Casting Light On Another O’Leary Empire

Published on Sunday 4 April 2010. By John Reynolds

The high-flying Ryanair boss keeps quiet about his other financial interest — commercial property. We uncover the details of his vast portfolio

RYANAIR chief Michael O’Leary is seeking to rent out an office block he owns in the City of London, according to details that have recently emerged and thrown new light on his property interests.  

Located in the heart of the city’s insurance district EC3, 50 Mark Lane is a 27,000 sq ft office building that spans six upper floors plus a ground floor and lower ground floor, according to the agents.

With an annual rent of £37.50 (€42) per square foot for the upper floors and slightly less for the others, it would bring in about £875,000 a year.

Although currently unoccupied, renovation works on the property were due to be completed in March last year, and included the installation of a new air conditioning system, a new reception and basement showers.

His office may be empty for now, but having issued a report earlier this week saying that profits at the low-fares airline have soared for the year to the end of March, he shouldn’t lose too much sleep seeing that the value of his stake in the company is up by €16m.

Also in the news this week for the grovelling apology he had to make to transport minister Noel Dempsey about an untrue allegation he had made, Mullingar’s most famous resident keeps his cards close to his chest where his other wealth is concerned.

While it is known that he owns two houses beside each other on Raglan Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin — he paid €9.4m for one of these in 2006 and bought the one last year from corporate financier Angela Cavendish for up to €5.9m — very little is known about his other property investments.

We did, however, get a peek at how these are managed when he took out a number of national newspaper ads in September 2007 when, in anticipation of the departure of the previous one, he sought to hire a new assistant to manage his private investments.

The Sunday Independent has now unearthed some intriguing details about a number of British properties owned by the airline mogul. Unlike Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of rival airline easyjet who has a division of his Easy group that rents out flexible office space around London, Mr O’Leary’s properties are anything but no-frills and appear to be let on longer leases to a much better class of tenant.

Next door to a massive modern office block that houses the world’s biggest dedicated business court, the Ryanair boss owns an office and retail block at Fetter Lane in EC4 in the English capital. tenants include Beachcroft, a law firm that has roots back as far as 1762 and which also has an office in Dublin; and The White Swan, an enticing city gastropub.

At one of London’s most sought-after office addresses, St James’s Street in SW1, a 13,565 sq ft-listed office block called Gam House is also believed to have been part of Mr O’Leary’s portfolio some years ago.

Close to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and with the offices of global firms such as BP nearby, it was on the market in 2004 for £12.75m and commanded an annual rent of £675,000.

Elsewhere is Spectrum House in Edmund Street in Birmingham. Originally built in the 1970s, this eight-storey, 60,000 sq ft office block was refurbished in 2001 and would command an annual rent of about £1.5m, according to recent figures quoted in the Birmingham Post.

With law and accountancy firms based in neighbouring offices, it is currently let to HM Customs and Excise — better known as the taxman — according to the developer Frontier Estates.

The fifth property that has been part of Mr O’Leary’s portfolio is in Altrincham, a wealthy suburb of Manchester, not far from where many Manchester United players own stunning mansions.

Having paid £4.85m for it some years ago, the Ryanair chief is thought to have sold Aspect House, a 20,580 sq ft office building to a firm called Styles and Wood, which is in the property game itself — it specialises in managing and developing new stores for major retailers.

Offsetting my ‘08 and ‘09 carbon footprints

Having not offset my carbon emissions in the past few years. I’ve offset 260 tonnes of CO2 by protecting an acre of rainforest through Cool Earth and also helped to protect 1,000 trees through the Sky Rainforest Project.

My carbon footprint last year included a small number of flights to the UK and Ireland, and the same in 2008 with one additional return flight to Copenhagen.

The rest is made up of my share of home and office electricity and heating, plus other means of travel – mainly by taxi, bus and train – plus the carbon embedded in the goods and services I’ve purchased during that time.

Ireland’s average per capita emissions are about 16 tonnes per person, so I’m hoping that my offsetting covers this several times over.

While I am conscious that no offsetting project is perfect and their overall impact is perhaps very small, I believe they are among those that are the most worthy of my support.


