By using the ‘soft power’ of his brain, energy and will, Tony Ryan became one of our most successful businessmen. He is an example to aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere.
In 2001,while working for Jack Welch, the chief executive of GE, I chaired a discussion in Dublin on Welch’s biography, which had just been published.
This was part of a European tour, but Welch – a second generation Irish-American – wanted to spend time in Cork, the birthplace of his grandfather, so the Irish leg of the book tour was unusually laid-back for a man described as ‘‘Neutron Jack’’.
Welch spoke at length of his admiration for one Irish businessman. He believed that Tony Ryan was a one-off. Maybe Ryan demurred, because he was forced to sell his debt-ridden GPA to Welch for a song in 1993.Welch saw it differently.
Yes, he acknowledged Ryan was in trouble and, yes, he battered down the final price, but he kept saying: ‘‘I’m a corporate man, but this guy Tony Ryan built the company on his own using his own brain, energy and willpower.”
Welch, no shrinking violet himself, was in awe of Ryan’s achievements. By the time they met in Dublin in October 2001 at Welch’s book tour, Ryan had remade his fortune and was unstoppable.
When one man builds, not one, but two world-beating maverick businesses, you know you have something special. Particularly when that man does it in a country that had not, up till then, instilled in its business people the idea that Irish companies could be global. Ryan was a one-off. He saw Ireland as a global player, and refused to think that Ireland’s size was an impediment to ambition.
He was the embodiment of what is called ‘‘soft power’’. This will determine the success of countries in the future. It is the power of creativity, enterprise, risk-taking and brainpower. Soft power lies between the ears of individuals, not buried under the ground.
In the years ahead, the country with the best brains is going to thrive. The world will be divided between those countries that inherit ‘‘hard power’’ and those that generate soft power.
Brain power is the ultimate soft power. In the past, hard economic power – such as steel and coal reserves, large populations and political or military clout – mattered enormously. The country with the best and most natural resources won.
Britain, Germany and France had these resources and, for years, they were the most successful nations in Europe. Today, hard power matters less. Take Russia, for example. It still has more natural resources than any other country on earth, yet today its population is falling. Russians see through the vanities of hard power, and have decided either to emigrate or stop having children. Hard power guarantees nothing.
Tony Ryan saw this. He traded in ideas and surrounded himself with individuals who could conjure up projects from nothing with that unique combination of a willingness to dream and a discipline to execute. This combination is unstoppable and countries should try to foster this type of mental creativity. Ireland has to become a hub for soft power — which was the dynamo driving Ryan.
In Ireland, we have been in danger of becoming beguiled by hard economics. There is nothing harder than land, and our land obsession has meant that most of the country’s resources have been sucked into this most useless of assets, property. It is also the least modern, least tradeable asset and is the polar opposite of brain power.
Land is fixed, dirty and unimaginative. Brain power is flexible, clean and, most importantly, renewable. Ryan proved that there was another way.
Globalisation rewards countries that invest in their soft power. Look at the countries that have thrived in the past 15 years: Ireland (because of the multinationals), Singapore, Hong Kong. None of these countries is remotely capable of defending itself in the traditional sense of the word. Soft power is light power – power that you can’t measure. It is the power of imagination, the muscular strength of creativity. It is inspiration over perspiration.
The lighter the economy, the more grey matter applied, the better. The world will pay for ideas and the ideas are created by frontal lobes, wireless networks, imagery and branding.
Societies should try to foster business as well as artistic creativity. James Joyce, arguably our finest and definitely our most celebrated writer, saw no contradiction between the artist and the entrepreneur.
When he ran the Volta cinema in Dublin – the first cinema in the country – he was doing what he did best. He was thinking for himself and using his energy to generate something from nothing. A fine business brain is as interested, irreverent, creative and as alert as a fine artistic mind.
The artist sees himself as outside the mainstream. So, too, does the entrepreneur. Both celebrate the individual over the collective. Both regard security with a certain distance.
There is a striking similarity about their worldview. Both regard the rest of society’s obsession with certainty and security as bizarre. Neither can bear the idea of working for someone else for a wage. The very thought of taking orders from a bureaucrat strikes fear in both. Working is about creating, beating the competition and expressing themselves, not about pointless committees, political games and promotion.
They don’t do corporate away-days. Tony O’Reilly, Tony Ryan and Sean Quinn have much more in common with Neil Jordan, Colm Toibin and Pat McCabe than either group imagines.
In the end, artists and entrepreneurs are the only people in society who do not retire. They rarely become jaded or washed-up, and they are precisely the type of people who give a country a competitive edge in a period of globalisation, where hard power, borders and armies won’t contribute an ounce to national wealth.
In addition, they are the only people who can pay their way. They live on their wits. Ultimately, they are both disobedient, and the future will go to the disobedient, the questioners – the lads at the back of class who asked why. The future belongs to the messers. They are the ultimate soft power exponents. Globalisation demands that a country promote these non-conformists.
Tony Ryan was a great exponent of the dynamism of soft power. He didn’t see Ireland as the limitation of his business world. Rather, he saw it as a perfect springboard from which to launch businesses.
He should be a model for every budding business person in the land.