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Goodbye Trailblazer: Gillian Bowler RIP

Founder of Budget Travel and chair of Irish Life & Permanent, Gillian Bowler passed away today at 64. She was the poster girl for Irish women in business and an icon of inspiration for many. Then came the Anglo Irish Bank crash and, suddenly, she was getting death threats, heckles and abuse. By any standards, it was tough going. She told BRENDA POWER, in this interview from IMAGE Magazine in 2010, why it changed her forever.

You can probably guess,” Gillian Bowler says, gathering up a stack of paperwork from a coffee table in a corner of her huge penthouse office, “that I’m not a neat worker.” Actually, for an office in which she says she frequently spent the night at the height of the banking crisis – “I can show you the duvet and the pillows, they’re still here” – the room, with its floor-to-ceiling view out over the city centre rooftops, is remarkably tidy, if rather impersonal. Nothing about it betrays the fact that it is a woman’s workplace, but then, knowing Ms Bowler, I really wasn’t expecting scatter cushions and pictures of fluffy kittens.

There’s very little frivolity about Bowler – she hates shopping, dreads the hairdressers and finds spas and gyms “incredibly boring” – and yet she has managed to succeed in a mercilessly male environment while never feeling the need to downplay her glamour and graceful femininity. For many years, during the grey 1980s and 1990s, you’d have sworn Gillian Bowler was the only woman in business in Ireland, because she was the only one who ever made the front page photographs, with her big sunny smile and her trademark sunglasses perched in her long glossy hair.

She’s now almost 58 years of age, and despite her protestations about detesting the whole beautification process, looks a good ten years younger. She’s crisply dressed in a candy-striped shirt and black trouser suit – “Trouser suits are a godsend, black in winter, white in summer, and I don’t have to think about what to wear.” The hair is still glossy and youthful, her nails are French manicured and unlined, she’s a petite size ten and, despite all those years of sun exposure on foreign jaunts, her skin is in close to perfect nick.

She is briskly dismissive, though, of any such observations. The sunglasses were a trademark and “Because I didn’t look like the back of a bus”, she says, “I got my picture in the papers and that saved Budget Travel a fortune in advertising costs”. A lot of businesswomen would have made a big deal of resenting that sort of attention in the belief that it undermined their status: Gillian simply viewed her distinctive image as a commercial asset to be exploited like any other.

She’s always seemed inspirational proof that a glamorous woman could win contracts and admiration from alpha males in equal measure – Charlie Haughey was famously smitten – without actually having to turn into a man. In fact, she finds it dispiriting, she says, that the traits required for business success are still largely considered to be male attributes when, in fact, they’re just the tools of the trade. “I’m disappointed that things have changed so little for women over the past 20 years,” she says. She underwent a professional psychological profile which pronounced her ambitious, focussed, resolute and competitive, “and then it said, ‘Bad luck if you’re a woman reading this’. Because if you’re a woman, you see, those are not the traits that make you popular. An ambitious woman is called aggressive, she’s a bitch, but a man is simply described as ‘determined’. That’s changed much less than I hoped it would.”

But of all the names Gillian Bowler has been called, in the 40-odd years since she started out in business, none have stung so much as the abuse she’s had to take in the past couple of years as a result of her chairmanship of Irish Life & Permanent (IL&P). It is four years since I last interviewed Gillian and it seems to me there’s a fragility, even an uncertainty, about her that was never there before. At that time, I’d have said there was nothing that could have shaken this woman’s well-grounded confidence, nor was there anything that could have dented her standing as one of the country’s most admired business leaders. Since then, though, both have taken a knock.

Though IL&P has not needed a bail-out of public funds, it was tainted by the banking collapse when it emerged that it had advanced almost €7.5 billion to Anglo Irish Bank, in September 2008, which made Anglo’s books look far healthier than they really were. The Board knew nothing about this, and the discovery was, she says, “a nightmare”. But she wouldn’t have taken a personal hit were it not for a subsequent development that, many believed, showed a spectacular failure of judgement from a businesswoman who had previously been so sure-footed and so sensitive to the public mood: When IL&P’s chief executive Denis Casey offered his resignation, the Board, headed by Gillian, initially refused to accept it. It was only after a meeting between finance minister Brian Lenihan and Gillian the following day, that the Board eventually accepted his resignation.