Oscars put spotlight on Irish film

Published on Sunday 7 February 2010. By John Reynolds 

Despite recent successes in animation, film makers here need more support if the industry is to continue to punch above its weight, says John Reynolds

WHILE an Oscar nomination may have so far eluded Carlow-born actress Saoirse Ronan, Irish film makers and animators who work on the other side of the camera did succeed in winning international recognition this week, receiving five Oscar nominations.

There was a further flow of national pride when last September’s Toronto International Film Festival saw a record seven Irish films officially selected for screening, one of which was independent director Margaret Corkery’s debut dark comedy Eamon, made with a budget of just €275,000 and filmed in Wicklow’s Brittas Bay.

On this basis — and despite economist Colm McCarthy’s proposal that the Irish Film Board’s (IFB) functions be brought under the control of Enterprise Ireland — we might claim that there’s a thriving niche of creative talent here, one that also helps to nurture areas of the digital economy such as the computer game industry, for example.

The industry supports 7,000 jobs here and contributes about €570m to the economy, according to IFB figures. It also has an important spin-off effect. Eighteen per cent of tourists visit our shores as a result of seeing Ireland on TV or in a film, Tourism Ireland claims.

As Steven Soderbergh’s Knockout prepares to start filming in Dublin, and in light of recent productions filmed here such as comedy thrillers Perrier’s Bounty and The Guard, both of which star Brendan Gleeson, the same trickle-down effect is also evident in the production sector itself. For every euro the IFB spent between 1993 and 2008, €10 was generated from other sources, of which €6 was international investment, meaning it is cost positive.

While the work of the IFB is fundamental to the success of the industry, another arm of the State, RTE, is far less supportive, explains Cathal Gaffney, MD of Brown Bag Films, which received its second Academy Award nomination for its short animated film, Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty.

“As a public service broadcaster, RTE’s remit is to produce children’s programmes just as they commission drama and documentaries. Irish children have as much right to quality home produced TV as their parents do.

“However, its schedule is almost entirely full of imported animation from the US and Europe. Unless there is a change in policy, Irish children will learn to speak with American accents.

“Who knows what success the animation sector could achieve if RTE were to commit just 5 per cent of its programming budget towards animation?”

In stark contrast, overseas broadcasters such as Nickelodeon and the BBC have both recently commissioned animated series from firms here; most recently Olivia from Gaffney’s company, and Roy from Jam Media, who are currently working on Tilly and Friends and who produced the successful Funky Fables series.

Gerard O’Rourke, producer at Monster Animation, says that RTE is largely unsupportive because it can earn so little ad revenue from children’s programmes. “Its lack of support for animation would indicate its policy is more about chasing commercial revenues than its public service remit,” he says.

The fact that Irish broadcasters have slashed their homegrown production spending in the wake of plummeting ad revenues has also hurt the sector.

Film makers have to hope that success abroad will reap benefits at home and continue to attract Irish and foreign film makers to make movies here.

In the meantime, given that the now state-owned Ardmore Studios — where the high-budget TV series The Tudors has been filmed — is now 50 years old, perhaps the industry might benefit from a landmark scheme of some kind, perhaps involving a new studio or other means of specialisation, which would add another reason for movie makers to come here.

But when Morgan O’Sullivan, managing director of production company World 2000, sought planning permission to build a special effects studio in Ashford in Co Wicklow, it caused ructions among county councillors, who feared it would threaten the viability of nearby Ardmore Studios. O’Sullivan declined to comment on this or any future projects, however.

Local political battles aside, Minister for Arts Martin Cullen provided vital support to the sector by ensuring that the Section 481 tax incentive was safe until 2012.

With that in mind, a bit more support on a more practical level might provide further ammunition to the industry, which now has to fight locations like Eastern Europe, where the costs of doing business are much lower, when bidding for new projects.

The likes of rising star director Ken Wardrop — whose feature documentary film His ‘n’ Hers won an award at the Sundance Film Festival last month — along with our skilled animators are proof that we already have the talent.

But whether we can build on these strengths to get through what Sean Stokes, chief executive of industry group Screen Producers Ireland, calls “very difficult times”, remains to be seen.

Even your boss just can’t get enough of the ‘Crackberry’

Published on Sunday 25 October, 2009. 

Top execs are just as addicted as their employees when it comes to the BlackBerry’s ease of use, says John Reynolds

MORE than half of employees with a company BlackBerry or smartphone check and respond to their emails before they go to bed and first thing in the morning — clocking up an average of 15 extra hours of work a week, according to a recent survey by employment law firm Peninsula Ireland.

