mexico, Ibiza and Monaco, as well as a first rapid and then steady succession of younger consorts after his breakup with Guinness in 1991.
For making GPA the foremost sponsor of the arts in Ireland, Ryan was appointed to the NGI board (1987), but found the artistic community more interested in tapping his pocket and denuding his well-stocked wine cellar than in heeding his suggestions. He accomplished more as chairman of the Hunt Museum committee (1991–8), obtaining government funding for a museum in Limerick to house the artworks and antiquities collected by John Durell Hunt (qv). Receiving honorary doctorates from TCD (1987), UCG (1987) and UL (1992), he sat on the UL Foundation board and donated to Irish universities. Through GPA he grew close to Mexico's political elite and was appointed Mexico's honorary consul in Ireland (1990) and awarded the Aztec Eagle (1994). (In 1996 he arranged for the disgraced former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari to receive asylum in Ireland.)
Seeking self-fulfilling entrepreneurial outlets and also aiming to rebut criticisms of contributing little to the Irish economy, from the early 1980s he initiated assorted personal ventures, which suffered from his unrealistic expectations and parsimonious financing. Consequently, the purchase of the Sunday Tribune newspaper in 1982 miscarried expensively amid his differences (or rather similarities) with the combustible editor, Vincent Browne. Withdrawing from the newspaper in 1984, Ryan also opened a loss-making 'gastropub' in Co. Tipperary, dabbled in dairying, and prepared failed schemes for operating a ferry service and building a television satellite. He hired a succession of young personal assistants to supervise his investments and serve as much-persecuted dogsbodies, starting with future telecommunications mogul Denis O'Brien.
A costly frolic In 1985 he founded a low-cost airline, named Ryanair, to challenge the cartel operating between Britain and Ireland, particularly on the crucial Dublin–London market. As Aer Lingus had inserted a non-compete clause in his GPA contract, he did so through a family trust and installed his two eldest sons as Ryanair executives: Cathal was a dashing but arrogant pilot, while Declan was more reflective and financially astute. (After years of absentee fatherhood, this venture allowed Ryan to bond with his children.) Ryan lobbied for Ryanair's permission to fly from Dublin to Luton, which was close to London and not serviced by Aer Lingus, while his ideological soul mate Des O'Malley TD campaigned against expensive airfares. (O'Malley's free-market Progressive Democrat party later benefited from Ryan's political donations.)
Granted the Dublin–Luton licence in December 1985, Ryanair charged an unrestricted fare at half the market average. The ensuing price war doubled the previously stagnant number of air travellers between Britain and Ireland during 1986–9 and moved both governments to deregulate the air routes between their countries in 1988. Soon boasting eight aircraft serving nineteen routes, and a youthful workforce of 750, Ryanair was slickly marketed, but excessively sales-driven and shambolically administered. The cheap fares and friendly service led passengers to overlook the wheezing planes, lost bookings, regular delays and cancellations, and doubts about the Romanian flight crews' competence.
Realising that he was paying dearly for Ryanair's overambitious expansion, Ryan brutally sacked his cavalier chief executive, Eugene O'Neill, in autumn 1988 and retreated from his low-cost philosophy by directing the introduction of improved in-flight services and seeking an uncompetitive niche for Ryanair as a provincial carrier. Baffled by the mass market he had created for air travel and averse to being associated with a shoddy service, Ryan vacillated disruptively between preserving his vanity or his money.
He stubbornly absorbed personal losses amounting to £22 million from 1985 to 1991, and marshalled the political support Ryanair needed to withstand Aer Lingus's predatory pricing. Canvassing Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv), he threatened to liquidate Ryanair in 1989 unless it got a free run at the newly opened Stansted airport, which, unlike Luton, was to be linked to London by rail. There were insinuations of financial impropriety when the government obliged by effecting a demarcation of routes between the rival Irish airlines. During this period, Ryan secured state subsidies for Ryanair in return for serving provincial airports, and (in 1992) rent breaks for its headquarters at Dublin airport.
Overcommitted to unprofitable secondary routes and lumbered with an inefficient, unmanageably varied, and prohibitively leased fleet, Ryanair haemorrhaged cash, and Ryan unsuccessfully touted it to British Airways and Aer Lingus in 1990. In early 1991 he came within hours of closing Ryanair before staff swallowed harsh redundancies and wage cuts, as its London operations were transferred to Stansted airport, which offered nominal charges and a completed rail link. When Ryanair merely broke even for 1991, there seemed little prospect of sufficient profits and Ryan distanced himself by withdrawing his sons from its management.
