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On the road with Danielle Ryan

Her family’s business changed the world of travel, but while the rest of the clan have their sights set on the skies, Danielle Ryan is taking the road less travelled with her new luxury publishing, film and fragrance business.

A business focused on luxury and culture might seem at odds with the ethos of Irish budget airline Ryanair, but that is the path one of the former family business’s next gens has set out on. Ryanair, founded in 1985 by Tony Ryan with the support of his three sons, made regular holidays abroad achievable for middle and lower income households, while turning the Ryans into one of Ireland’s wealthiest families. It is notorious for its no-frills service.

Danielle Ryan, however, eldest daughter of second-gen Cathal Ryan, hasn’t followed the cost cutting model in her new business Roads Luxury Group, a high-end film, publishing and fragrance company. During the northern hemisphere summer, she’s been on a promotional tour for her fragrance line, being stocked in the likes of Selfridges, Galleries Lafayette and Brown Thomas – some of Europe’s most notable department stores – as well as Barney’s in the US.

Ryan, 30, was always clear she didn’t want to join the family business, despite the low-cost airline turning over €4.9 billion last year. “Ryanair wasn’t for me, I was too small when that happened [1997’s IPO] and in terms of commercial airlines it was never me.” Her family sold a significant chunk of their majority Ryanair shareholding about a decade ago, but their private investment company Irelandia holds an undisclosed stake in the former family business, as well as other low cost airlines such as Tiger Airways and Viva Colombia.

Besides fragrance, Roads includes a film and publishing division. The three divisions might seem an unusual mix, but Ryan has described the common theme as storytelling. “The idea and the way I set Roads up was that it stood for culture and wherever that goes, as long as it all tied into the same idea,” Ryan explains. Each of the three divisions is small: typically with two to three highly experienced specialists. The business model revolves around partnerships with distributors, such as Intertrade for its fragrances, and Selfridges for its books.

How did growing up among Ireland’s most astute businessmen shape Ryan’s approach? “Business was always present in that we were very aware of what was happening,” she says. “I think what rubbed off on us was a very strong work ethic and also there was that questioning, so if I said to them ‘I can’t do something,’ they would be like ‘why not? You better have a damn good reason,’ and I’d think ‘I don’t know actually’. It was very interesting to grow up in a family of not just businessmen but entrepreneurs and their particular mind-set of what’s possible.”

While Ryanair’s aircraft fleet has plastic blue and yellow décor and cuts costs at every corner, high-end design runs through the three divisions of Roads. The publication division includes striking coffee table tomes among its catalogue, such as the limited edition Paparazzo, which sells for €1,250 a piece. The division also sells a number of classics in its library, including The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The fragrances sell in a price bracket similar to Coco Chanel – a brand whose luxury ethos is definitely not akin to budget-friendly Ryanair.

Ryan has been building Roads for a little over two years now and she might have started a lot earlier had fate dealt her a different hand. Ryan’s grandfather, family patriarch Tony, and her father passed away within three months of each other in 2007. Her father left his children two dying wishes to fulfil – to set up a large-scale health and education programme in civil war-torn Sri Lanka, and to set up Ireland’s first national drama academy.

Ryan is an actress herself, having a few notable television credits to her name, including historical fiction series The Tudors and British medical drama Casualty. In 2009, having just graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada), Ryan put her acting career aside and took the lead with her father’s projects, as her younger siblings were still in their early teens.

“We’d been trying to do something in Sri Lanka for about seven years before my father died and never found the correct time to do it,” Ryan says. She had little philanthropy experience, and could easily have donated a sum to a non-government organisation and hoped for the best. Instead, wary of seeing the foundation’s money get lost in the machinery of a large NGO, she started from the ground up. Ryan partnered with Unicef Ireland, an organisation she respected and trusted, which was also prepared to give her family foundation significant control over the project. The Cathal Ryan Trust now funds €14 million-worth of higher education and health projects in Sri Lanka.    

Ryan repeated this partnership model when she set up the Lir Academy, Ireland’s first national drama school, buddying up with her alma mater. Again Ryan worked from the ground up – a greenfield site was found, and she was involved in every stage of the process, from design to nagging all parties involved into cooperating. “I think I was quite difficult during that period, but we had to push the project through as it could have always just been a nice idea and never actually happened.” Ryan now sits on the board of the Lir, and its first graduates are now making their first forays into the acting industry.   

Interestingly, it was at the newly established drama school where the Roads fragrance line found its feet, Ryan explains. “We had this brand new theatre and we thought ‘What toys can we put in it?’ and one of these was incorporating the smell of the atmosphere of the play that you’re watching into the auditorium.” She adds, “We were looking at other companies that were doing that, and how it was affecting the audience, and how whether they felt more moved or more empathetic to the characters – so that would be humidity or the smell of cooking. That’s where it started and then it was straight to the perfume houses.”

Roads now has 10 scents, all with their own story to tell. White Noise is inspired by the technological hum of the 21st century, Harmattan is the scent of the wind crossing wastes of the Sahara, while Graduate 1954 evokes a siren of that era fighting her way out of gender constraints to achieve her ends. Perhaps appropriate for a next gen of an airline travel company, Roads was a “born global” enterprise. By partnering up with distributors, Ryan got her product into 30 major department stores across the world simultaneously. For the past six months she’s been jetting off all over the globe to steward the range’s various launches.

In a nod to her theatrical roots, Ryan is also involved in every project in Roads’ film division – although it is still too early for any of them to have hit theatres. “One is on an American writer called Richard Yates, who wrote Revolutionary Road and was quite a serious alcoholic, but he was also the speech writer for Bobby Kennedy. In the same era there’s one based on a book called 10 Cent Plague which was about the censorship of comic books in the 1950s in the United States which was a little mini Macarthyism.” It is the only division not solely funded by Ryan, seeking seed funding from traditional film investment avenues.

So where next? Ryan’s plan is for the business to grow organically, but she says opening a physical venue is a possibility for the future. “We talked about something like TED talks, or it could be boutique cinemas. It’s going to be whatever interests me at the time, but at the moment I want to build further foundations under these companies and keep them strong, and try and push the boundaries a little bit more creatively.”

Ryan’s dizzying schedule isn’t limited to business. While her social media feeds largely detail her international work commitments, there are endearing glimpses of her young family. Ryan married Richard Bourke, a barrister, in 2012 and the couple have a daughter and a son, aged four and two. “If I’m gone for anything more than a week then the whole circus comes along” she explains. “I think for them it’s nice to see where mummy works.” A suitably global existence for the descendents of the Ryanair family, despite Ryan’s business focus taking a decidedly different course.

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