Perhaps it’ll be some consolation to employees that their boss is in the same boat — they too are inseparable from their BlackBerries or their mobiles (with the exception of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who has neither a BlackBerry nor a computer, according to his spokesman).

Despite the advantage of having scores of personal assistants, secretaries and teams of employees, the Sunday Independent discovered that many of our well-known business chiefs admit that they’ve succumbed to what has become known as the ‘Crackberry’ phenomenon.

Aidan Heavey, CEO, Tullow Oil

“I travel a lot so when I’m on holiday I like to stay at home, but it’s very difficult. It’s all work. I don’t relax. I can’t turn off. I look at my BlackBerry every 10 seconds. I check it when I’m going up in ski lifts and drive my playing partners mad by answering emails on the golf course.

“They’re the best and worst invention ever. They mean that you work 24 hours a day and you don’t get holidays.”

David Horgan, MD, Petrel Resources

“For me it’s addictive enough to be a ‘Crackberry’, although the internet is awkward and slow on it. I’m on my third BlackBerry at this stage, and I have it by the bed, usually in silent mode, but sometimes in ‘calls only’ mode.

“I sometimes have to use an older phone, as long as I have a SIM card for it, particularly if I’m going into a mine, skiing or sailing, as the BlackBerry doesn’t agree with altitude, dampness or harsh weather.

“In a week I’d notch up about 12 hours on the BlackBerry, including emails, calls and texts. The advantage is that nobody knows where you are, but then the the disadvantage is that you never, or else very rarely, get a chance to switch off completely.”

Patrick Coveney, CEO, Greencore

“I use an older Nokia mobile for calls and a BlackBerry for emails and appointments; I have them both by the bed at night and I’d probably clock up 10 to 15 hours a week on the phone and between five and 10 hours emailing.

“My holidays this summer were spent in Spain and Cork, from where I’d check my emails at least three times a day. It’s less stressful to deal with issues as they arise rather than having to deal with a vast logjam on my return to the office.”

Robert Finnegan, CEO, 3 Mobile

“At the moment I am using our new Sony Ericsson W995. I try as much as possible to ‘test drive’ our latest mobiles.

“I spend most of my time on my mobile phone as it allows me to keep in touch with our teams across the business and receive sales figures and new customer numbers by email. Recently, to wind down, I was able to watch live streaming on it of Padraig Harrington playing in the cliffhanger final at the US PGA.

“Our parent company, Hutchison Whampoa, is based in Hong Kong and with a seven-hour time difference a call may come at any time, so I sometimes use the phone in bed at night.

“My most recent holiday was here in Ireland and yes, I had my mobile with me. It’s like my wallet and I bring it everywhere with me. I like to stay in touch with our teams and up to date on all the happenings across our business, and what’s taking place in the wider world.”

Gerry McCaughey, Founder, Century Homes

“I have an iPhone and a Nokia E51 — one is for US calls and the other is for Europe.

“I’d probably spend three or four hours a day, up to 20 hours a week, calling and emailing on them. My phones are close at all times and, yes, beside the bed at night, especially as I live 6,000 miles away from family.

“My last holiday was in Santa Barbara, California, and I have to confess that I used both phones to do a bit of work. Whenever I travel, I find that I have to take a small carry-on bag with all my electronics, phones, computer, camera, backup hard drive and chargers.”

Sean Gallagher, Co-founder, Smarthomes

“At the moment I think it’s a Nokia I’ve got, but I’m signing up for a new iPhone next month. Time to join the really cool and up-to-date brigade. I like the size of text and its screen and the ease-of-use aspect of it.

“I find that one phone is more than enough for any human to contend with. My phone’s always with me and really it’s more about staying connected than anything. I sleep with it beside the bed and, as I’m now newly single, I realise how sad that sounds.

“My last holiday was on a fitness and health week in St Lucia and it took some serious restraint to stop me checking my phone.

“I nearly always forget to take phone chargers with me when I go abroad and end up sweet talking some hotel receptionist to come to my aid. Not the most exciting of chat-up lines, I know.”

Imagining a better education

It’s unlikely that many secondary school students will read an article in today’s Observer on the importance of critical, creative, imaginative and analytical thinking.

