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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

Growing up in rural Ireland on the borders of Clare and Galway and in a loving family home with five special siblings, here this evening, my earliest childhood memory – not yet 4 years old – was the arctic freeze of blizzards and snow drifts which gripped Ireland from January 1947 for a whole three months.

Our farm was both idyllic & hard work, watching the cows being milked, feeding the calves, rounding up and milking the goats before  going to school, carrying water from the well, helping to make the hay, picking the potatoes, walking miles to and from school and learning from enlightened teachers.  Yes, we brought the sods of turf to the two roomed school and our mothers arranged the flowers for both the church and for the school.  My Mercedes, was Paddy, a beautiful horse with bells and bows, which with a gleaming trap, brought us to mass and to the seaside on Sunday’s.

My mother had great influence on the family, independent, strong-minded, and devoted to her husband and children, for whom she cooked, baked, knitted, made all our clothes and delighted in the joys of gardening & her beautiful flowers.  The trees were tall, the grass was green, the birds were chirping one to the other.  There was no extravagance and money was always put aside for the rainy day.  Christmas was magical, with all its preparations of making the plum puddings, plucking geese and turkeys, decorating the Christmas tree and waiting in anticipation of Santa.

My parent’s strong wish was to ensure we had the best education possible, so at just over 13 years I was away from home as there was no transport links to secondary school in Gort, ….a period of great personal satisfaction under the guidance of the Sisters of Mercy.  My education still bright in my mind was grounded in the Catholic belief and practice. To quote W.B. Yeats “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. Career guidance was not a feature…the closest was Reverend Mother’s visits to try and coax one to enter the order, to no avail.  I can hear my Chief Executive Paul Marchant and my Board colleagues at table X say “Thank God the children had a lucky escape”. 

Neither was a career choice in those days determined by ability, but by means. I didn’t have the option to pursue a university degree at that stage, but I did have an ambition to do so. However that foundation in education served me well, as did a work ethic, which was modelled so well at home.  I entered the world of work into a growing Irish economy and found myself in the Great Southern Hotels Group.  I remember the pride of my first wage packet with my name on it.  

A career spread over 17 years including a 3 year break from 1963 which I spent working in Switzerland and Germany.  This provided me with a love of diversity, culture and language.  In Switzerland as you know they speak four languages, belonging to four diverse culture groups which do not appear to display any particular affection for each other.  The German style is frank, direct, open, loud, but the boss is an extremely private person, where instructions are passed down to immediate inferiors. ‘It’s knowledge that the business gurus call, ’cultural competence!!’. Almost 36 years ago, on the final day of John Paul the second’s historic visit to Ireland, I joined Penneys / Primark and became a Board member eight years later.  There were then 17 stores, now 285 in 9 countries, 58,000 employees and

This year’s annual profit was 808 million euro.  We are now entering the US market where we are building an appropriate structure and 8 stores are in preparation stage.  

Primark’s business directly contributes to the employment of more than eight hundred thousand employees across three continents and we estimate that two million people are supported indirectly.  

Yes, I have many memories…the late 60’s it was about pop music, long hair, psychedelic dress, much of which passed me by, busy as I was in the world of work. The tone was also set by the international student protests in Prague and in Paris, the civil rights marches in the US, where Martin Luther King supporters sang “We shall overcome”.  While closer to home, in Ireland, we had our own dark troubles and our brightening opportunities.

No life can be expected to pass without a share of personal loss, sadness and tragedies.  Both my parents fortunately lived into their 90’s, not so my late husband, the love of my life…it was he who was my rock of support throughout much of my business career and until his death / James was always interested, available, with sound advice and practical assistance, but never intrusive. 

So from moments of sadness to moments of gladness I have had the great fortune of 10 beautiful and wonderful (young people) children, who in those dark days inspired me and gave me that inner strength to battle bravely the great loss of a loved one.

