Building a dream
Ray Coyle has ambitious plans to put his Irish theme park firmly on the map.
Like entrepreneurs across Europe Ray Coyle is waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
Indeed, given that more than a third of Irish exports go to the UK it is little surprise that Irish business leaders have particular concerns over the outcome.
“Ireland and the UK have been so close for so many years and for us the UK is a real ally in Europe. We will be a very small voice in a very big pond when the UK exits.”
However Coyle is well used to uncertainty. In fact, during his career he has thrived on the highs and lows of business. “I’ve had some pretty classic failures over the years as well as the successes,” he concedes.
Perhaps there was never as much uncertainty as ten years ago when Coyle first dreamt up the idea of building a theme park on his farmland north of Dublin and using his ownership of a number of famous Irish crisp brands to help market the whole project.
Coyle says he was inspired by the great US amusement parks such as Hershey in the Pennsylvanian town that confectioner Milton Hershey first built more than 100 years ago. “I just couldn’t understand why it had never been done in Ireland given there are more than six million people on this island,” he says. “But everyone thought I was mad and said it wouldn’t work and was far too risky. To be honest, I wasn’t that sure myself. But I just had this gut feeling that it could work.”
The timing was perfect though. Through his Largo Foods business Coyle had just taken control of the Tayto crisp brand, the most famous in Ireland, and that got him thinking. “I knew I could use the power of the brand to help attract people here and grow the sales of Tayto Crisps.”
However, with lenders deeming the whole venture far too risky, Coyle was forced to dig deep into his own pockets to make the whole project happen. That even meant selling a Largo factory in the Czech Republic to help pay for the €8m opening cost.
However when the park opened in 2010 Coyle feared the worst in the wake of initially poor visitor numbers. “In those first few months I did think I had made a terrible mistake.
“But once the tide turned, particularly thanks to a spell of good weather, there was no going back.”
Today the park enjoys up to 800,000 visitors a year and Coyle is forecasting 1.3 million a year will walk through his gates by 2020. Some shrewd investments in park rides have made a particular impact, most notably the €12m Cu Chulainn, Europe’s largest wooden rollercoaster and the centrepiece of the park today. Plans are well underway for a second rollercoaster and a major new flume ride is under construction.
Maybe an even more significant investment is on the horizon in the shape of a planned €35m hotel and conference centre, a move which will open up the park to a whole new business audience, as well as to couples and families who want to stay at the park overnight. Given that the park is just half an hour north of Dublin airport one can see the obvious potential.
The timing for the park’s continued expansion looks good considering moves by other leisure operators. Most notably Center Parcs, which runs a number of highly successful holiday villages in the UK, has submitted formal plans for a new village in nearby County Longford which is expected to open by 2019.
Coyle sees the move as nothing but complementary. “We don’t see it as a threat at all. It can only be a good thing for us because a lot of those visitors will be interested in coming to our park too.”
Is he worried that other theme park operators might invade his patch? “Not at all. The way I see it is that we have first leader advantage and a big name would have to pay a lot of money to build something here to catch up with us now. They are far more likely to buy us as a way into the market.”
So is a sale on the cards? “Not at the moment, we definitely want to see this through for a few more years. The key is to keep on investing in the park and we will not look at selling before 2020, if at all.”
Meanwhile, Coyle – who owns the whole park – insists that its name will not change either despite him recently selling his last remaining shareholding in Largo Foods to Germany’s Intersnack which first acquired a majority stake in Largo back in 2008. Coyle says Intersnack are keen to keep the Tayto connection. “We recently renewed the contract over the naming of the park for a further six years so it is here to stay. The name is extremely well known in Ireland and Tayto Park is a great marketing support for the Tayto brand.”
However Coyle, who first made his name selling potatoes to Ireland’s leading crisp manufacturers, hasn’t completely turned his back on the food industry.
In particular he has made a number of recent personal investments in healthy food start-ups, capitalising on the growing consumer trend towards clean label, simple and healthy foods. Investments include healthy snack company Natasha’s Living Foods, and SynerChi, a brewer of kombucha – an ancient Chinese fermented tea believed to aid digestion.
In time, Coyle envisages building up a portfolio of healthy food brands. “It is a big opportunity and more possible investments are in the pipeline,” he says. “People approach me to help them for different reasons, whether it be for more marketing reach, funding or management expertise. Whether I invest or not is all down to the individual.
Are they really committed to their business? Have they really worked as hard as they possibly can and taken their business as far as they can themselves? Do the products have something special and proven, and most importantly do they taste good?”
One senses from spending time with Coyle that he is also just passionate about sharing his business experiences – good and bad – with others too, simply because he has so much to give.
Because ultimately his business career has been just like the rollercoaster we can see outside his boardroom window. “One thing I do know is that if I had opened a theme park first and then tried later in life to move into the food industry I would have been up to my neck in debt today. Ultimately, selling Largo gave me the leverage I needed to start this whole park. It made the dream possible.”