Sunday 15 September 2019

Retail magnate keeps it in the family

After unexpected challenges and a public row with her son, Marian O'Gorman is expanding Kilkenny, writes Samantha McCaughren

Kilkenny Group chief executive Marian O'Gorman
Kilkenny Group chief executive Marian O'Gorman

Five years ago, aged 60, Marian O'Gorman envisaged herself becoming the chairwoman of her company, the Kilkenny Group, at the age of 65, handing over the day-to-day running of the retail and food business to someone else. It hasn't quite worked out that way, and she remains a very hands-on chief executive. But the self-confessed workaholic is trying to ease herself out a little.

Just back from a Baltic cruise, she is looking forward to more travel. "It's time to smell the roses and sit back," she says.

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"I am stepping back a little bit more and we are bringing in extra skills around the table that we need in the business. And on Fridays, I can spend a little bit more time with the family and the grandkids, and I have the weekends off, whereas I wouldn't have had before," she adds.

O'Gorman feels there is a good mix of family members and outsiders at the top table.

"I have two daughters in the company now, Michelle and Melissa, and they are taking more responsibility, and they are doing all the travelling I used to have to do," she says.

"We have brought in outsiders on our team and we are learning a lot from them," she continues. "Collaboration, communication. Whereas we maybe would have worked more in isolation before, we need to work and collaborate as a team.

"When we have a decision to make, I want to hear their views and can they work it out. If they are making the decisions, that's the only way the business can continue."

This has been a learning curve, she admits: "I am now learning to close my mouth and let them make decisions, and if they ask my opinion, I'll give it."

The past few years have brought challenges she could not have foreseen when she mapped out her plans for the business half a decade ago: Brexit, a rapid shift to online shopping and a very high-profile row with her son, Greg.

But none of these challenges - not even her intention to step back a little - have dampened her energy and ambition for the business. "I am still driving the company forward, I am not retracting in any way," she says.

O'Gorman's drive stems back to her childhood and seems unlikely to ease off any time soon. She was the fifth child in her family, followed quickly by another brother 10-and-a-half months later, a so-called Irish twin.

She did not articulate it at the time, but now she reflects that her place in the large family fuelled a desire to prove herself.

"I had to be noticed in the family, as there were five above and another younger, and then four years later, another daughter. So I think that I was always wanting recognition, but I didn't understand what it was.

"I had to prove to everyone I could do it. And I have a very active brain. Not academic, but I need to be challenged all the time."

Her father, Christy Kelleher, who came from Killard outside Blarney, Co Cork, was entrepreneurial from a young age, making a windmill for his home as a young man to ensure his property was the only one in a line of houses with electricity.

He worked in the insurance business but went the extra mile to provide for his wife Maureen and family of seven children, taking on a vegetable round, with the family growing tomatoes and lettuces in a glasshouse.

He also ran a dance hall and started a number of other ventures. "We were never short and back then people were," says O'Gorman.

In the 1960s, he observed the bus-loads of American tourists coming in to visit Blarney Castle but noticed there was nothing for them to buy.

"He decided he would build a thatched cottage on wheels," O'Gorman says. The wheels were to get around planning permission and as the mobile shop could not be too near the castle, music was pumped out to attract the tourists to the array of Aran sweaters, linen and other Irish knick-knacks for sale.

O'Gorman was in sixth class at the time and was hooked on retail immediately. After leaving school, she completed a secretarial course which she credits now with her speed on a laptop.

But she was destined for retail and joined her father's growing business, getting stuck in buying and selling souvenirs to US visitors.

The business expanded by buying a local shop and then an outlet in Blarney Park Hotel, and buying the mill in Blarney in 1975.

In 1989, the company, by then known as Blarney Woollen Mills, bought the Kilkenny shop in Dublin's Nassau Street.

Originally, the Kilkenny Design Centre was set up by the Government to support Irish craft and design, with the original shop in Kilkenny targeting tourists, and the Dublin shop appealing to customers in the capital.

When the Government decided to sell the company, managers bought the shop in Kilkenny, while Blarney bought the Dublin store. There was initially some concern that the new owners would turn the Nassau Street outlet into a typical tourist shop.

