Double tragedy for the quiet king of retail
The man who forged the Penneys empire now has to face up to the deaths of his son and grandson
Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30
Arthur St John Ryan, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month, is among the most successful and the most private retailers in this country.
He learned from the master, Ben 'Better Value Beats Them All' Dunne Snr, that, in their business, price does the talking.
With staunch sidekick Paddy Prior, and funding from the mega-rich Weston family, he took over the Penneys brand in Ireland and over four decades turned Penneys/Primark into an international retail chain which supplies about a third of the profits for its Canadian owners ABF (Associated British Foods.)
The secret of Ryan's anonymity is that few people know what he looks like.
He would don a pair of dark glasses and a rain mac, leave the Penneys headquarters at 47 Mary Street, Dublin, buying an Evening Herald along the way, and walk into The Sackville Lounge just off O'Connell Street in central Dublin and order a pint of lager. He would rarely drink more than two and sit by himself, "looking over the paper more than at it", according to one customer, who observed his habits.
He liked the pub so much that he eventually set up a company called Everyday Taverns and bought the hostelry with Paddy Prior and another associate. They then expanded, buying The Playwright pub on Newtownpark Avenue in Blackrock
Asked why he would want to own a pub, one observer answered: "Penneys was a huge success… but it wasn't his."
However, the three associates had the foresight to get out of the pub business in time with, it is believed, a handsome profit, more from the sale of the business than yearly profits. "He discovered, like many people, that running pubs was best left to publicans and not amateurs," said one publican.
Ryan was later known to frequent Searson's in Baggot Street and the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge, both within walking distance of his Ballsbridge home.
Ryan, who was the son of a Cork-born insurance clerk and is said to be related to writer Alice Taylor of To School Through the Fields fame, attended the Christian Brothers' school in Synge Street, Dublin. He emigrated to London, where he spent a number of years working in retail before returning to Dublin and taking up a position as a buyer with Dunnes Stores in Cornelscourt.
With his wife Rose and four children Colin, Arthur, Barry and Alison, he lived modestly in a handsome house in a south Dublin suburb.
In 1969, Willard Galen Weston (married to Irish model Hillary Weston) took over as director of a large and old established department store at 47 Mary Street and 24-31 Jervis Street, Dublin called Todd Burns & Co. Founded in 1894 and topped with a distinctive green dome, the business appears to have been controlled by the Revington family of Tralee, Co Kerry. Arthur Ryan and Paddy Prior, who started his working life in a Longford department store, were headhunted by Weston along with Seamus Halford and given £50,000 and a free hand to revive the business.
They took up office in the dome at the top of the Victorian red-bricked building and changed the business model to provide cheap and fashionable clothes for women under 35. So began the relentless rise of the retail chain, which, by 1971, had 12 outlets in the Republic and 11 in Northern Ireland. Two years later, it had 18 stores in Britain, which for trademark reasons are known as Primark. The company now has outposts all over Europe, and Ryan, who retired as chief executive in 2009, remains chairman of the company, which is still headquartered in Mary Street, Dublin.
"He is the creator, driving force and inspiration behind the business," said ABF's George Weston when asked about Ryan's contribution to their global empire.
"He has overseen the growth of the UK's most successful retail concept of the modern era," wrote the Daily Telegraph.
The original directors of the holding company included James Laverty Boyd of Belfast, where Penneys was also extremely successful, John Stanley Glover of Sutton, Co Dublin and TJ O'Shaughnessy, a draper from Tralee. Ryan also became a director of other Weston enterprises such as Power Supermarket and Alex Finlater & Co.
With success, came money, and Arthur Ryan bought a handsome home in Dublin for his wife Rose and growing children.
When his marriage failed, he moved to another upmarket address in Dublin. He then met the well-known singer Alma Carroll, who had been married to publisher Gerry McGuinness at the age of 17 and was now separated from her husband. Both had families with their original partners and together they have one daughter Jessie. It was an amicable arrangement and friends at their frequent parties remember that McGuinness and his current partner were usually on the guest list.
Although known to be taciturn and adverse to publicity, his friends regard him as gregarious and good company. Although extremely wealthy, he lives modestly and avoids the social circle or fancy restaurants. "I just like sliced ham and bread and butter," he explains.
When he was asked to become a director of Aer Lingus by the then minister for transport, Albert Reynolds, he turned down the job. He just didn't see the point of being a director of a company he could not control. Ryan also had a keen interest in sport and the former Irish soccer manager Mick McCarthy is a good friend, as is British retail billionaire Sir Philip Green.
Ryan's retail philosophy is fairly simple, almost no advertising or marketing, no sales, but heavy discounting when required ("why would you wait until January when you have a problem in October?") and a constant stream of new and inexpensive designer-like gear.
'Look good for less' is his mantra. Asked, in view of the store's enormous success, why it hadn't diversified into wines and foods, he answered: "I am sticking to my guns and the customers are coming back to purchase the merchandise."
"It is not an exaggeration to say that he is a man who keeps to himself," says one businessman who knows him well. Ryan did however make one brief foray into public life when he publicly supported Sean Dunne's doomed plans to redevelop the Berkeley Court and Jury's site near his home.
His son Barry Ryan, who died so tragically last week, was "very well-educated and very well-spoken," according to people who knew him. Certainly, as a young man, he had no real interest in business or money, although he later joined Penneys, but resided in Baltimore, Co Cork, commuting to and from work.
Friends said his great love was the world of botany. "All he ever wanted to do was grow things," said a friend, who described him as "a botanical man" who knew everything there was to know about how things grew and what were the right conditions for various plants, shrubs and trees.
He was also interested in sculpture and had a workshop at his home in Baltimore.