By Harry Keaney
Wexford native Michael Foley may well become Aer Lingus’ best known group chief executive. That’s because Foley, who is currently president and chief executive officer of White Plains, N.Y.-headquartered Heineken USA Inc., will take over the top job at Ireland’s national airline in September as it prepares to go through the high-profile process of an initial public offering.
Foley, who’s 52, succeeds Garry Cullen, who resigned last February saying he did not wish to lead state-owned Aer Lingus through the planned stock offering.
Foley is expected to join the board of the company ahead of the flotation. There are two vacancies on the board and Ireland’s minister for public enterprise, Mary O’Rourke, has indicated she plans to fill them with two company executives.
It is believed that Foley was headhunted for the job because of his background in senior management and international experience in running a publicly-quoted company, valuable attributes for leading Aer Lingus as it prepares to go public.
Despite Foley’s lack of experience in the aviation and transportation businesses, Aer Lingus Chairman Bernie Cahill said he was delighted to be able to announce the appointment of somebody "of Foley’s experience and caliber" to the position of group chief executive at "this critical time in the airline’s development."
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
"He brings to the job of group chief executive the perfect blend of international-business and public-company experience to lead an already strong management team through the challenges that lie ahead," Cahill said.
Foley, an accountant by training, said he sees his role as leading the company through the period of change that lies immediately ahead and into a period when the airline can further exploit the growth opportunities in its markets.
"This is a challenge I relish and I am confident that, working with the undoubted strengths of the people in Aer Lingus, we can grow the business to continue to provide quality customer service and enhance shareholder value," he said.
Details of Foley’s remuneration package have not yet been released. However, he is likely to be paid more in basic salary than any previous chief executive. His package is also likely to include share options.
There are now two Foleys in the upper echelons of Aer Lingus’ ranks. The airline’s executive vice president in the U.S. is Jack Foley.
Murphy’s to Heineken
Michael Foley, who’s from Enniscorthy, has been president and CEO of Heineken USA Inc., since 1994. Before that, he held a number of senior positions at Cork-based Murphy Brewery Ireland Ltd., also a Heineken subsidiary. He was managing director of Murphy’s from 1989-93, before which he had been sales and marketing director and financial controller.
Heineken’s vice president of corporate affairs, Dan Tearno, pointed out that under Foley’s leadership, Murphy’s went from receivership to becoming one of Heineken’s most profitable subsidiaries.
Tearno said that in 1993, Foley was appointed president and CEO of van Munching, an independent importer to the U.S., which was taken over by Heineken and became Heineken USA.
"In Michael’s tenure, Heineken achieved milestones of 40 to 50 million cases in annual sales and retained its position as the largest beer importer in the U.S.," Tearno said.
"In each of the six years of his presidency, the company achieved record volume and sales records and, in 1999, Heineken had its greatest growth year of the entire decade, with volume growth up 11 percent."
Tearno added that Foley’s "leadership at Heineken USA had been extremely successful" and his efforts had "positioned the company for outstanding growth into the 21st Century."
Heineken USA is a subsidiary of the Dutch group Heineken NV Nederlands. Heineken distributes brand name beers such as Amstel Light, Murphy’s Irish Stout, Murphy’s Irish Amber, Buckler non-alcoholic beer and, of course, Heineken.
Before joining Murphy’s in 1983, Foley worked for both U.S. and Japanese multinational subsidiaries in Ireland.
He is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland.
Despite having worked more than six years in the U.S., Foley continued to nurture his connections to Ireland. Even his private yacht evoked the link; it was named Loch Garman, the Irish words for his native Wexford.
As an employee of Murphy’s, he spent much time in Cork and his contributions to that city were recognized in 1996 when the University College Cork Alumni Association named him Corkman of the Year. Although not a UCC alumnus, having graduated with a degree in commerce from University College Dublin in 1971, Foley supported UCC’s social and academic efforts as a board member of the UCC Foundation.
He is also a member of the board of the U.S. Council for Commerce and Industry and of the board of Agincourt Capital, which manages a $200 million Celtic Tiger Fund focused on boosting Ireland’s high-tech sector and increasing the country’s exports to the U.S.
Foley is married with three children.
Future at Aer Lingus
Although Foley will be at the center of the investor "roadshow" and media blitz that traditionally accompanies an IPO, the offering is not expected to generate the same hype as did Éircom, the Irish telecommunications company that was floated some time ago and whose share price has since been disappointing.
There has been speculation that a flotation of Aer Lingus will eventually be followed by an amalgamation with or acquisition by another airline that would find the Irish carrier particularly attractive as a secondary European hub for transAtlantic traffic.
Minister O’Rourke recently published the Aer Lingus Bill, which paves the way for the privatization and flotation of the state airline later this year or early next year.
Negotiations with the unions representing staff are due to begin in the next few weeks. However, there is currently an interunion dispute over who should represent Aer Lingus’ 1,600-strong cabin-crew staff.
O’Rourke has invited the unions representing the 6,000 employees to discuss what percentage of the company staff might be able to own going into a flotation. Discussions involve two unions, IMPACT, which represents nearly 1,000 of the airline’s employees, and SIPTU, representing most of the employees, which has yet to state its position.