Business Irish

Thursday 22 February 2018

O'Donoghue to leave after 37 years with Primark

Breege O’Donoghue, who was recently honoured with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the Ambassador of France to Ireland, Jean-Pierre Thébault, in Dublin
Breege O’Donoghue, who was recently honoured with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the Ambassador of France to Ireland, Jean-Pierre Thébault, in Dublin
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Retail veteran Breege O'Donoghue is retiring from Dublin-based Primark after 37 years with the company, which trades as Penneys in Ireland.

As group director of new markets and business development, Ms O'Donoghue (71) has overseen dramatic expansion of the group, which was founded in Dublin in 1969.

Primark is owned by Associated British Foods.

A native of Boston, Co Clare, Ms O'Donoghue recalled last year that she joined Primark in 1979, on the last day of Pope John Paul's visit to Ireland. Back then, she said the group had just 17 stores. It now has more than 300 in 11 countries, having opened its first store in the United States last year.

In its last financial year, Primark generated sales of just under £5bn (€6.3bn), and operating profits of £662m (€834m). The profit was 30pc higher than the previous year.

Ms O'Donoghue joined the group to establish its human resources department, having previously worked with the Great Southern Hotel group for 17 years.

She rose up the ranks, becoming one of the gang of four that for years plotted the rise of the cut-price retailer that had been founded by billionaire Galen Weston and his wife, Hilary. Mr Weston's family owns Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason, and has a large stake in Associated British Foods.

Ms O'Donoghue oversaw the current expansion into the US, as well as Primark's foray into Italy. Just recently, it opened its first store in Milan.

She will step down from her executive role in September, but will continue to support the retailer as an ambassador, and in her role as a pension trustee.

Primark chief executive Paul Marchant said that Ms O'Donoghue has been part of the board that led to the transformation of the company into one of the most successful retailers in Europe.

"Her contribution has without doubt significantly helped to make Primark the business that it is today," he said.

Mr Marchant said Ms O'Donoghue has "always led from the front" and displayed "tenacity, drive and a determination to succeed".

Ms O'Donoghue, who is also a non-executive board member of C&C, has received a number of business accolades. "For 21 years I was a member of the well documented Primark gang of four - the only female board member for 26 years and which was not without its challenges," she recalled in a 2014 speech when she received one of her awards.

She grew up on what she called an "idyllic" dairy farm that demanded hard work. She miked goats before going to school, carried water from the well, picked potatoes and walked miles to school. Her family travelled to mass and the seaside on a horse and trap.

She attended secondary school in Gort, but said when she finished she didn't have an opportunity at that stage to pursue a degree (she later did, as a night student in UCD).

One of the big changes during her career, according to Ms O'Donoghue, is the opportunities that opened up for women.

"During my continuing working years there have been many positive advances for women and others, for example, implementation of equal pay, improvement in the status of women, equality recognised and discrimination on the base of sex, race or otherwise all unacceptable in principle," she said. "In fact were it otherwise, I might not… have not had this career."

Irish Independent

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