An Evening with Willie Walsh

BA aviva

Willie Walsh’s photo of a BA plane skimming over the Aviva Stadium in Dublin during The Gathering

This week at London’s branch of IIBN we were lucky enough to have Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airline Group (parent company of British Airways) as our keynote speaker at one of our regular business networking events.  A New Year boost to start the business year and what an opportunity – to hear the great man address a 200 strong Irish business audience.  Some might say a tricky enough crowd!

There’s been plenty written about Willie Walsh in the 15 or so years since he was first appointed CEO of Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus but on the night I was more interested in seeing what makes the man himself tick.  He didn’t disappoint.  Alongside business chat and the expected slides about performance of IAG he told plenty of personal stories (I won’t publish them here – you’ll just have to go & hear him speak yourself) that were amusing but also gave some insight into the man behind the headlines.

WW

Willie Walsh keynoting at IIBN

The keynote covered IAG expansion (the usual big corporate stuff about world domination), a very useful explanation of how the fall in crude oil price hasn’t cut costs for European airlines due to adverse movements on the currency market (IAG still spends €1.6 billion on fuel per quarter), his work as Chairman of Ireland’s National Treasury Management Agency (it was particularly interesting to get insight straight from the horse’s mouth into some of the areas the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is investing – domestic life sciences companies, several areas of new technology and also a housebuilding joint venture to address acute housing shortage in Ireland), Brexit (he’s against it, along with most other CEOs of large UK corporates) and Heathrow expansion (“I don’t believe this UK government will tackle the issue of airport expansion and this provides a great opportunity for Dublin”).

But what did I like the most.  First of all, Willie Walsh is a great live speaker.  He’s very natural, entertaining and articulate but there’s an underlying seriousness and real substance to his delivery.  I could have listened to him speak for much longer.  It’s the confidence that comes from having deep, deep knowledge of your subject matter; something you don’t see so much in business these days.  He reminded me of Michael Dell, another great business leader that I heard speak a number of times in 2015 – except that Willie is far more irreverent!  And he probably uses “richer” language than Michael Dell would ever do…but both of them have the gritty determination of people who’ve seen everything their chosen industry has to offer or throw, both command the respect of the entire room and both are and always have been hard working to the extreme – you can just tell that by listening to them.

Cool Beans

Cool Beans co-founders Isolde & Sarah with Willie Walsh

Before the keynote started, we had a 3 minute startup pitch as is usual at IIBN.  We like to give our newer entrepreneurs and future leaders a chance to have their voices heard and to expose them to potential investors, partners, customers.  This week it was the turn of Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson, co-founders of the Cool Bean Company.  It was a great pitch and the girls rather cheekily finished up with a photograph of a British Airways plane (long haul flights & beans – I’m not too sure about that!) and a smile over to Willie.  Let’s face it – you’ve gotta pitch when you get the opportunity.  It was great to see Willie Walsh chatting with Sarah & Isolde afterwards and also that during his own keynote he commented what a good pitch they’d given.

A lot of what he said on the night was aimed at people new to business or young people starting out.  He said that he himself has never really applied for a job and told the story of how as a 17 year old at school in Dublin he casually went along to an open day at Aer Lingus and how that led to him becoming an apprentice pilot instead of going straight to university.  He said he’s shocked by how afraid people are of making mistakes and (rolling his eyes) recounted a few of his own.  The message was that if you don’t push yourself so hard that you make a few mistakes, you’ll never reach your potential as you won’t know where your boundaries lie.  Of course, as everyone knows, the cardinal sin is not learning from your mistakes or making the same mistake twice…and the Holy Grail is the knack of learning from other people’s mistakes, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do that successfully!

He also talked on the topic of finding a business personality that you own and are comfortable with.  Fortunately, we don’t have too many Michael O’Learys – although you have to admit that it’s worked for him.  Willie Walsh went back to himself as a 17 year old & said that of the panel that interviewed him on that day, three thought he was smart and self confident but the fourth person thought he was cocky.  I guess he had a bit of luck with him on the day that the balance didn’t go the other way – but the point he was making is that it’s a fine line and one that only the individual can find and get comfortable with themselves.

So – I’m a fan of Mr Willie Walsh.  I like people who care a lot about what they do, who work hard, who believe in their mission and have strong opinions.  I like people who are generous to others that are a bit behind where they are and I like people who are able to admit to and take responsibility for their mistakes.  I like people who dream big and aren’t afraid to go after the massive goals and targets that most people would run a mile from.  I like people who’ve come from humble beginnings but who through their own ability and hard graft are able to shimmy up the greasy career pole despite most of the odds being against them.  I like people who do public service and find the time to give something back.  I like people who take the unconventional road.  And the rest of the audience – they liked him too.  Most had seen him speak before and were very impressed that he used a completely different set of stories and jokes this time around.  I’m with them – there’s nothing worse than people who get up on stage and trot out the same tired old stuff over and over again.

Final word from me today.  Check out Cool Bean Company when you get a chance – we might only be half way through January but they’ve already announced a contract this year with all 135 Waitrose stores so I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Sarah and Isolde.

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