But the family appreciated the more sophisticated side of the Irish craft and design market, and quickly assured staff and suppliers that it would keep the ethos of the business unchanged.

As a very young woman, O'Gorman travelled the country buying up stock, filling a van with Waterford Crystal, leprechauns or whatever souvenirs were available at a good price.

Married to Michael O'Gorman at 21, she recalls some hairy trips nipping around the potholed roads of Ireland, even when heavily pregnant. "There was nothing I couldn't do," she says. "I loved it."

Some of her siblings also joined the business, including her sister Freda Hayes and brother Kevin Kelleher, and when her father passed away in 1991, it led to a power struggle for the company.

That resulted in Hayes leaving Blarney to set up the successful lifestyle chain Meadows and Byrne, although she has since returned to the Blarney Woollen Mills business, bringing the Meadows and Byrne operation into the Blarney Group. This dispute was followed in 1999 by a High Court battle when O'Gorman, her husband Michael and her sister Bernadette Kelleher Nolan went to court to prevent their brothers Pat, Frank and Kevin from removing Michael from the group's board.

That led to a de-merger of the company, under which Marian O'Gorman took on four shops - the Kilkenny shop on Nassau Street in Dublin, Christys in Killarney and Cobh, and a sweater shop in Killarney.

At that stage, O'Gorman had little experience of the Dublin shop, or of the higher-end crafts and design sector. "It was a challenge to me because I kind of knew the Blarney Woollen Mills side of the business at that stage. But that was the way it was done and that was fine," she recalls.

O'Gorman is not keen to rake over past disagreements; only to say there is no point in being bitter and that those power struggles were a long time ago.

"And fair play, I would never say a bad word about Blarney because I was there for 28 years; I am so delighted to see it doing well," she says.

But after the de-merger, it seemed that tourism retail was having nothing but bad luck. The attack of 9/11 in 2001, fears over the spread of foot and mouth disease, and an outbreak of SARS in China in 2003 hampered O'Gorman's efforts to drive the new entity forward.

"I thought I couldn't run a business anymore," she says. "The security of the Blarney Woollen Mills had been there and all of a sudden we split. With all these complications, it (establishing the new entity) seemed too big."

Her confidence was at a low point. All the advice, from family members and professionals alike, was to sell up.

But she was told she would need the business to break even in order to get a decent price for it. She reduced overheads, closing offices in Cork and relocating the head office to Killarney.

"We turned a corner and made a profit in 2004," she says. "Once we were turning a corner, there was no selling it."

O'Gorman says she learned a lot during this period about costs and stock management, which set her in good stead for the economic crash which was to come.

She expanded over the course of the recession, getting good deals on leases and growing the business to 15 shops and two restaurants.

"We had good people in the company; our confidence was back," she says. "The one ingredient that helped us through all that was looking after the customer."


The most high-profile event for her and the business over the past two years was a very public falling out with her son, Greg O'Gorman, the company's former marketing manager.

According to reports, the row erupted in 2016 when O'Gorman terminated Greg's employment, and he took legal action to stop his dismissal, and to require his mother to honour a deal which he claimed held the Kilkenny Group in trust for him and his siblings.

A year ago, a settlement was reached. The dispute resolution involved a new formal agreement to secure the financial interests of the children. The holding company for the new, wider Kilkenny Group business is now Clydaville Holdings. The four children, Greg, Michelle, Melissa and Christopher, each hold shares, alongside their mother, as does Conor Lynch, Kilkenny's long-standing finance director.

O'Gorman, who is naturally chatty, is reluctant to talk about the dispute; only to comment that it was a difficult time personally and perhaps she and Greg were too alike.

"I am delighted it's settled to everyone's satisfaction," she says.

O'Gorman says problems for all family businesses can arise when lines between work and personal relationships become blurred.

"All businesses have their issues and family businesses have a different dynamic because boundaries can cross over - any family business," she says.

"The boundaries can get a little bit blurred. My recommendation to anyone in a family business is to keep the professional and the family separate.

"It's not easy. But if you are in the business, it's always business in the business... It's not personal and not to take it personally.

"That's the hard part of the family business, and family businesses who can achieve that will be there for the long term.

"In a family business, you work harder, you expect more... there's all that."

She adds that she believes her son will have success in whatever he decides to do next.

