Sociable and generous, Ray Coyle was an accomplished showman and a savvy self-made millionaire.
In the course of his decades-long entrepreneurial career, the former potato farmer has gone his own way. The highs outweighed the lows and the risks he took ultimately paid off.
Most of the millions of visitors who have passed through the gates of Tayto Park outside of Ashbourne, Co. Meath will not even know Ray Coyle’s name.
But he was the driving force behind a theme park that has become one of the country’s biggest attractions.
He has poured millions of euros of his own money into the company and is deeply involved in the business at an age when many people may have considered retirement.
Mr Coyle, 70, also previously admitted that Tayto Park was the biggest risk he has ever taken. For the first few months after opening, he thought it would fail.
But by 2011 it was thriving.
In 2019 – before the pandemic – it made a profit of 2 million euros on sales of 18.8 million euros.
Tayto Park offers a variety of attractions as well as the Viking Voyage water ride.
In 2015—the year the Cú Chulainn roller coaster opened—700,000 people visited Tayto Park. In 2018, the number had slipped to just over 600,000.
When Mr Coyle first spoke about his planned park in 2008, he had hoped to attract at least 60,000 visitors a year. People thought he was crazy. He set about proving them wrong.
I last spoke to him in February of this year, when it was announced that the Tayto name would no longer grace the park by the end of 2022.
He insisted he would not sell the theme park, which opened in 2010, in the middle of a recession as the financial crisis hit the country.
“I have no intention of selling the park and we look forward to making a big announcement in three weeks,” he told me.
In an additional statement at the time, Mr Coyle said the name would be changed to “better reflect the exciting rides, attractions and zoo coming over the next few years”.
Mr Coyle said 30 million euros would be invested in the park over the next two years.
“I’m delighted to have partnered with one of Ireland’s most iconic brands for over a decade so successfully,” he added.
Tayto is owned by German Intersnack, which also owns many well-known brands such as KP, Hunky Dorys, Skips and Hula-Hoops.
Mr. Coyle returned from the United States in 1974, still only 22 years old, and began working as a potato farmer in the Ashbourne area, where his father was also a farmer and landlord.
In the mid-1970s, Mr Coyle was making a fortune from his potatoes when a drought in Britain and mainland Europe affected supplies. He bought a large tract of land — about 700 acres — and continued to farm it, growing potatoes for clients like Tayto and Perry.
But then he got into debt.
He famously raffled off 280 acres of land in 1982 to repay £1.2million (€1.5million) he owed to the banks when his business was struggling. TV star Mike Murphy moved out at Goffs in Co Kildare – it became a national sensation.
Paying off the debt gave him the opportunity to start a modest business – manufacturing chips.
He started his Largo Foods in 1982 with just eight employees and it grew into own brands like Hunky Dorys. Early customers included Feargal Quinn’s Superquinn, while Largo made the chain’s own brand ‘Thrift’ chips.
He acquired the Perry and Sam Spudz brands, strengthening his company’s credentials and business base. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he opened a chips factory in the Czech Republic.
Bulmers maker C&C meanwhile owned the Tayto brand, and Largo Foods ended up making the iconic brand of chips to order.
C&C decided to put Tayto up for sale and in 2006 Largo Foods emerged as the winner, paying €68 million. But that included 40 million euros in debt.
Largo Foods launched a marketing blitz with Mr. Tayto, putting him up as a “candidate” in a general election and bringing a character to life. At some point he appeared on the Late Late Toy Show.
Mr Coyle even sold Tayto crisps in Libya after teaming up with a Libyan national who had lived in Ireland for years.
An 80,000-square-foot factory in the Tripoli suburbs was built in 2008 and Mr. Coyle has raised about $2 million for the project.
It produced Tayto products for three years and even briefly became profitable before the country was torn apart by civil war in 2011.
It was a rare misstep for the entrepreneur, who by then was already rescinding control of Largo Foods. He sold an initial 15 percent stake in Largo to Intersnack for €15 million in 2007 and needed a financial partner to shore up the deal, which was being challenged by debt and high interest rates stemming from the Tayto purchase.
He later sold another stake in the snacks maker to the German company, and sold his last 25 percent stake in Largo to Intersnack in 2015. He stepped down as chairman of Largo Foods in 2016, previously admitting he was sad to leave the company that had been such a big part of his life.
He has since invested in a number of other companies alongside other high profile Irish executives.
His confidence and entrepreneurial spirit were ahead of his time in a country that until the 1990s was still lagging behind in Europe’s economy.
He blazed a trail that encouraged others, and his legacy will undoubtedly be felt for a long time.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/ray-coyle-who-has-died-at-70-was-a-consummate-showman-and-an-astute-self-made-millionaire-41737328.html Ray Coyle, who died at the age of 70, was a consummate showman and a savvy self-made millionaire