Tony Ryan

Shrewd founder of the low-cost, big-business airline Ryanair
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The Independent Online

Thomas Anthony Ryan, businessman: born Thurles, Co Tipperary 2 February 1936; staff, Aer Lingus 1956-75; founder, GPA 1975-93; founder, Ryanair 1985, chairman 1996-98, director 1996-2007; chairman, Irelandia Investments 1994-2007; married (three sons); died Celbridge, Co Kildare 3 October 2007.

Tony Ryan, the Irish aviation magnate, was a pioneer of modern business techniques, hailed in his own country as a major role model for a new wave of risk-taking executives. He helped transform the aviation industry both in Ireland and internationally, amassing two fortunes by his shrewdness in identifying gaps in the market.

He is also credited both with developing the entrepreneurial spirit in the country and with helping bring on a new, tough, young breed of aggressive executives, most particularly his abrasive former aide Michael O'Leary. The Ryan name will live on in the low-cost, big-business airline Ryanair, which Tony Ryan founded before handing its management on to O'Leary, who has fashioned it into a major, if controversial player, in flying.

Ryan's financial rewards were huge. Ryanair and other ventures propelled him close to the top of the Irish rich list, his trappings of billionaire wealth including an extensive country estate, a string of thoroughbred racehorses and tax exile status in Monte Carlo. The Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern yesterday described his contribution to aviation as immense, saying he had placed Ireland centre stage in the global aviation business.

In one highly fanciful sense, Ryan could be said to have had family links with the transport industry, since his father was a Tipperary train driver. Educated by the Christian Brothers, he left school at 16 to work in a local sugar-beet factory. He went on to join Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, becoming a middle manager and working in both Dublin and the United States. In the course of his work he was involved in temporarily leasing under-used aircraft to other carriers, and it was here that he came up with the first of his two big ideas.

This was to formalise leasing activities through a new company, Guinness Peat Aviation, which he set up in 1975. It seemed a simple idea, yet it was spectacularly successful, assuming worldwide significance and coming to be valued at $4bn.

At GPA's glorious high point Ryan placed orders for more than 300 aircraft, and bought a five per cent stake in the Bank of Ireland. He recruited some of Ireland's, and Britain's, most prestigious former politicians, business figures and diplomats to work for him. This conspicuous success was all the more striking since it came in Ireland's pre-Celtic Tiger days, at a time when its economy seemed becalmed.

But economic depression undermined this commercial success, the company over-reached itself, and in 1992 it ran into debt problems as American investors declined to risk their money in a disastrous flotation attempt. Ryan lost control of the company, though he eventually emerged from the collapse with many millions. He said of this bruising experience: "People say I'm arrogant and sure I am, but you should see those arrogant sons of bitches on Wall Street."

By that stage, however, Ryan had already launched his own little airline, Ryanair, which at its beginnings in 1985 had just one 15-seat turboprop plane flying to and fro across the Irish Sea. It was not the instant success that Guinness Peat Aviation had been, and at one stage it looked like closing down, but it flourished when Ryan put in charge Michael O'Leary, the one-time aide who now runs the business.

The concept was for an unashamedly no-frills airline, stripping away all luxuries and calculating that passengers would readily sacrifice what were then standard services in exchange for cheaper fares. This was the second big Ryan idea, and it worked.

O'Leary's style, intensely combative and often frankly rude to competitors, has given Ryanair a reputation for being uncaring and even nasty towards passengers, with allegations that it operates various hidden charges. In one survey it was voted the world's most disliked airline.

Commercially, however, it has gone from strength to strength, employing almost 5,000 people and operating more than 550 routes in 26 different countries. After it was floated on the stock exchange in 1997, the Ryan family made more than a £100m through the sale of some of their shares.

Ryan was proud of his reputation for thrusting individual enterprise, saying it was originally "a concept that I didn't understand and was extraordinarily sceptical of". He put some of his money into educational philanthropy, funding a science institute and a Ryan Academy for Entrepreneurship.

His family said yesterday that they were "proud of Tony's spirit of entrepreneurship which created enterprise and opportunity for many people in this country and abroad".

In addition to the jobs created for Ryanair's employees, his ventures have produced a thriving aviation industry in the Irish Republic based on experience gained by former employees of the company and of GPA. He was a figure of remarkable commercial vision, with remarkable powers of both creativity and recovery from setback.

David McKittrick