If they did, they might demand a better education from their teachers rather than reluctantly being spoonfed what their teachers hope will come up in the exams.

There are many good teachers out there, but probably alot of mundane or poor ones.

They too bear a share of the responsibility for standing idly by as the numbers of students taking higher level maths and science decreases even further. By doing so, they betray their role as educators.

If they allowed themselves a little critical thinking, they’d realise that spoonfeeding students leaves them with a sour taste in their mouth about the act of learning.

Is it any wonder that more and more youngsters want a media career or to become a celebrity?

This is at a time when the ability to think critically, creatively, imaginatively and analytically will arguably, more than anything else, determine their futures and their ability to earn a living in a rapidly changing world that is becoming ever more competitive.

These are the two key sentences in the article that stand out:

much of a child’s education is spent on low-level thinking. The result is, sadly, that the imagination and potential of too many children are dulled.

That message is all-important.

As the beginning of another school year approaches, I would encourage those students who are increasingly aware that they’re receiving a bad education to organise themselves and to do something about it.

Your teachers, the majority of whom are members of a teaching union, aren’t afraid to go on strike when they think it’s absolutely necessary.

Perhaps you should do the same.

Come to think of it, if your teachers cared enough about education, they’d join you.

I wouldn’t hold your breath, though.


This issue is one of several that will be discussed in October at a talk entitled: ‘What’s Smart About Ireland’s Smart Economy’ the Royal Irish Academy as part of Innovation Dublin Week 2009.

Do we need to fundamentally rethink our approach to the teaching of critical thinking and the arts in our schools to create the basis for a genuine ‘smart economy’?

More details here.

Does consumerism impact our inventiveness?

BBC Panorama reporter John Ware’s programme The Death of Respect was particularly thought-provoking earlier this week in how he scrutinised the rise of individualism over the idea of personal responsibility and obligations to one’s community and wider society.

Many of the issues he raised are as relevant to Ireland as they are to Britain, and one or two perhaps have a broader significance.

He looked at how disenfranchised we are as citizens and how unlikely it is that we might personally know a local councillor or political representative.

 The programme also examined how consumerism has polluted our political system so that we are seen as customers that make consumer choices rather than citizens who need public services.

Consumerism is also affecting how we relate to the world around us he argues, which distorts our view of reality. We look to the police or politicians to solve social problems, for example.

This was contrasted to an example of a group of fire fighters in Moss Side in Manchester whose fire station doubles as a boxing club helping to keep local youths off the streets and setting them on the straight and narrow.

Interestingly, a similar scenario was featured in the cult US TV drama The Wire, where a former prisoner set up a boxing club in an attempt to steer youngsters away from crime and drug dealing.

Like The Wire, Ware’s programme also looked at the education system, focusing on a school whose headmistress threw away the National Curriculum guidelines to tailor her school to the needs of its pupils, with resounding success that has provided a model that others hope to replicate.

Again, we should bear this in mind in Ireland, not only in light of the cuts proposed by An Bord Snip, but also as we attempt to reskill or upskill the workforce and encourage greater numbers of people to start their own businesses.

However, another aspect of consumerism that may be significant relates to our business enterprise culture.

If we increasingly see ourselves as consumers seeking to satisfy our material needs in a world of an overwhelming number of choices, then how does this affect our inventiveness?

If we encounter a problem, does our consumerist mindset mean we look to someone else to solve it, or look for a solution that we can purchase, rather than setting about inventing a solution ourselves?

Of course, our increasing desire for instant gratification arguably is a factor in this as well. It may take time to think up and develop a solution, time which we may be unwilling to invest for an unknown result or reward. So we revert to thinking someone else will do so, or we pay someone who already has.   

Wacky inventions and ideas dry up with patents slump

Published on Sunday 12 July, 2009.

The number of patents filed for clever wheezes has fallen, leading to big problems for the smart economy, writes John Reynolds

OUR ability to create a ‘smart economy’ depends on whether we can pioneer new inventions, technology and widgets. But as the recession worsens, figures released last week suggest the pace at which we’re doing this is slowing.

There were only 318 patents granted here last year — almost half the number granted in 2002, according to the Patent Office’s 2008 annual report published last week.

