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Sunday, 18 November 2007

A thought for O'Leary

Last week my partner and I went to Brussels for a meeting. Not wishing to remortgage the flat so as to pay to go by Eurostar or go on a posh airline, we went on Ryanair.

If you don’t live here you may not know Ryanair. It’s the airline everyone loves to hate but travels on because it’s so damn cheap. Their boss, Tony O’Leary is famous for his cavalier approach to passengers.

This is quite the opposite of the famous maxim “the customer is always right” and closer to “the customers are all arseholes, so screw them – as vigorously and as often as possible.” Of course the truth is that the customers are cheap arseholes, like me, and his novel marketing approach - cram 'em in and sell more seats - has resulted in them becoming Europe’s biggest airline.

It has to be said that he is not the first to have this approach but he is by far the most aggressive.

One reason they’re so damn cheap is that they fly to airfields that are miles and miles away from whatever city you are supposed to arrive in. This means in the case of Brussels, the little town of Charleroi.

Ryanair brings so much business to such spots that O’Leary, a superb negotiator, gets some amazing subsidies. I heard a lovely story about this from my host in Brussels. It seems that O’Leary went to negotiate some years ago with some bureaucrats in Brussels and was extremely rude to one of them, who was fairly junior at the time.

He ended a brief conversation by saying, “I don’t want to waste time with you. Fuck off.”

More recently he had to discuss the arrangements he had with Charleroi, and came for a meeting, again in Brussels. And guess who was dealing with it? The very same man, who greeted him (I imagine with some glee) with pretty much the same words.


Now that we have a shortage of decent heroes, far too often we worship people whose only talent is for making money - or very often, just for sliming their way to the top of large firms. Many of those I have met have been dull buggers with one-track minds.

But the O’Leary story reminds me of something.

In one of my periods of financial drought I worked for a while in the swimming pool business. I did the advertising and marketing and sold national franchises for a very funny New Yorker called Sammy Gold.

Sammy had the rare distinction of having cost the Mafia a lot of money and lived to tell the tale. Besides being a superb salesman, he had lots of good advice. One example I have never forgotten: Never end up in such bad terms with someone that you can’t do business with them again.

My next piece will be about an excellent ad campaign I saw in Brussels which upset some idiots in Britain who can't stand the truth.

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