The Kilkenny Group took on another row recently; an attempt to stop the Larry Goodman family from redeveloping the property on Nassau Street which houses its flagship shop and restaurant.

O'Gorman's company had warned that the project could have serious consequences for the shop, including possible job losses.

However, the project, which is being led by Goodman's son Lawrence, was given the go-ahead in May.

"All we know now is that he tells us that he will build around us, we're staying in situ, don't worry about it," she says.

"He says there is nothing to worry about so we are taking that as gospel."

The company has a strong lease, with 13 years left to run, which gives O'Gorman some comfort. But she is concerned about it, nonetheless. "It's so important to us, that location," she says.

In an interview some years ago, O'Gorman described her management style as being a bit too soft. That does not particularly chime with her reputation as a tough business woman willing to take on a fight when necessary.

"I am very determined to succeed," she says. "I am very determined to look at the changing times, so we are not stuck.

"When I say soft, maybe it's towards the people in the company, to ensure we're fair with our team all the time and grow them within the business."

Food is a key part of the Nassau Street store's offering, and it is also becoming central to the strategy of the overall group.

Kilkenny has prided itself on the fact that it makes all its own food. "If we don't cook it ourselves, we don't serve it," O'Gorman says proudly.

The company now has five restaurants, with one opening tomorrow in Cobh Heritage Centre, where Kilkenny already has a shop.

"We think about the future, and people have to eat and they like to have nice food. And it creates an experience," she says. "Our strategy now is to look at food opportunities as well as retail."

"You know retail is challenged so we have to focus on the experience," she adds. "We want to grow the business and we bought Kilkenny Design Centre last year and Sammy's Restaurant and Store in Inch, Co Kerry this year, which is more food than retail."

She says the company has learned a lot through both of those deals, its first two acquisitions: "We would like to acquire more businesses, rather than start greenfield sites."

O'Gorman says she had always wanted to buy the Kilkenny Design Centre in Kilkenny in particular.

Most recent revenue figures for the group were €30m, but the next set of accounts is likely to show turnover of around €36m, thanks to the acquisitions.

The company is investing in online but does not foresee any major shift to digital. "It will be part of the business; it's not going to be the biggest part of our business," O'Gorman explains.

Brexit is already impacting on trade, she says, due to a fall-off in UK tourists: "And the spend is lower because they are obviously concerned about what is happening, and so is everyone else."

"But we are probably sheltered a little bit because most of our products are Irish," she says.

"We have got to be prepared and we are all the time watching to see what we can do, because we don't know if there will be a deal on October 31 or not."

The group is doing some stockpiling by bringing some stock from the UK, such as handbags, earlier than normal for the Christmas rush.

In terms of a successor when she does eventually step completely back from the CEO role, that has not yet been decided upon.

"There are four or five very good people in the team and we are bringing in another senior person," O'Gorman says.

She expects the business to stay in the family: "The girls, the two daughters, are really keen on retail and love customers."

While she is stepping back, it is impossible to imagine O'Gorman ever taking a very large leap away from the company.

"I love work and it made me the person I am - I just now want to enjoy it as well. But I still want to be challenged," she says.

"Sure, what else would I do?"

Curriculum vitae

Name: Marian O'Gorman

Age: 65

Position: CEO of Kilkenny Group

Lives: Tower, outside Blarney, Cork

Previous experience: 28 years with the business founded by her father, Blarney Woollen Mills

Education: Blarney National School and Blarney Secondary School

Family: Married to Michael. Four children: Greg, Michelle, Melissa and Christopher

Pastimes: I love walking with friends and spending time with my grandkids

Favourite film/TV: Miracle on 34th Street as she loves Christmas. Also the boxset/mini series Brothers & Sisters

Favourite book: I really enjoyed Normal People by Sally Rooney

Business lessons

What business advice has influenced you in your career?

My father would always say treat the customer as you would want to be treated yourself. If you do that, you will never go wrong with customer service.

What would you say to school leavers considering a career in retail?

You have to be passionate. You don’t have to be academic but if you have the personality, you can be taught the other skills. We have people who studied something else in college, did retail during the summer, and ended up in retail because they liked the people side of it so much. If you’re good with people, you will be successful.

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