His sensational £36 million purchase in 1988 of a 5 per cent stake in Bank of Ireland continued an unhappy run of investments. After forcing the chief executive's removal in 1990, he sold out in 1991 at a £23 million loss (counting interest on the debt raised to buy the shares) and took out a $35 million bridging loan. In 1992 the collapse of Ryanair's British associate, which operated from Luton to the continent, cost Ryan another £3 million sterling; before failing, the airline made payments that aroused the liquidator's suspicion.
Crash landing Meanwhile, GPA was deprived of its normal financing from 1989 by a global banking downturn. Instead of undertaking an opportune flotation, Ryan delayed until 1992, by which time GPA was approaching crisis and the aviation industry was in recession. Failing to appreciate GPA's vulnerability, he ignored warnings that the price was too high, engaged in well-publicised disagreements with his financial advisers and shareholders over the terms, and plumped for an ambitious, inflexibly structured offering encompassing the Dublin, London, New York and Tokyo markets. With the market further unsettled by the unveiling of GPA's accounting practices, external and internal pressures forced him to make way as chief executive for Foley in March 1992.
When the lack of buyers forced the eleventh-hour abandonment of the flotation in June 1992, Ryan tried to scapegoat Foley and resumed as chief executive, but the reputational damage left GPA incapable of supporting debts of $6 billion with $2 billion in assets. (Even had the $700 million been raised, GPA would still have been overwhelmed by its commitment to spend $12 billion on over 300 aircraft.) With the market awaiting distress prices, aircraft sales ceased, triggering asset write-downs and contingent liabilities, which, together with the forfeiture of purchase deposits and discounts, produced a $1 billion GPA loss for 1992/3.
With Ryan's GPA shares now worthless, his $35 million loan sufficed to absorb his remaining wealth, while his employees were left with crushing debts. (Most were eventually written off.) Furthermore, Ryan was embroiled in scandal as a director of local enterprise board Tipperary Enterprises, which was liquidated in 1993 amid claims that EU funding went into renovating property owned by his family trust. The liquidator's action against him for repayment of £220,000 was settled out of court in 1997.
Ryan wrung concessions from GPA's manufacturers and 138 bank creditors, who shrank from dumping over 400 aircraft (or 5 per cent of the world fleet) on a flagging market. However, the banks demanded fresh investment in GPA, which was not forthcoming, and insisted that the unsecured bondholders share the pain, which would preclude future resort to the debt markets. As this impasse persisted and the bondholder repayments loomed, the GPA middle management realised that their discredited and bickering superiors were incapable of securing a resolution and mutinied in April 1993.
Opposed by a leasing team then working miracles in placing aircraft, Ryan yielded. The dissidents took over the debt renegotiations, and in May 1993 obtained a funding commitment from US conglomerate General Electric (GE), which in October cheaply bought GPA's best aircraft and gained control of its remaining assets and most of its staff without being exposed to its debts. Ryan's irrelevance was such that he went on a holiday to Ibiza in June, only to be involved there in a fatal car crash.
Falling upwards Ryan received $2 million compensation and became chairman of GE Capital Aviation Services, but was denied authority and resigned in 1994, remaining on the payroll until 1996. Having sheltered his assets within a trust, he faced down the threat of legal proceedings regarding the $35 million owed to the Merrill Lynch bank and achieved a $4.5 million settlement in 1994.
From 1992, Ryan's tribulations prevented him from obstructing Ryanair's evolution into a thoroughgoing 'no-frills' airline under the supervision of his personal assistant, Michael O'Leary. (O'Leary had resisted Ryan's entreaties to manage Ryanair until GPA's demise left him no choice.) Ryanair converted to one aircraft type, increased flight frequencies, and courted controversy by cancelling under-booked flights, dropping routes to concentrate on Dublin–Stansted, and ruthlessly cutting the customary in-flight services. With passengers proving surprisingly willing to forego comfort for value, Ryanair made such progress that an otherwise beleaguered Ryan spurned Aer Lingus's £25 million bid in summer 1993.
