Rory Byrne’s love affair with skiing began at the age of four. The youngest of eight children, he was taken on holiday to Grindelwald in Switzerland with his family after his father decided it was time they all learned the sport he loved. Accommodating the entire family in a hotel was too expensive, however, so Byrne’s father bought a caravan and towed it to Grindelwald instead.
Byrne says: ‘He persuaded the owner of a caravan site to open in winter so we could park it there. Then my mother and the kids stayed in the caravan while my father stayed in a hotel.’ His family returned to Grindelwald every winter to ski and as Byrne grew up he became good friends with local families. By the time he started university he was spending all his holidays there, working as a ski guide.
After graduating from university he got a job in the City with a stockbroking firm. But by the age of Byrne realized he had made a mistake. He says: ‘I knew I could not wear a suit for the rest of my life and walk in and out of office buildings. And I didn’t like being part of a hierarchy.
It was like being back at school.’ He decided that he wanted to work for himself and as the only thing he could do well was ski, he started a holiday ski business. Byrne rented three chalets in Grindelwald for the 1985–86 winter season, produced a brochure with the help of the stockbroker’s production department, and then left his job. He raised £5,000 by selling his car and borrowed £10,000 from his mother. Then he called everyone he knew to see if they wanted to book a skiing holiday with his company.
He called the company Powder Byrne as he wanted to teach clients how to ski off-piste, known as powder skiing. Within a few months, he had filled all the 178 nights he had reserved in the chalets. Byrne came back to England the following spring determined to find a way of turning his success into a fully-fledged business. He was wondering how to go about it when a friend who worked in the City told him about a fund being launched by the businessman Lord Harris to invest £1 million in 10 entrepreneurs. Byrne got in touch and was taken on.
The fund took an option to acquire 25 percent of Byrne’s company for £7,500. More importantly, it led to lots of publicity for his skiing holiday business and provided two experienced businessmen to sit on the board. Byrne says: ‘They were fantastic. One was a financial guru and the other was a really good marketer. We got great advice.’
The company grew rapidly and was soon renting 10 chalets in Grindelwald for the season. But in 1989 Byrne made the bold decision to stop using chalets and switch to five-star hotels instead, installing his own staff at each hotel to look after his clients. ‘It was the biggest decision I ever made but it was also the best, he says. ‘People were demanding better quality and by using hotels we could offer luxury accommodation.’
He realized that there might also be a demand for teaching children how to ski so he started up a kids’ club which now teaches 1,000 children a year. In the 1990s, however, things got tough. Byrne says: ‘Powder skiing really went out of fashion. Some years the snow was really poor, all the talk was about global warming, and people were saying that skiing would be finished. Even I thought what is going to happen if skiing stops?’ By 1999, however, Byrne faced the opposite problem. So much snow fell that the road to Grindelwald was closed and holidaymakers were stranded in the resort.
Fortunately, Byrne had a big advantage. He managed to get in touch with some local men he had skied with as a child and through them rented two Puma helicopters. Within hours he had flown out all 140 of his clients. He says: ‘Some people were trapped in the resort for ten days but I got all my clients out and they all made their flights home. It was like a military operation. The Pumas lifted the clients out with their luggage slung underneath in nets.’ Byrne footed the bill for the operation which came to £20,000.
He still does not think of himself as the owner, however, saying: ‘I have never felt that Powder Byrne was mine. I don’t associate the name with my surname. From the first day, I started my own company the only way I managed to sleep at night was to believe that I was working for somebody else and that the company just happened to be called Powder Byrne.
I never considered myself to be the owner of the company because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to switch off from it and shut the door of the office and walk away. And you have to be able to do that.’