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Today’s formal announcement of John Sutcliffe’s forthcoming retirement as Managing Director of Aer Rianta International-Middle East is no surprise (he gave long notice both to the company and his many friends in the business) but it still cannot be allowed to pass without comment.
Make no mistake about the significance of the moment – one of travel retail’s key figures of the past quarter century is about to step down from the industry stage (at least in a full-time capacity).
John, born in Clonmel, County Tipperary in Ireland, joined Aer Rianta in 1977 and has been one of the industry’s most high-profile executives for much of the intervening period. He was part of the Irish travel retailer’s legendary consultancy team that set up Dubai Duty Free in the early 1980s, deciding to stay on with the UAE company until he rejoined Aer Rianta International in 1990. At that point he assumed responsibility for running the company’s Aerofirst operation at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport – another pioneering project.
In 1992 he moved to Bahrain, where he has developed one of our industry’s strongest regional retail operations, with successful, quality-focused, multi-award winning stores dotted all around the Middle East. It’s been a tale of success upon success, all built on sound retail, corporate and human principles.
I’ve known John for much of the past 23 years. The first time we chatted at length was when he took me on a ride above Bahrain on a small private plane, both of us staring out over stunning panoramas as he talked me through the business. In the intervening years he would always make time for both formal interviews and off the record chats (his trust was implicit and absolute) and soon became a friend as much as an important contact.
He was a media man’s dream – always honest, candid and often controversial. His views, particularly on subjects such as ‘overbids’ and perceived supplier intransigence in the Middle East, did not always go down well in all quarters but they were firmly held and always well articulated. He has never been a man for tokenism.
John has been a critical figure in the evolving ‘Trinity’ debate of the past decade, promoting the concept of greater understanding between industry stakeholders while always maintaining a healthy cynicism about the intentions of some industry players. He helped put together the seminal ‘White Paper’ that came out of the first Trinity Forum in 2003 and has always worn an industry hat as well as a company one.
In 2007 The Moodie Report published a book called ‘The World Rovers’ that documented the immense Irish influence on the travel retail industry. John was profiled in that work, drawing memorably on the work and philosophy of industry founder Dr Brendan O’Regan as one of his inspirations for a sector that he felt should not just be about the profit motive. Few Irish travel retail executives have roved as wide or as successfully as the man from Clonmel.
John’s work ethic – hard, driven, professional – is well-known to all. He can play just as hard too and it’s fair to say that he’s been at the epicentre of some of the great industry parties down the years. A highly talented musician and singer, he would often take up the guitar and play a selection of his beloved Irish music.
That love featured prominently in an informal industry tribute to him at Cannes earlier this week when friends presented him with a six-string guitar (below). John noted: “I said that when I retired I would have three simple rules: no bosses, no suits and no alarm clocks, and I intend to stick to every one of them.”
I couldn’t be at that occasion. So here’s my own personal salute to this formidable, tough, complex, funny, warm-hearted individual, a great Irish Rover, an outstanding retailer, an industry leader and, above all, a generous and good man.