Monday 18 February 2019

It's perhaps difficult to imagine Hilary Weston searching the aisles for bargains at Penneys: the former model from Dublin may have helped set up the Primark brand but she is now one of the wealthiest women in the world, with a family fortune of some €7.1bn. Her family owns a sprawling retail portfolio which includes Brown Thomas and Arnotts in Ireland, the Loblaw grocery chain in Canada, the high-end British chain Selfridges, and Fortnum & Mason.

And yet looking after (the) Penneys has meant the billions go some way to looking after themselves: Primark has been the golden goose of the Weston-controlled Associated British Foods, epitomising fast fashion while aggressively expanding into Eastern Europe. Expansion stalled last year in the US but the company says it has turned a corner there - openings in New Jersey and Florida are planned for 2020.

Weston may winter (seasons are verbs for the very rich) in a plutocrat paradise called Windsor in Florida, but unlike her royal friends - she was invited to the wedding of William and Kate - the sun never sets on the family's empire.

How different might life have been if Eliza Whalley, Galen Weston's Northern Irish grandmother, had not offered him a hundred grand to travel from Canada to Ireland and set up a business here. In Dublin he met Hilary Frayne, then the one-woman muse of a nascent Irish fashion industry. They married in 1966 and while Galen ploughed on with developing the supermarket wing of the family empire, Hilary literally ran the sewing machine that generated the first Primark clothes and used her knowledge of clothing and cosmetics to develop it into the retail behemoth it has become. In 2018 the group said its adjusted operating profit climbed 13pc to £843m (€965.8m). The sister business Brown Thomas - including its flagship store on Dublin's Grafton Street - is understood to have been valued at at least €242m following a reorganisation of its parent company structure.

Selfridges, another stablemate of the Weston's Wittington Investments, said that sales at the chain had jumped by 11.5pc to more than £1.75bn (€1.96bn). Operating earnings rose by £1m (€1.1m) to a record £181m (€202m) in the year to February 3. Irishman Paul Kelly, who previously headed up Selfridges, moved to Wittington's property investment business late last year. However, retail is facing into difficult times and Forbes's estimates of the family's wealth has fallen over the past year.

At George Weston Ltd, the Canadian retail group, Galen Sr has passed the torch to their son, Galen Jr (44), who is married to Alexandra Schmidt, heiress to the Bata shoe fortune. Daughter Alannah Weston became a director on the George Weston board in 2016 and was named deputy chairman in 2014 at Selfridges Group after the Weston family took control of Selfridges in 2003. She is married to architect Alex Cochrane and they live in a redbrick mansion in London.

The senior Westons divide their time between Toronto and a luxurious gated community in Florida. With royals, CEOs and socialites, they play polo, hit the golf courses, plan corporate takeovers and party. Little wonder they have been described as 'the first family of taste'.

Online Editors

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