Belfast Telegraph

Life's a roller coaster for Tayto Park founder

Sarah McCabe meets Ray Coyle at his Co Meath theme park, as he reflects on selling his final share in Largo, maker of Tayto and Hunky Dory crisps in the Republic

By Sarah McCabe

The view from Ray Coyle's office summarises his life. From one window on the second floor of Tayto Park's headquarters, I can see the enormous €12m Cu Chulainn - Europe's largest wooden roller coaster and the centrepiece of the theme park.

From another window, I can see steam billowing out from the chimneys of a factory owned by Largo, the crisp company he founded 33 years ago.

From a third vantage point, I can just about make out a few bulky, rust-coloured bison - part of a herd which he farms for meat.

Farming, albeit potato farming, gave him his first taste of success in the 1970s. But Tayto Park is Coyle's main business interest - and his pride and joy. He has just sold his final stake in Largo, the maker of Tayto and Hunky Dory crisps, to majority shareholder Intersnack.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no link between the Tayto crisps of the Republic of Ireland - which were first made by Joe Murphy in 1954 - and those made on this side of the border.

Northern Ireland's Tayto have been made by the Hutchinson family in Tandragee, Co Armagh since 1956.

In 2008 Mr Coyle signed a deal which gave control of Largo to Germany's Intersnack. It gave it the option to buy more shares every few years. Over time it has chosen to exercise this.

He will remain a director and chairman of Largo's board until at least 2017.

Does he ever regret doing that deal?

"Of course, when you spend 33 years at anything, it is hard to let it go," he says.

"But at the time I needed the money to do other things. I would have liked to reverse the options - but I couldn't. That's the way it goes. They are an excellent company to work with, very professional."

Coyle knows what it is like to lose things. He made a lot of money early in his career with potato farming, growing rapidly in the 1970s, expanding to 800 acres and hitting turnover of €1m a year by 1975 while still in his mid-20s. It was a heady time.

His mistake, he says, was failing to diversify. Potato farming was too easy to do, everybody piled in and soon the market was saturated. Despite selling some land, he found himself owing €1.2m to the banks, with only a farm in Bellewstown worth €400,000 left. He decided to raffle it instead, shifting 4,000 tickets at €300 apiece and managing to clear his debts in one fell swoop.

With the little money left over, he started Largo.

"I had been selling potatoes to the likes of Tayto and Perri crisps, so I understood the business and saw an opportunity."

Largo's first brand was Cottage Crisps. Next it bought Perri and the Donegal brand Sam's Spudz. Coyle built several factories overseas, including facilities in the Czech Republic, Moldova and Tripoli, which closed down a year before the Libyan civil war.

The seminal acquisition was Tayto - bought from C&C in 2006. That was the turning point for the business. Largo had been losing market share to Walkers - but by 2007 they had entered growth mode.

"Tayto was already a phenomenal brand when we bought it, going since 1952," he adds, reluctant to claim too much praise.

But it was his clever marketing that made Tayto what it is today - a product synonymous with Ireland, sent in care packages to diaspora all over the world alongside Barry's Tea and Ballymaloe relish.

Tactics included putting Mr Tayto up as a candidate when Bertie Ahern called a general election in 2007, or publishing a Mr Tayto autobiography - "140 pages of advertising that was a bestseller for three months before Christmas. Really good marketing."

Largo and Coyle were also behind one of the country's more notorious marketing campaigns - the big breasted Hunky Dory girl, whose scantily clad billboard attracted significant ire.

"It was classic guerrilla marketing," he says.

The approach for Tayto Park is just as smart. Coyle is adept at using his story and personality to market it. The idea for the park came to him in 2006. "We had nothing like this in Ireland. There are so many in Europe and the US - but Ireland, for some reason, had just never done it," he says.

It costs an initial €8m to get the project off the ground - buying, landscaping and fitting a vast site near Ashbourne in Co Meath, with tens of millions more invested since then. It opened in 2010. It was a steep learning curve, he says, with lots of visits to US parks for inspiration.

"I thought I had built a white elephant, made a mistake... and then Easter 2011 came along, and the weather was great, and people started showing up in droves.

"The park very unusually made a profit in its first year."

Another €41m has been invested since then on developing the land and adding rides and facilities. The single biggest spend took place last winter with the installation of Cu Chulainn.

Some 730,000 people have visited the park so far in 2015. The majority has been funded by Coyle himself, though bank loans and the reinvesting of profits have played a part too. He estimates he has invested €30m personally.

"At the start I could not get a loan. So I sold the factory in the Czech Republic to do it. I'm not a big believer in loans - and today most banks will only give you 25% of the cost of a project anyway."

He wants to grow the number of rides by 60% and has a spending plan for the next two years.

"What we will have then is a park with over a million visitors a year, employing 800 people at peak, here for your grandchildren."

Belfast Telegraph