As Ryanair director (1995) and chairman (1996), Ryan was embarrassed by O'Leary's overzealous enforcement of low-fare service standards, but the prospect of recovering his fortune stayed his hand. His impotence was demonstrated when he repudiated a promise to share profits with O'Leary, who prompted Ryan to pay up by tendering his resignation. To suppress wages and airport charges, Ryanair concealed its stellar returns and bonuses (paid mainly to O'Leary, and also to Ryan's sons), which came to £24 million, or 25 per cent of operating profits for the three years to March 1997. Ryanair also secretly contributed $4 million towards Ryan's Merrill Lynch settlement.
Ryan was dismayed when partnership talks with British Airways and Virgin Airways failed during 1995–6 because Ryanair was dismissed as a tin-pot ethnic airline with a slippery owner. Accepting the need for a stock flotation, he sold 20 per cent of Ryanair on generous terms to American investment guru David Bonderman in 1996 and acknowledged his tainted reputation by bowing to O'Leary's demands and resigning as chairman in January 1997. Ryan's disengagement from Ryanair was publicly emphasised, though his attempted seclusion unravelled in February when his son Cathal was sued in court for assault by a former fiancée, sparking a lurid media circus.
Embarrassing riches That June, Ryanair was successfully floated on the Dublin and New York exchanges, but not on the London market until 1998 owing to Ryan's notoriety. The conservatively priced 1997 share issue made £48 million for the Ryans, who reaped a further €400 million from running down their remaining 33 per cent shareholding into the mid 2000s. (Nonetheless, upon being robbed in his London apartment in December 1997, Ryan withstood a beating rather than open his safe.) Continuing uneasily on the board of Europe's most successful (and decried) budget carrier, his long-fraught relationship with O'Leary soured over Ryanair's gleefully brusque treatment of its customers.
A recovering GPA repaid its creditors and was sold in November 2000 for a quarter of its June 1992 value, netting Ryan $47 million. By then Ireland was the world centre for aircraft leasing after GPA's earlier success enabled Irish professional firms to acquire an unrivalled specialism and encouraged the Irish government to tailor its tax regime accordingly. In 2010 Irish-resident companies, many run by former GPA workers, leased a quarter of all commercial aircraft and controlled half the international aircraft-leasing market. Ryan also deserves credit for Shannon Aerospace, an aircraft maintenance venture originally involving GPA, which had been his brainchild and became an important regional source of skilled employment.
In 1996 Ryan bought the Lyons Demesne, an eighteenth-century mansion and 600-acre estate in Co. Kildare, and employed over 100 workers on its acclaimed three-year restoration. (Lyons Demesne was not in his name, as restoration costs were tax-deductible for residents only and he had been a Monaco tax exile since 1992.) Pouring over €100 million into this exquisite folly, he crammed the mansion with fine art and antiques and recreated the property's abandoned village. He also funded the Tony Ryan Academy of Entrepreneurship, in Citywest, Co. Dublin, and invested in commercial property, biotechnology, internet start-ups, a French vineyard, and low-budget airlines in Singapore and Mexico.
Latterly he resided mainly in Kentucky, USA, where he bought a stud farm in 2001 and bred racehorses. Dying in Lyons Demesne of pancreatic cancer on 3 October 2007, Ryan was buried in the grounds, survived by his estranged wife, three sons and partner Martine Head.
Assessment By financially lubricating the separation of aircraft ownership from operation, and also by founding and persevering with Ryanair, Ryan abetted the market-driven subversion of the airline cartels that were impeding the growth of world aviation. More parochially, his finessing of the Shannon incentives pioneered Ireland's gainful transformation into a quasi tax haven while his humbling of Aer Lingus legitimised more liberal economic policies. A fitfully inspired and audaciously opportunistic entrepreneur, he availed of the Irish government's embryonic policy of financial services mercantilism to emerge from the margins of the state sector and flourish as a piratical instrument of unchecked global capital. Better at tearing down the old than building anew, he was impelled nonetheless by his restless and sweeping ambition to create a tangible corporate legacy that eclipsed his own personal flaws. Ryan's charmed and chequered career exemplifies how overconfident mavericks can usefully drive progress, but also imperil entire industries if pitched by wider economic forces into positions of systemic importance.
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A new entry, added to the DIB online, June 2016
Image courtesy of Wikicommons, under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
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