'Dynamic, effective and truly inspirational' - tributes pour in for Gillian Bowler

The formidable businesswoman pioneered affordable holidays for Irish families and was elevated to state boards

16th December, 2016
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Glamorous and graceful, businesswoman Gillian Bowler blazed a trail in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s.

Her travel agency Budget Travel, founded in 1975, brought affordable sun holidays to a mass market - and the company's eye-catching ad campaigns ensured a steady stream of media coverage.

With her knack for playing the media, Bowler - who passed away on Thursday aged just 64 - beat a path that would be later well-trodden by businessmen such as Michael O'Leary of Ryanair

A 1991 marketing push for European holidays featured a scantily-clad model's rear end with the catchline 'Get your seat to the sun'. A massive furore ensured.

But defiant Bowler responded by tweaking the ad with another provocative banner - "Don't get left behind". It garnered yet even more yards of publicity for her business.

Bowler's pragmatic and edgy attitude turned her glamorous image, with trademark sunglasses perched on her glossy long hair, into a business asset. That same image helped keep the Budget Holidays brand front and centre of the media and in the minds of the travelling public.

In 2010 she told journalist Brenda Power: “Because I didn’t look like the back of a bus, I got my picture in the papers and that saved Budget Travel a fortune in advertising costs."

Bowler was appointed to chair Irish Life in 2004 - becoming the first woman to chair a public limited company in Ireland. She remained in this position until 2011, despite many turbulent moments as the financial crisis played out and the economic crash deepened.

As chairwoman, she bore the brunt of criticism when it emerged that IL&P had artificially propped up Anglo Irish Bank by advancing it €7.8 billion in September 2008. That the money was transferred unknown to the IL&P board plunged Bowler into a situation she later described as "a nightmare".

Bowler admitted that the financial crisis had scarred her, even though she defended the role of banks admitting that foolish decisions had been made on many sides.

Bowler was born in London in 1952 to Irish parents. The family moved to the Isle of Wight when she was a young girl but chronic kidney disease meant she had to leave school early.

She showed her entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, running highly profitable dances for the local council where she worked as a clerk. When her boss looked for a cut of the profits she upped sticks and began working for Greek Island Holidays in London.

Recognising her considerable ability, the company decided to send her to Dublin to open an office. Aged 19, Gillian arrived in Ireland in 1971.

Here in Dublin she met her future husband Harry Sydner and together they set up Budget Travel in 1975. At the age of just 23 Bowler was running her own business from an office on Dublin's Baggot Street.

With her natural flair for sales and competitive instincts, Bowler began undercutting the opposition on price and service. It was no surprise that Budget Travel quickly mushroomed into a chain of 30 travel agencies, ripe for takeover.

In 1987 she and Sydner sold 90 per cent of the firm to British group Granada for £4.5m. They sold the remaining 10 per cent for £3m in 1996.

In 2000 Bowler finally left the travel industry but in 2003 brought her experience to Fáilte Ireland as founding chairwoman, a role she held until 2007.

The organisation yesterday paid tribute to her as a dynamic and inspirational chairwoman.

Bowler also joined the board of Grafton, owner of Woodie’s DIY and Atlantic Homecare.

In April 2015 Bowler received planning permission to demolish her home on Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, and replace it with four large mews houses.

Bowler had been ill for several years. A memorial service will be held tomorrow at 10 am in the Victorian Chapel at Mount Jerome Crematorium in Harold's Cross, Dublin 6.

She is survived by her husband Harry, step-daughter Rachel, step-grandson Sean, mother Josephine, sister Geraldine and several nieces and nephews.

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