Thursday, 16 December 2010

Brushes with the rich and famous – Michael O’Leary

What a man Michael O’Leary is. Mind you I cannot make up my mind whether he should have been more appropriately named Michael O’Loony or perhaps Michael O’Lucky. Then I decided the word luck does not really feature in either his profile or vocabulary so that one can be quickly discounted. This leaves us with the loony possibility and I think this option needs more careful thought.

When you see Michael you can almost be tempted to wonder what all the fuss is about. He does not particularly stand out in the crowd and is very often disarmingly charming in his soft Irish accented way. When I saw him I wondered if he was really the beast of Ryanair and the airline reincarnation of Rasputin the mad monk of Imperial Russian that I had heard about.

We were both invited to speak to a group of city analysts at a day conference sponsored by one of the large investment houses and it was his turn to go first. We had sat through some pretty dry stuff delivered by well meaning but character challenged airline CEOs which were received in a rather stony and impolite fashion by the audience. This audience was pretty typical of most city analyst groups i.e. average age 25, average experience 1 year, average IQ 150 and average manners 0.

When O’Leary stood up there was an expectant rumble of muted mutterings in the audience. Up to the podium he marched, looked at the audience and took a great swig of water direct from the neck of a large bottle whilst ignoring the glasses set alongside for his use. That really did silence the expectant audience and some even stopped tapping away on their blackberries.

He started talking gently and lucidly about Ryanair, their achievements and plans and it was really rather impressive. You could see the audience being wooed and I could not fail to notice the look of total relief on the faces of his advisers who had no doubt tried to school him about keeping to the script they had spent hours writing for him. Apart from the odd witty aside delivered in his soft Irish bur he looked word perfect.
And then something seemed to click in his brain.

He was talking about airport charges and suddenly he spoke the words ‘Stanstead Airport’ off his script and his eyes seemed to glaze and a red mist gathered in front of them. I heard a muttered “Oh shit” coming from the direction of his advisers and Michael was off into a wild tirade of abuse levelled at the leadership of that airport who happened to be in the audience. It was not pretty and it was not nice and it definitely was not in his script. It ended as abruptly as it started with O’Leary staring balefully and challenging at the Stanstead guys as he stalked off the stage. You could have heard a pin drop.

Follow that I thought. So up I got and took my place on the podium. I could see that the audience had not joined me. Most were on their blackberries having seen the ‘main event’ and those that weren’t were chatting, slipping out or leaning over to pat Michael on the back. So I decided to join them by subtly picking up where Michael had left off, after all I had little to lose by that stage. First thing was the bottle, or should I say bottles as I grabbed each one of the four on the table and took a deep drink out of all of them By this time I had some of their attention. This was followed by my delivering a much abridged version of what I was going to say and then I got on to Stanstead airport and Ryanair. I then gave what I thought was cunning but scathing comments that were a barely concealed attack on Ryanair and the way they work with/against the rest of the industry and finished to a reasonable spatter of applause.

Back to my seat in front of Michael I went and I could sense his eyes boring into the back of my head. At the end of the conference I decided to take the bull by the horns and introduce myself to the man and round I turned. He was very gracious and to my surprise thanked me quite profusely for the support I gave in my speech. Did he not realise I thought? Did he not see I was taking the Mickey I wondered? No I thought, this man is so vain he did not notice. Goodbye I said and walked away. I turned at the door and our eyes met across the room. His eyes looked glazed and I thought I detected a red mist in front of them.

So what do I think? Is he mad or very clever? Well there is little doubt he is very rich and very successful. He also has found a way to perpetuate this by being as unpleasant as possible to the industry and some would argue, his customers. In fact the worse he gets the better he does. Alongside this you have a man who is clearly a loose cannon. A man who says you should pay to go to the toilet on board and that air hostesses should learn to land planes in order to get rid of second pilots. I mean that is mad, or is it. Nobody, including him I suspect, believes either of these will happen but look at the press he has achieved for saying both. Remember, the worse he gets the better he does.

So my verdict is that he is a very clever man, a possibly dangerous man, but hopefully not one with a long memory as I would not like to see the outcome of that red mist!

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