The perceived arrogance of the defiance briefly made Bowler one of the most easily recognisable villains of the entire debacle. She was abused in the streets, jostled in a posh Donnybrook supermarket by an angry woman, and even received death threats. “I could show them to you if you like,” she says, “One threatened that he’d kill my husband first, and then …”

This is clearly desperately painful for her to discuss, even more than a year on. Because of an ongoing investigation into the entire banking debacle, she says, “There’s not a lot I can say about all that. But it was a tragedy on every level, and it was my job to take the blame. That’s life. But it’s something that definitely scarred me, changed my attitude to life to a certain degree. I won’t get over it.”

gillian-bowler

At last year’s AGM, some shareholders called for her own resignation, but Gillian Bowler refused to step down. Considering that she’s a wealthy woman who hardly needs this grief in her life, why didn’t she go? “I was tempted, absolutely. Three top executives had resigned, there were other opportunities I could have taken up, with a proper whitewash job, good PR and spin, it would have been easy but, I’m a fighter, not a quitter. I felt I had a duty to the shareholders, and although they started off calling for my resignation, they were very fair, and they listened, and they said, all right, we’ll give you a chance. Yes, I could
have gone, but I wouldn’t have liked myself build their own packages online, but which allows customers to very much for it.”

There were days, she says, during the height of the crisis when she never got home and even now, there are several days each month when she finds herself still in the office at one in the morning, and though her weekends are “sacrosanct, family time”, there are always at least five hours of work to be done in that so-called leisure time.

Does she sometimes long for the days when she was running a successful travel business and making people happy by whisking them off to the sun? “Yes, that was easier, but then there were the days when you had to ring up and tell family members that somebody had died abroad, and that was always very difficult.”

She has great sympathy for clients who cannot pay their mortgages, and says IL&P makes every effort to avoid repossessions, but she has little time for those who overstretched themselves out of greed. “I was getting a bad feeling around 2007. I remember being in a taxi and the driver told me he had bought four apartments and I thought, I’m earning more than him and I wouldn’t dream of buying four apartments … I was told I’d lost my entrepreneurial drive when I wouldn’t buy two adjoining houses in Ranelagh for €8 million, I reckoned they were only worth about €2 million. But somebody did pay €8 million and now they’re stuck with that debt. A friend of mine, who was big negative equity, argues with me about this and says the banks were completely culpable, but I always say, ‘Didn’t you sign for that loan yourself …?’ There was a huge sense of entitlement that took hold during the boom, maybe it was because this was the first generation, after decades of deprivation, to have real personal wealth. Lots of mistakes were made, not just by the bankers, though that’s an unpopular thing to say.”

She’d have loved, she says, to have gone into politics. And if she had a chance to run a government department, she’d take finance, or trade and enterprise. Would you like to run FÁS? “Yes, I would, actually, it needs a radical change and it’s less appealing to walk into a job that’s being done brilliantly.”

And I think we can take it that Ms Bowler relishes a challenge. She dropped out of school at 14, having been absent for two years with the chronic kidney disease that still afflicts her, and went to a secretarial college. From there, she landed a job as PA to the town clerk in her native Isle of Wight and, when she complained of boredom, was told, “Do something about it.” And so, “I started running dances, and when I was earning £3.50 a week from the council, I was making £50 a week from the dances.” She packed it in when the council looked for a cut of her profits, and moved to London to a job with Greek Island Holidays. She came to Dublin at 19 years of age to open their Irish office, by then she had set up her own business producing travel brochures, had met Harry Sydner, the man who became her husband, and ended up staying put.

Harry Sydner was eight years older, and separated with a daughter, Rachel, whom Gillian now regards as her own child, and she is step-grandmother to Rachel’s nine-year-old daughter. Not having children of her own has been “a great sadness, I wasn’t able to have a baby”, but she could never have seen herself as a stay-at-home mum. She acknowledges that women have to run faster to catch up, in the workplace, when they take time out to have babies but says, “I’ve always employed a majority of women, but I think women are generally unhelpful to each other. I don’t know if it’s jealousy, maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem or a fear of competition. And I’ve always noticed that a woman will always preface a suggestion by saying, ‘I don’t know if this is a good idea…’ or ‘This might not work, but…’ Men never do. But with confidence and determination, I believe you can get anywhere, whoever you are.”

She’s recently set up a new travel business – “It was Harry’s idea, as much as mine” – called ClickandGo.com, which allows customers to build their own packages online, but adds in the comfort factor of “the old-style holiday rep system”. “So you pick your own flights, accommodation, transfers, but you’ve still got somebody to ring if anything goes wrong. The old package holiday format is dead, people are too independent these days, but people still get sick, they still need to come home in a hurry, so they like that back-up.

“It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk, and the best time to set up a business is in a recession. I’m optimistic about the future, the brains are still here, the ability and determination is still here, a little bit dented, certainly, we’ve a burden to be carried economically, but we won’t let it stop us. Come back to me in five, ten years time, and I promise you Ireland then will look a lot better than it does today.”

And what about Gillian Bowler? “Well, the last few years have changed me, and I don’t think I’ll ever really get over it. Maybe it sounds a bit self-pitying to use the word ‘scarred’, but it has left its mark. But I’ll carry on. I won’t retire, not until I get bored. I’ve always liked learning new things. You’ve got to recognise opportunities, you’ve got to know what you want. But you never really know what’s going to hit you next. Still, it is easier to take criticism as you get older. By then, at least, you know who you are.” ■

Header Portrait by Kevin Abosch. 

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