Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: reading between the lines at Ryanair

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary

By Richard Curran

When a new chief executive takes over the top job from a predecessor, it is often referred to as 'succession'. And when a company makes arrangements to ensure it has the right person available to take over in the future it is commonly referred to as "succession planning".

But this may be the wrong way to look at when it comes to the role of chief executive of a publicly quoted company. Succession by definition is about the process of inheriting a title or a position.

Investors should rightly hope that nobody would "inherit" the top position at a company in which they have invested. It should be based on merit and the top job should have to be earned.

Nowhere could this be more true than at Ryanair. Michael O'Leary has been chief executive for over two decades. Everybody has watched on as he continues to run the airline with no sign of ever giving up.

Last week he announced a five-year contract to remain as chief executive of the Ryanair group of companies. As recently as last September Mr O'Leary said he had been offered a longer contract by the board but was looking at 12-month rolling contracts.

He has also said in the past that he didn't want to stay on at Ryanair until he was an old man. But he spoke very plainly last September about how he feels about the job.

"I have no idea when I'll have had enough. I like this company. I like working for this company. I don't do it for the pay I get. But as long as it remains interesting and fun and challenging, I see no reason not to continue to try to lead it and lead it forward positively."

Clearly, O'Leary is still having fun, despite the difficulties the airline has faced from industrial action, a lower fares environment and the uncertainty over Brexit.

In fact, it is exactly this kind of maelstrom that he seems to enjoy the most.

For the company there is a genuine issue about succession, but only if the chief executive is thinking about leaving.

By the time his new contract ends in 2024, he will have been chief executive for 30 years.

Of course last week's announcement involved a lot more than simply a new contract for Michael O'Leary. It set in place a series of changes which will appease some investor critics of the company, while continuing to play to its strengths.

O'Leary will become chief executive of the main holding company of Ryanair Group. It, in turn, will have individual chief executives for its main airline and smaller carriers - Laudamotion in Austria, Ryanair Sun in Poland and Ryanair UK, the entity formed to surmount obstacles thrown up by Brexit.

Obviously the biggest change will be the appointment of a new chief executive to the main Ryanair airline who will report in to O'Leary. As one commentator put it, O'Leary will be handing over the controls but will remain in the cockpit. O'Leary will still be overall boss and will have direct responsibility for big issues like mergers and acquisition opportunities, reducing costs and buying aircraft.

This means his judgment will remain vital when it comes to identifying what companies to buy and for how much, keeping pressure on cutting costs, and driving hard bargains on aircraft purchases.

It should free him up somewhat to be less involved in the day to day running of the airlines, while allowing other executives to step that bit closer to the top job.

If Ryanair announced that O'Leary was staying on in the current role for another five years, would some senior management have considered leaving on the basis that it would be at least 2024 before they got a shot at the top job? At least this way, there will be greater individual autonomy for chief executives of those divisions, yet investors have the stability of knowing O'Leary is still very much there.

He is a massive figure in the culture, operations and success of the airline. Investors would be very nervous of him retiring. His re-appointment to the board received the backing of 98% of shareholder votes last year.

Ryanair also announced that its chairman of 20 years, David Bonderman, will be retiring from the role next year, as will long-serving deputy chairman Kyran McLaughlin. Based on best corporate governance practice, he has been there too long.

Around 30% of investors voted against Bonderman's reappointment to the position at the annual general meeting last year. With this announcement, critics of Bonderman can point to the fact that he is going next year. Fans of Bonderman can point to the fact that he is at least going to remain in the role for another year.

Taken as a whole, the Ryanair announcement gives a real impression that changes are afoot, yet nobody is actually going anywhere yet, which provides stability at a tricky time in the sector.

Belfast Telegraph