Ryanair investors berate O'Leary but fear his leaving

Tue Nov 5, 2013 9:44am EST
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By Conor Humphries and Sinead Cruise

DUBLIN/LONDON (Reuters) - When one Ryanair (RYA.I: Quote) shareholder made a stinging attack on Chief Executive Michael O'Leary at the airline's annual meeting for scaring off customers with his "bullying" and "macho" style, there was one thing he didn't mention.

That O'Leary's leaving was one of his biggest fears.

As Ryanair scrambles to reinvent itself and woo customers from higher-cost rivals to fill hundreds of new planes, there are growing concerns about the cost of what O'Leary recently described as his "personal character deformities".

But with his heir apparent about to leave - and as a series of profit warnings eat away at O'Leary's air of invincibility - a bigger worry is that Europe's largest airline has left itself over-dependent on a single personality.

"On the main issues he has been hugely successful ... but there is some really bad stuff," said Alan Marlborough, a private shareholder with a sizeable portion of his savings in Ryanair, a month after his AGM outburst. "Is the company over-dependent on him? I think it is."

Asked, however, if O'Leary's departure was one of the biggest concerns for Ryanair, he told Reuters: "I totally agree."

O'Leary, an outspoken and hard-charging 52-year-old who used to run newsagent shops, has been in charge of Ryanair since 1994 and is described by executives who have worked with him as a workaholic with a forensic knowledge of every aspect of the company.

A near-religious devotion to cost-cutting has allowed him to transform a small loss-making regional airline into the biggest carrier by passenger numbers in Europe, and in turn transform the industry. But now budget airlines' customer care is under scrutiny, particularly at Ryanair.   Continued...

Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary attends a news conference at the Scandic Grand Central hotel in Stockholm August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Bertil Enevag Ericson/Scanpix Sweden