Declan Ryan: “If we focus on the things that we’re good at, then we can lead.”

Declan Ryan DublinGlobe.com

Entrepreneur Declan Ryan talks to the Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell.

Declan Ryan is the Founder and Managing Partner of Irelandia Aviation, and one of the founders of Ryanair, where he held several senior management positions, including CEO. In 2004 he founded the One Foundation, a major Irish and Vietnamese philanthropic organization. He’s also the Chair of the Advisory Group at the DCU Ryan Academy for Entrepreneurs, a non-profit, joint venture between Dublin City University and the Ryan Family that aims to be the leading supporter of entrepreneurs and innovation in Ireland.

In Part One of this exclusive interview, he talks Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy with the Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell.

Can we talk a little bit about what you’re doing in Ireland right now?

Irelandia Aviation is the group we set up after Ryanair, to develop the low-cost model around the world – we are on our sixth low cost airline. Our concentration at the moment is in South America, but we’ve also done low cost models with Singapore Airlines (Tiger Airways) and in Las Vegas, which was a kind of mezzanine deal with a very successful airline out there called Allegiant. Now our concentration is in LATAM: Mexico and Colombia are successfully up and running, VivaAerobus is about 8 years old in Mexico, and we have VivaColombia based in Medellin that’s around three years old. So that’s what we do.

And what makes Dublin a great location to do all this from?

There’s huge providence and heritage behind Dublin – not just because of the Ryanairs and the Aer Linguses, but also because of GPA (Guinness Peat Aviation), which became the trailblazer in aircraft leasing – now fifty per cent of all airplanes leased in the world are through Dublin, which is fantastic for Ireland. It employs about 20,000 people in Ireland: those are really cool jobs, they’re in the financial services sector, the tech sector, the legal sector – they would be at the higher end salary-wise. So Ireland is shit-hot at aviation, not just because of the leasing market – the Irish Aviation Authority is renowned for their professionalism.

Is this well-known internationally?

No, and it drives us nuts. The joke within the industry is that we’re too busy to shout about it – but everyone in the trade knows it. Boeing calls aviation a small community within a big industry. Everybody knows each other, and everybody knows Dublin is a fantastic location for the industry. There’s a finance conference here every year, with about 3,500 bankers and lawyers in attendance. Slowly but surely we’re getting there, but as an industry we need to talk about it more.

Is Ryanair becoming a tech company?

I’m no longer on the board of Ryanair. I think the guys there have found God when it comes to tech – Michael O’Leary and the guys there realized that they were a bit behind. Now they have two hundred people out in the Ryanair Labs in Swords. EasyJet did a really good job, and I think Ryanair are playing catch up – and no better place to catch up in than in Dublin.

Do you think Ireland has a good entrepreneurial culture?

They say that Ireland is only the size of Kentucky, or Manchester. Look at aviation alone, you have Willie Walsh, ex Aer Lingus guy, very well known, you have Allen Joyce, the boss man at Quantas, you have my dad, Tony –that just shows you, from his humble upbringings in Tipperary, that a train driver’s son became the head of the largest leasing company in the world, and founded Ryanair. Then there’s Michael (O’ Leary) – he’s a superb CEO.

There’s a huge amount of entrepreneurial talent and ambition out there…

And my definition is not necessarily the big cats – if you go to the Middle East, you’ll find that some of the big carriers down there, the Emirates and so on, they all have very senior people, senior pilots for example, who are all Irish. So because of GPA, and because of Ryanair, and Aer Lingus there’s a very successful Irish diaspora of aviation entrepreneurs across the world. It’s fantastic.

Can we replicate this in other sectors? Obviously, it’s been a long time building.

I’d throw a word of caution at that, because I think we have to be a bit like the British Olympic team – concentrate at what we’re good at. If you’re asking me, in food, pharma, horses, aviation and tech, can we be the leaders? Yes we can, for sure. I just don’t think we’re going to be the rocket scientists in banking, or car manufacturing – I mean, we’re not good at manufacturing. I think if we focus on our niches, the things that we’re good at – and aviation is one of them, the tech sector is another – then we can lead.

In addition to all your work in aviation, you’ve done a number of other things – your philanthropic endeavours, for example, like the One Foundation…

I’ve written this letter to my kids which is titled, ‘Don’t be a shit, there’s enough shits in the world already…’ (laughs) So what I was trying to do, not just with my kids, but with regard to my being very lucky in having wealth, was to give some of it back. With the One Foundation, we put in the ballpark of 80 million Euro over ten years into very serious issues in Ireland, such as mental health, deprived kids, immigration and education. We had a brilliant team of six people, headed up by Deirdre Mortell – Eoghan Stack was one of the rock stars there as well – who helped us spend the money in a very clever way.

Sean Coughlan, one of our first employees, came up with this idea that every village in Ireland has a social entrepreneur. What does that mean? Somebody with a good heart, someone who wants to devote their time to social issues. We didn’t realize how successful it would be. And there’s another sector where Ireland could lead – there needs to be a Silicon Valley for NGOs, and charities, and there’s no reason that couldn’t be done here. We’re very good at it in Ireland.

What’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur, if there is one?

One has a heart and the other doesn’t have to have one. When I’m making business decisions, it’s very easy to make calls – people wonder whether I’m getting personal with them, but I’m not. It’s business. Jesus, I’d hate to be making decisions with my heart all the time. That’s hard.

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