Perhaps the archetype of the successful businesswoman, with her famed sunglasses pushed back on her head, the glamorous clothes and the fun-loving personality, Gillian Bowler appears to have it all. Bowler is on numerous boards and is one of the most in-demand directors for Irish plcs, yet she left school on the Isle of Wight at the age of 13 for a time.
“I was very good at school, loved it and had a lot of fun. I suppose I was as competitive then as I am now, but then I fell ill.” As a result, she was out of school for two years and despite early ambitions to follow Mick Jagger into The London School of Economics and Political Science, she went to a local college to study maths and accounting. Graduating top of her class, Bowler was offered what was then considered a plum job — secretary to the council. “I cannot describe how boring it was,” she laughs. “It was simply beyond belief.”
To liven things up, Bowler set up gigs in the local hall, asking the local union for a contribution but was turned down. Typically, she went ahead anyway and made £50 sterling the first week and £80 sterling by the third. At the time, her weekly wages were around £3 sterling, so this was some money, Bowler points out with considerable understatement.
The union then demanded to become a partner, offering her just 10pc of the profits, or they would tell all their members to stay away. Bowler simply gave in her notice and moved to London, noting that “it was an early lesson in entrepreneurship”.
London was swinging at the time and she landed a job at a small travel company, learning the ropes from the ground up. Within months she had begun to sell chartered seats via the Evening Standard. On a weekend trip to Corfu, she met her future husband Harry and came back with him to Dublin.
The opportunities in Dublin were in stark contrast to what was available in London. This was the day of the modesty screen and the marriage bar, where the pinnacle of success was to become an Aer Lingus hostess. It was a very elitist world.
“I was allowed answer the phone, but not a query. A man had to do that,” she remembers. She lasted two hours in her first job.
Bowler naturally started her own company Budget Travel and began by selling backpacker trips to the Greek islands. At the time, it was innovative and daring and many of her first clients are now household names in business — people who were into taking risks.
Budget Travel was always trying new things and Bowler’s company was the first to fly long haul to Florida and Jamaica.
She set up a deal with Aeroflot, which had planes sitting idle in Shannon. The Russian attitude was that fuel was free, but western currency vital.
“They did not ask how many dollars per seat, or even know the direct operating costs. The crew members were given US$10 each to make the extra trip and this was a time when Aer Lingus crews stayed overnight in five-star hotels.”
The experience was great, but nerve shattering. Bowler would often get a call to say they had run out of fuel and the flight was off. Herself or Harry would dash to Shannon and the fuel would have been found, but they would have nowhere to store it.
“It was a unique experience and one I will always remember, but not with total fondness,” she says.
At the time, Budget Travel was also causing waves with its risqué advertisements of women showing too much flesh. Outraged citizens threw flour through the windows at one point.
After 25 years, Bowler left Budget Travel for the second time and became president of the Institute of Directors in Ireland. She also set up its Centre for Cor-porate Governance with Professor Niamh Brennan.
Bowler is now on the boards of Vhi Healthcare and Grafton Group, is chairman of Irish Life & Permanent and has just finished her term as chairman of Fáilte Ireland.
Relishing all of the different challenges, she says the one closest to her heart is Irish Life & Permanent, which Bowler regards as being similar to Budget Travel.
“The people there are genuinely interested in bringing out innovative, new products and talk of their customers as people.” It’s part of her own philosophy — it is much easier to sell to people who are happy.
Bowler’s other view about success is that to be successful you need to be a bit of a chameleon and make sure you understand how your customers do their business.
“Even now, with Irish Life & Permanent, you have to put a different hat on and think how the customer thinks. Think yourself into someone else’s mindset.”
Despite all of her frantic activity, Bowler is a believer in the three-hour lunch and still has time for a few leisurely lunches each year, although not as many as she would like. She also loves some time for cooking for friends and family and, of course, for holidays.
Despite all of her travels, Bowler’s favourite place is still the Mediterranean, while the early nights in the US do not suit her. “I am usually the person persuading other people to stay up.”
She is an avid reader, not only of the board papers that take up a couple of hours a night, but of all kinds of literary and non-fiction. It’s hard to envision this women slowing down enough to retire in the sun!
By Jane Suiter