The First Lady of business

Gillian Bowler will become the first female chairperson of a public company in Ireland when she takes over at Irish Life & Permanent next month. IAN GUIDER reports on a journey to the top that started in a Dublin basement.

WEARING her trademark sunglasses Gillian Bowler said yesterday with mild understatement that she was delighted to become the new chairperson of Irish Life & Permanent.

She is, perhaps, a fitting choice to head the third largest financial institution in the country. The unofficial first lady of Irish business has broken many records in her 30 years here and yesterday she became the first woman to head an Irish public company.

While State boards have insisted on a 50/50 men to women split, Irish public companies have been reluctant to bring women to the top level. For many years Bowler was one of just a handful of female non-executive directors.

Born on the Isle of Wight in 1953 of Irish parents, Ms Bowler left school aged 15 after missing two years because of a near fatal kidney inquiry.

With limited job prospects on the island, she packed herself off to London at the age of 16 and joined Greek Island Holidays, which was establishing itself selling package tours to the continent. A couple of years later she was sent to Dublin to establish an Irish branch and introduce package holidays over here.

Seeing an opportunity, she quit her job and founded her own travel company, Budget Travel, with a £100 bank overdraft and the ambition of sending thousands of Irish people off on their first holiday to the sun.

Times were different back then and in its first year, Budget had 200 customers, hardly a roaring success, but enough to encourage Bowler to continue.

"The first 10 years were extremely difficult. It's hard to believe now, but Budget Travel encountered an awful lot of hostility in the early days and business was made very difficult for me.

"There was a rule at the time that you could only deal with people who were members of the trade organisation. If you wanted to sell travel products, you had to become a member of the organisation and you could only sell to other members. They wouldn't let me in," Ms Bowler remembers.

Budget, though, continued to tough it out and began to grow rapidly through a mixture of innovation and Ms Bowler's own zeal to succeed.

"We were always different and innovative and we gave real, informative descriptions. Budget became very popular because we were seen to have a very honest approach so we grew very fast."

In 1982 her future husband Harry Sydner joined the company, which was then growing very quickly and sending tens of thousands of Irish people to destinations in Greece, Spain and the Canary islands and undercutting its rivals.

Years of hard work paid off when the British media and leisure group Granada bought a 90% stake in Budget Travel for €5.7 million in 1987. Not a bad figure for a company that started out in a basement on Dublin's Baggot Street.

Budget Travel has since gone from strength to strength and made a few acquisitions of its own, including Blueskies from Aer Lingus for €2.5 million.

When the day-to-day running of the company was passed on, Ms Bowler remained on a chairman and pocketed a further €3.8m when the entire company was bought by the tour operator Thomson. Not long after that, Thomson was acquired by German firm TUI in whose hands it has remained ever since.

Even with the downturn in tourism since September 11, 2001, the company has remained as competitive and strong as ever. The most recent financial figures show profits of €14m on sales of €126m and a 46% share of the market.

The sale to Granada gave Bowler the opportunity to move on to other projects. In 1988 she was asked to head the Tourism Task Force, which was developing a strategy for the industry here.

And she has remained involved ever since. As chairperson of Fáilte Ireland she has task of marketing Ireland as a holiday destination and it is on this subject that she is most animated.

"Ireland has suffered from over-confident pricing. The industry has been slow to react to changing circumstances. There has been a tendency towards complacency," she told this newspaper in an interview nearly two years ago. For instance, a friend of hers who booked a holiday at a well-known hotel for two adults and two children for four nights was asked to hand over €1,600. If they had gone to the south of France, they would have paid half that

"The saving grace of Ireland is low cost access ... Ireland is vastly overpriced and it has lost the quality of the welcome. People are getting ruder in service industries. A lot has to do with the pace of life. People are working harder and they no longer have the time to be pleasant to every person."

Outside of the leisure industry, Ms Bowler has been in heavy demand. She is a non-executive director of Michael Chadwick's Grafton Group and a board member of the VHI.

As president of the Institute of Directors she formed a joint venture with University College Dublin to educate directors about corporate governance following the maelstrom that hit the accounting world after Enron's collapse.

The appointment of someone with a consumer background is part of Irish Life & Permanent's bid to push its banking business and to take on AIB and Bank of Ireland in financial services.

With the establishment of the PermanentTSB banking services, it hopes to extend its leadership in the residential mortgage market.

So what will Ms Bowler add to Irish Life and Permanent as chair? And is this the ideal time to be taking over the €3.3 billion institution given the recent overcharging scandal at AIB?

"My interest and expertise has been in organisations with strong consumer focus. I have experience of tourism, retail and consumer issues and I hope to bring that to bear," she said after IL&P's annual general meeting yesterday.

"I am quite passionate about consumer issues. And I think one of the causes of concern [at the moment] is public perception that financial institutions don't have the right ethos of customer care. I believe at our group that isn't the case.

"You can never say you will never have a problem, but the key thing is when you discover a mistake, you instantly deal with it, right up to top management. You deal with it and act on it.

"The core issue is you make it up to the customer and when that happens there is no feeling of anger at financial institutions because you've dealt with it fairly and be seen to be transparent."

She concluded: "I have always felt very strongly about that."

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