Business Irish

Saturday 22 October 2016

Obituary: Albert Gubay

Founder of Kwik Save and Total Fitness known for his ruthlessness - and his philanthropy

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

'At peace': Albert Gubay
'At peace': Albert Gubay

Albert Gubay, who has died aged 87, was a hard-dealing, Welsh-born entrepreneur who made a huge fortune in supermarkets and real estate - and eventually gave it away, largely to the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church.

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Gubay made his name in retailing as the founder of Kwik Save Discount, which he sold in 1973. He went on to create supermarket businesses in New Zealand, Ireland and the US, and the Total Fitness chain of gyms here - where he had seven premises before selling out in 2004 - and in Britain. But the bulk of his wealth - estimated at more than half a billion at its peak - came from buying, selling and developing property in the north of England, Wales and the Isle of Man, his domicile for many years. He was also involved in plans to develop the harbour area in Greystones, Co Wicklow.

Though largely unknown to the gossip columns, Gubay appeared regularly in the upper reaches of annual "rich lists" until 2009, when he ranked 107th in the UK; thereafter he insisted his name should be removed, following the announcement that he had gone beyond a promise made as a young man to donate half of everything he made to God.

He had ultimately decided to place all his wealth - except for a modest nest-egg to keep himself and his wife in old age - in a charitable foundation which would give half its £20-million-a-year income to the Church, and half to other good causes.

Albert Gubay was born at Rhyl, in North Wales, on April 9 1928, the son of an Iraqi Jewish father who had migrated from Baghdad as a child, and an Irish Catholic mother who had been rejected by her family for "marrying out".

After service in the Royal Navy, Albert started selling non-sugar sweets (while sugar was still rationed) and later seaside rock and other confectionery, from the back of a van and on market stalls.

In the mid-1950s, married with two small children, he was struggling to support his family and could not afford carpets for their house. "Lying on my bed one Saturday afternoon," he told an interviewer, "I said, 'God, where's the next penny going to come from? God, please help me - and whatever I make, when I pass on, half will go to you.' And that was it: I was at peace with the world."

In 1959, he opened his first shop, Value Foods, in Queen Street, Rhyl. Outlets in Wrexham and Chester followed, and Gubay refined his business model after studying American and German discounters: the key was to buy limited lines of stock on long payment terms, sell at rock-bottom prices, and use positive cash flow to keep the business growing.

He opened the first of his larger Kwik Save stores at Colwyn Bay in 1965. It rapidly eclipsed Value Foods, became a fast-growing chain, and was floated on the stock market in 1970 with Gubay retaining 45pc. By now a wealthy man, Gubay moved to the Isle of Man to avoid mainland tax rates. Having indicated he intended to remain involved in Kwik Save he attracted the scrutiny of both the Department of Trade and Industry and the Inland Revenue when it became known in 1973 that he had sold his remaining stake and gone to New Zealand. There he set out to replicate his success with a chain of "3 Guys" supermarkets, which built up a 30pc market share.

Four years later, he took the format to Ireland, where it became H Williams and then Quinnsworth, before eventually being sold to Tesco; but a subsequent 3 Guys venture in North Carolina ended in bankruptcy. It was a bout of back trouble in the early 1990s that prompted him to venture into gyms: his Total Fitness chain, sold for £80m in 2004, attracted 150,000 members. In 2008, a property court case involving him and the rally-driver Rosemary Smith over a property in South Dublin was settled.

Generosity as a philanthropist did not mean Gubay was a soft touch; quite the reverse. "Stupid people make me lose my temper and most people are stupid, fortunately for me," was one of his quoted remarks. A fellow supermarket chief, Malcolm Walker of the Iceland chain, wrote of Gubay's "fearsome reputation for being totally ruthless and penny pinching in the extreme [and his] habit of falling out with everyone". Visiting Gubay in America, Walker found him clipping $3 grocery coupons from a stack of 50-cent newspapers. Gubay himself rationalised that "every penny wasted in business is a penny lost for the charity pot".

In the Isle of Man, he was both a revered benefactor and a controversial business player. After one spat with the Manx authorities he threatened to leave for Switzerland, until other residents petitioned him to stay. In 2004, he was revealed to be the developer behind a housing scheme which had won special tax reliefs by presenting itself as a tourism project backed by American investors - and was accused of exercising a corrupting influence on the island's government, although he had acted within the law and no money had changed hands. When a local poet posted online criticism of him, Gubay used the island's peculiarly fierce libel laws to seize the poet's computer and subject him to a gagging order.

But Gubay was better known locally for funding the rebuilding of St Anthony's Church at Onchan and for his endowments to fund sports scholarships and enable Manx students to attend universities around the world. Further afield, he supported breast cancer research, and projects in the Catholic diocese of Liverpool; and he paid for an extension to the Our Lady of the Nativity church in Leixlip, Co Kildare, in memory of his mother. He received a papal knighthood in 2011.

Besides his converted mill house at Santon on the Isle of Man, Gubay had homes in South Africa and latterly in Cheshire. He drove modest cars, enjoyed fishing, avoided holidays and liked to work alongside his labourers.

He married his first wife Anne in 1952; they were divorced in 1974. He is survived by his second wife Carmel, and by a son and a daughter of the first marriage. Albert Gubay died on January 5.

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