Running the sewing machine that stocked the first Primark store on Dublin’s Mary Street must feel like a lifetime away for Hilary Weston (78), the matriarch of the multi-billion euro Weston retail empire.
Dun Laoghaire-born Hilary will place much pride in the central role the country has continued to play in her family’s fortune. Her work in developing the Primark business has seen the fast-fashion business become the golden goose of the Weston-controlled Associated British Foods.
The sprawling global retail empire belonging to the Weston family, which includes Brown Thomas, Selfridges and Loblaw, Canada’s biggest grocery chain, has its roots in Ireland. It started when Eliza Whalley, Galen Weston’s Northern Irish grandmother, offered him a hundred grand to travel from Canada to Ireland and set up a business here.
In the 1960s, Galen Weston (79), the head of the family, took a punt and started Power’s, his own chain of supermarkets. In Dublin he met Hilary Frayne, then the one-woman muse of the nascent Irish fashion industry.
They married in 1966 and, while Galen ploughed on with developing the supermarket wing of the family empire, Hilary set about developing Primark, using her knowledge of cosmetics and fashion and turning it into the retail behemoth it has become.
Further success was on the horizon. Galen is said to have then bought his wife the Brown Thomas retail store as a wedding present. The former model was in her element.
The Irish-founded businesses continue to perform strongly for the Weston family. Associated British Foods hailed a “year of strong progress” for Primark, which increased revenues by 4pc to £7.79bn after adding a further 14 stores to its portfolio in the UK and Europe. Profits improved 8pc to £913m.
Brown Thomas is expanding in Dundrum Town Centre, while Arnotts has been performing strongly.
Selfridges, another stablemate of the Westons’ Wittington Investments, posted its sixth consecutive year of sales growth. Daughter Alannah Weston replaced her father Galen as chairman of Selfridges last May. Her twin brother Galen Jr is CEO of George Weston Limited, as well as executive chairman of Loblaw. Wittington Investments, the family’s primary operating vehicle in Britain, posted a slight rise in pre-tax profits to £1.3bn in the year to September 14. The so-called “first family of taste” paid a £101m dividend, beating the previous pay-out of £92m.