Death called again with the untimely passing of Meabh, my daughter-in-law.  The young mother of four young children and earlier this year my best friend - a young woman - went to God.  Only to be predeceased a short while before by my other best friend a young girl with an 18 month old child.  So yes there have been challenges along the way, disturbing the waters of tranquillity, but mobilising the best in me.  

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.  In fact were it otherwise, I might not be standing here, have not had this career & so too for many other women. I salute the changes.

For 21 years I was a member of the well documented Primark gang of 4 – the only female Board Member for 26 years and which was not without its challenges.  I

I'm now one of 2 female members of a gang of 7, so the odds are moving in the right direction.

My educational ambition to go to university was realised and I graduated in commerce from UCD in 1972 having been a night student.  I was also fortunate in the course of my career to attend many short programmes of study over the years (Cornell University, Harvard Business School, LSE and International Language Schools in Germany, Spain and France).  

I am proud of my continuing ability to make some contribution in other areas of life, in both public and private sectors.  Outside of my work at Primark, I have been a government appointed member on the board of a number of a state companies including An Post, Aer Rianta, as well as Chairman of Shannon College of Hotel Management.  Currently I am a Non-Executive Director at C&C Group plc, Chair of its Remuneration Committee and also Chair of the Labour Relations Commission.

My career in Primark has spanned many high level areas of activities on people & culture, commercial and business development, with particular involvement internationally in the last 9 years and now among other

things I am instrumental in leading our entry into the US market.  

Over the years Primark’s strategic vision, brand image and the estate has evolved in a dramatic fashion.  In the year 2000, when Primark opened its 100th store after 31 years of trading, the entire estate was 1.4 million sqft and now, 14 years later, the estate is over seven times larger at 10.4 million sqft.

We continue to offer great “customer experience”, store concepts provide a contemporary shopping environment, product innovation is key and we offer best value on the high street, maintaining price leadership in every market.

Entering into the UK in the 70’s was a major deal, where we now enjoy No.1 volume share, as we do in Ireland, Spain and Portugal.  Competing with world brands in Europe, we continue to roll out a business in its major markets incl. Germany and France, where Primark is eagerly awaited and supported by valued customers… our new store openings are often reported as pop concerts…

The authorities in Europe with whom we collaborate, welcome Primark with open arms.  The property developers seeks us out, high street and shopping

centre management view Primark as an important vehicle to deliver an exciting shopping environment, with greater choice and increased customer footfall to their locations.

But leadership in our business is the single most important element of our success and our orchestra is conducted by Paul Marchant, who understands how all the pieces come together, all of which we will need as we enter the exacting, exciting and challenging US market…  A whole new experience – a foundation for Primark to be bigger and better.  We will challenge and we are not afraid to be challenged.

In summary Primark is a model of business which takes care of its people, innovation and talent are at the heart – has simple strategies and sharp differentiations.  

Primark’s business has - few layers -  short lines of communication, with core beliefs and a common vocabulary. We strive to drive continuous improvement, serve our core customer better - consistently - more profitably, whilst adapting constantly to changes in the market. These are the fundamentals of the Primark business model, which we breathe day in day out.

I have been blessed with good health, energy and stamina, & yes I have had an interesting, fulfilling and happy life so far and I look forward to continuing that way for a while longer ……….. It was William Butler Yeats who said “Think where man’s glory begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends”. 

Before concluding I would like to share some thoughts on my advice to young people:  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 very best, do not be clothed in power and status, but generous in heart, mind and spirit and yes it is encouragement and love that inspire people to succeed and be happy the world over. 

Turning to this award, I repeat the words of another award winner “I feel like Rip Van Winkle emerging confused, blinking into unexpected and undeserved sunlight”.  I am deeply moved and gratified for this award which I shall esteem and value always -  and yes I am humbled and grateful for the trust you have placed in me.  

Sin a bhuil, a chairde gaol

Go raibh mile maith agaibh go leir.

 

Online Editors