Tributes have poured in following the news of the passing of entrepreneur Ray Coyle.
With farming roots in Meath, Ray’s career zig-zagged between farming, from potatoes to Buffalos, food manufacturing, buying and building up the iconic Tayto brand and culminating in founding Ireland’s largest theme park. If there was a common thread through all of this it was a real willingness to have a go, his unshakable belief in an idea and the extraordinary drive to see it through.
His legacy to Irish business is enduring. Many have spoken of his support for young entrepreneurs, his willingness to back and invest in small businesses and his strong belief that business should be exciting and fun.
Ray didn’t always believe in playing by the normal rules, he found innovative ways around problems, often by creating new and off beat solutions. His financial troubles early in his farming career resulted in a £1.2 million bank debt, which looked bleak. With the banks closing in he decided to raffle his farm, promoted the raffle around the country and sold 4,000 tickets at £300 each – the bank debt was settled, and the lucky ticket was drawn by RTE’s Mike Murphy in a carnival atmosphere at Goff’s in Kildare – Ray always brought stardust, craic and a sense of fun to every endeavour he was involved in.
As a potato farmer he saw the commercial possibilities of getting involved in manufacturing and as a supplier to Tayto harboured the dream of one day buying the company. First he bought Perri – a defunct crisp brand, started a small scale manufacturing operation and built the business with cheeky disruptor brands such as Hunky Dorys.
The Hunky Dorys brand pushed the limits of somewhat genteel advertising standards, with regular controversies erupting on the use of bikini-clad models and a claim to be a main sponsor of Irish rugby – the brand was at the time a sponsor of Navan RFC. The IRFU disagreed with the term “main sponsor of Irish Rugby” and the dispute was eventually settled. The publicity kept coming and sales rocketed.
Jamie Helly of Dynamo Design who worked with Ray on design projects for many of his brands over 25 years remembers a client who always knew what he wanted – to sell more! “He had a vision and a dream that he really followed through, he possessed a killer instinct and like all great entrepreneurs knew when to trust his gut,” he said.
He was synonymous with brands like Perri Crisps, Hunky Dorys and Sam Spudz and of course Tayto. Jamie spoke of Ray’s support for young entrepreneurs like Laura Murphy of Synergie Kombuca which Ray invested in and mentored closely. Having had many challenges in his own career Ray always recognised the need to support early stage businesses with advice or investment.
When Tayto was put up for sale in 2006 by C & C there was significant interest among bidders keen to re-invigorate the iconic Irish brand. Michael Carey of East Coast Bakehouse was one of the bidders – locked in a tight battle with Ray to secure the business. When the deal was done, with Ray winning out, he joked with Michael about costing him €5 million extra on the deal and promptly invited him over to his and Roz’s home for dinner – there were no hard feelings!
With the Tayto brand under new management, a high impact marketing campaign ensued, Mr Tayto ran for election, another campaign was launched to find Mr Tayto a wife, and his biography was in the best-seller list for months. Tayto’s market share increased sharply and has continued in growth ever since.
Not all of his ventures were successful, a foray into the ready-to-eat potato market with Potato Cuisine did not succeed, perhaps it was ahead of its time. Yet his desire for new opportunities and the quest for new ventures was not dimmed.
The idea for Tayto Park was borne of a number of examples of branded theme parks around the world. I remember Ray laying out the architect’s plans for the park on the bar in the Shelbourne Hotel one Friday evening. He spoke excitedly of the idea for a theme park in a field in Co Meath, with ambitions to build the best roller coaster in Europe. All present on that night thought he was nuts, but he persisted, and Tayto Park opened in November 2010, in a snowstorm.
Revenues were thin but by the following Easter the crowds had arrived, and the business was profitable in its first year. He epitomised the “build it and they will come” mantra and proved us all wrong. Since then Tayto Park has had over 5 million visitors and now boasts the largest wooden roller coaster in Europe. In recent years the Tayto business has been sold to Intersnack, one of Europe’s foremost snacking firms.
In 2019 Ray invested in another well known Irish brand Green Isle, and has worked closely with the team to grow and develop the business.
Ray was the recipient of many accolades in his career, including the industry category winner in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards in 2011 and made many new friends in the EY alumni group. Johnny Walker a veteran of many medical start ups remembered Ray “Such a humble courageous giant…a true disruptor in every sense of the word. Laser focused on achieving the most unusual and the most unexpected to bring them to reality for the joy of so many”.
Another finalist that year, Peaches Kemp of the Itsa group spoke of Ray as someone who always included you in the conversation, never left anyone out and was always the best person to sit beside at dinner, “his boldness and joie de vivre were at the heart of every gathering”.
Michael Dawson, the ex CEO of One for All, recalls Ray opening up Tayto Park to 2,000 school children for Jerry Kennelly’s Junior Entrepreneur Programme event. He was always keen to foster a new generation of budding entrepreneurs.
Of all his extraordinary achievements he was of course most proud of his family, sincere condolences to his wife Roz, son Charles and daughter Natalya.
Ireland is a little less entrepreneurial today for his passing…He will be missed.