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Penneys/Primark's Breege O'Donoghue: Must-read inspirational advice from leading Irish businesswoman (70)

She managed to avoid a career in the nunnery despite the best efforts of the Sisters of Mercy in Gort, Co Galway in the late 50s.

But Breege O’Donoghue (70) had already found a vocation as a successful businesswoman by the time she joined Penneys/Primark in 1979 to set up the human resources department.

She climbed up the ranks quickly and for 21 years she was a member of the so-called Primark gang of four and “the only female board member”.

Last night belonged to the Primark executive director when she won the Lifetime Achievement gong at the Image Businesswoman of the year awards.

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Breege O’Donoghue, Board Director, Primark, inaugural recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award 2014 at The IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2014. Photo Kieran Harnett

Breege O’Donoghue, Board Director, Primark, inaugural recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award 2014 at The IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2014. Photo Kieran Harnett

Kieran Harnett

Breege O’Donoghue, Board Director, Primark, inaugural recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award 2014 at The IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2014. Photo Kieran Harnett

You could have heard a pin drop at the DoubleTree Hilton (the Burlington Hotel to you and me) just seconds into her acceptance speech.

There wasn’t a peep out of the  600-odd mostly women in the room, many of them award winning businesswomen in their own rights.

They were enthralled, inspired and beguiled by the woman who hails from Boston, Co Clare and whose first mode of transport was a Mercedes, not the car mind, but “Paddy, a beautiful horse with bells and bows, which with a gleaming trap, brought us to mass and to the seaside on Sundays.”

From earliest memories of her late parents Thomas and Molly, who lived into their 90s following a life on a “hard working but idyllic” farm, to her later career where she entered the world of work  at the then Great Southern Hotels group.

“I remember the price of my first wage packet with my name on it,” she said.

Since then she has seen a huge amount of change in the workplace, which she welcomed although she had a special mention for her late husband James “who was always helpful, interested, available, with sound advice and practical assistance, but never intrusive.”

Indeed, some of her 10 step-children were with her last night at the awards ceremony.

“During my continuing working years there have been many positive advances form women and others....for example, pay and the improvement in the status of women."

And she now sits on a board of seven with two female members "so the odds are moving in the right direction."

Breege is currently spearheading Primark's entry to the US market after successfully capturing the German and British ones.

She also believes success in business, like Primark, is based on the ability to communicate.

“Short lines of communication, with core beliefs and a common vocabulary.”

However, possibly her best advice was for the younger generation.

“Be true to oneself, show courage, independence, initiative, appreciate the need to recognise, respect and value differences.

“Know right from wrong, be ethically aware.

“Be satisfied only with the best, do not be clothed in power and status, but generous in heart mind and spirit, and yes, it is encouragement and live that inspire people to succeed and be happy the world over.”

When Breege first entered the workforce, the Irish economy was strong.

But she believes the economy is improving again, despite the recent signs of instability amidst the water charges fiasco.

Her advice for Taoiseach Enda Kenny?

“Be strong, think of the long-term. And communicate – bring the people with you.”

Video kindly provided by IMAGE Magazine

Online Editors