Furthermore, the Sunday Independent has learned that the number of new Irish inventions this year may drop by as much as 10 per cent, judging by figures for patent applications in the first half of this year — 448 against a total of 1,007 made last year.

While UCD churns out one invention every week on average, Nicola Field, founder of the now defunct Inventors Association of Ireland, says other activity outside the realms of business or academia is slowing.

Despite building a network of about 350 inventors, her group struggled to get government grant support in 2006. She then formed a smaller advisory service called the Inventors Garage, but that too is now struggling.

“I’ve now taken a year out from the business. At its peak, I’d get about two or three serious enquiries by email a day, but now I might get one a month. Perhaps people are sitting on their inventions until there’s a chance again that they might get financial backing,” she says.

Since the 18th Century, Irishmen and women have been responsible for an impressive variety of inventions: a compound that led to a cure for leprosy, the world’s first guided missile, high-speed photography, the electrocardiogram, the dynamo, the heat exchanger, the rechargeable battery, the world’s first submarine, the Ferguson three-link tractor, the rubber tyre, the hypodermic syringe, the ejector seat, the steam turbine and the caterpillar track.

With such a strong tradition of science and invention, and although we lag behind countries like Holland, Denmark and Finland in terms of the number of new inventions we patent, we actually seem to punch above our weight.

“We’re very good at valuable inventions for niche markets. Our indigenous companies have a ready market of multinationals here that they can supply,” says Richard O’Connor, manager at Cruickshank patent attorneys.

What we’re not so good at is taking new inventions through the investment cycle to IPO stage for example, where investors can exit. This can discourage early financial backers, according to Joey Mason, partner at venture capitalists Delta Partners.

Although the government topped up Bank of Ireland and AIB seed capital funds by €30m in February, early stage funding for ventures outside life sciences, pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors — where investment is strengthened by multinationals here — has become difficult to secure.

“There aren’t too many funders for ventures outside those areas. Private money, from friends, family and through stockbrokers appears to have dried up, so the pot of money available here is now a lot smaller,” Mason adds.

“Venture capitalists were always cautious, but now they’re more risk-averse than ever, although early stage funding, especially for technology ventures, has always been difficult to secure,” says Maria Johnston, operations manager at DCU’s Invent Centre, where the latest discovery is a technology of interest to solar panel manufacturers.

One innovative way of boosting software and technology start-ups in particular would be to create an internet-based exchange for seed funding that operates like a stock exchange but facilitates the raising of smaller amounts of money, internet entrepreneur Patrick Collison argues.

He and his younger brother had to go to San Francisco to get just $15,000 in start-up funding for their software venture Auctomatic.

Now millionaires, having sold their business to Live Current Media for an estimated €3.2m, they are among a number of role models that may inspire more scientists, engineers and other inventors in farms, factories, laboratories, offices and sheds around the country.

Offaly native, inventor and engineer Stephen Grant’s home heating boiler-manufacturing business has dozens of patents granted and pending. It turned over €75m last year and employs 270 people.

George Young successfully patented energy-efficient power supplies for electronics such as laptop computers. He sold his company, Commergy to Texas Instruments, last year for an undisclosed sum.

Graham O’Donnell and Ian Flitcroft of Orbiscom found similar success after patenting their electronic payment software. They sold the business in January last to credit card issuer Mastercard for an estimated €73m.

Thanks to seed capital and support from state agencies, electrical engineer Mike McCormack’s firm FMC Tech has been granted eight patents, has raised €3.5m since 2003, and plans to raise a further €5m next year.

With pilot projects currently running with the ESB and several UK power companies, the firm is focused on perfecting a system of electricity sensors and related software.

By helping them reduce power cuts and manage electricity generated from wind farms, it will be a fundamental component of smart power grids that will be built throughout Europe and the US.

Meanwhile, as swine flu spreads around the globe, serial Mayo entrepreneur Leonard Moran’s biotech firm Ovagen has patented a way of producing the germ-free chickens and eggs which are vital to pioneering research into viruses and illnesses such as cancer.

To date the firm has raised €12m in its bid to build a hi-tech factory in Ballina, from where it aims to supply pharmaceutical giants around the world.

While Ireland’s enquiring minds continue to hatch new discoveries like these, perhaps there’s some hope yet for our smart economy.

Original article can be viewed here.