Outspoken Michael O’Leary is best known as chief executive at low-cost airline Ryanair, but his first step into the business world was in retail.

Born and raised in Cork, Ireland, upon completing his degree in economic and social studies at Trinity College, O’Leary set up two newsagents in Dublin suburbs.

He was hired as a financial advisor by Tony Ryan, head of leasing company Guinness Peat Aviation, in the 1980s, around the time Ryan co-founded Ryanair. As the new airline was losing money, O’Leary was sent to the USA to study the Southwest Airlines business model.

He was subsequently made deputy chief executive of Ryanair in 1991 and in 1994 was promoted to chief executive of Ryanair in January 1994. Under O’Leary’s management, Ryanair further developed the low-cost model originated by Southwest Airlines. Along with cheap flights, O’Leary built the business with accommodation, car rental and scratchcard add-ons.

Ryanair shares have risen in value five-fold since 2012 and O’Leary was this year named in Ireland’s rich list as one of the country’s top 300 wealthiest individuals.

Key achievements

  • O’Leary was reportedly offered the central role on BBC TV show, The Apprentice, ahead of Alan Sugar.
  • He breeds horses, several of which compete in national racing competitions. His horse, War of Attrition, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2006.
  • In 2001, O’Leary was named Fortune Magazine’s businessman of the year.

Lessons for your store

1. If a strategy isn’t working, don’t be afraid to admit it and take a new approach. In 2014, O’Leary recognised the lack of customer service offered by Ryanair and introduced measures to improve it.

2. Think outside the box by offering additional services. O’Leary offers ancillaries like accommodation and car rental.

3. Research models that are proven to work and take them to the next level.