'Wannabe mogul' who's now talk of the town
DublinTown boss Richard Guiney grew up listening to stories of his extended family's famous Clerys department store - now he's on a mission to sell the city centre to shoppers, writes John Mulligan
Recalling life as a youngster visiting his Granny's house in Dublin's Phibsborough, Richard Guiney says he was a "wannabe mogul at the age of two".
She and his grandfather had a greengrocers and newsagents there.
At this time of year, the extended Guiney family that owned Clerys ("We had the name, not the money," says Guiney) used to be popping in and out of the house.
"They were always up in my Granny's house at Christmas," he says. "I loved it as a child. My Granny was shovelling lemonade and chocolate into us. I used to love listening about the business - who was doing well, who not so well and all the rest. It's the backdrop to my childhood."
He never became the mogul he might have dreamed of, but as chief executive of DublinTown, Guiney (48) heads an organisation that aims to improve the environment for retailers, other businesses and consumers in the city centre in a bid to invigorate it as a shopping destination.
It's a constant challenge.
Retailers in the city have for years been competing with out of town centres - Liffey Valley (German fund Universal Investment finalised the €600m acquisition of the centre this week), Dundrum and Blanchardstown in particular - that have been hugely successful at siphoning off consumers and their cash to the burbs.
The recession didn't help either. Neither does the rise and rise of online shopping. Neither does weak sterling.
In fact, there are a whole lot of reasons for many consumers not to trudge into town to do their Christmas - or any - shopping. So Guiney spends his time coming up with and driving initiatives to persuade shoppers that they should.
He faces plenty of hurdles, including a pretty rubbish transport system for a capital city with more than 1.9 million people in its commuting zone.
He's optimistic (he's paid €110,000 a year to be) about the city centre's future, despite the closure of Clerys, given that Arnotts is now owned by Selfridges (owned, in turn, by Galen Weston and his family, who also own Brown Thomas). UK property giant Hammerson has also acquired a swathe of development land off O'Connell Street and Henry Street for which it has big plans.
"Footfall is up," says Guiney of Christmas trading so far this year. "I was a bit worried for the two weeks after we turned on the lights, because it was down. But since Black Friday, it's been up."
About a third of retail sales are rung up over Christmas.
Construction works to link the capital's two Luas tram lines have been scaled back significantly for the Christmas period, providing a shopper boost, says Guiney.
Preliminary figures for last week, he says, show footfall was up 8pc year-on-year in the capital. The previous week it was 7.5pc.
"They're fairly decent numbers. It brings us back to about 2010 levels," he says.
"Restaurants and cafes are doing particularly well. Independent stores that have a unique offering are doing OK. Larger stores are probably the ones that face the most competition from out of town."
But there's still robust demand for prime retail space in the city. Estate agents Savills recently reported that it expects retail rents to rise by about 7pc over the next two years.
Across the road from the trendy Tram Cafe where Guiney is sipping a coffee, Philip Green's Topshop - part of his Arcadia group - is planning a flagship store in the Jervis Street centre that will replace five existing outlets Arcadia has there.
Selfridges is meanwhile investing in Arnotts, having bought it last year, and revitalising its concessions.
The department store made a €1.1m operating profit in the 12 months to the end of last January, compared to a small loss in the previous financial year. Revenue was about 10pc higher at €72m.
But with Clerys now closed, the city centre lost an iconic retailer. It was one whose name resonated with many, but their wallets didn't follow their hearts.
It closed last year in controversial circumstances.
An Irish unit of US investment fund Quadrant backed a €29m acquisition of the department store by Deirdre Foley's D2 Private and Cheyne Capital Management.
The deal resulted in mass layoffs of hundreds of long-serving staff - including some of Guiney's relations.
He admits that it's sad that the store is gone (although the new owners have just got planning permission for a mixed-use development incorporating the store that will include a boutique hotel).
"Emotionally I had a connection with it (his family even got a 10pc discount when he was young).
"But it's a heart and head issue. We are where we are now. I'm excited by the new plans. What is proposed will work for the area," he says.
But it was, to put it politely, insensitive that Dublin Town is now operating the store as a free bag drop centre for shoppers over Christmas, given the lingering distaste over the manner in which Deirdre Foley and her co-investor took control of Clerys and deliberately structured it so staff only got statutory redundancy.
"I can understand the upset among the workers," he says while remaining unapologetic. "We're providing a free service for the public. We were happy to have a central location."
It's also located in the core northside shopping district that DublinTown has launched a promotional campaign for, called Dublin One. The area includes about 850 businesses.
Guiney says it would have been impossible five years ago to launch such a branding given the issues that still plagued the area - from drug dealing and drug taking, to general anti-social behaviour.
The "needle count", he says, is down about 30pc since last year, while overall reported crime in the city is down by one-fifth.
"The perceptions of public safety are improving. I don't think this area could have been marketed five years ago the same way that it is now," he says, insisting that there's no drug dealing on O'Connell Street any more, for instance.
The recently-opened Tram Cafe - located on Wolfe Tone Square - is an example of using a space that has previously attracted anti-social behaviour, to provide an attraction that helps to displace that activity, says Guiney.
But some ugly edginess remains in the city centre. My short Luas trip to meet Guiney is peppered with conversations between people about selling drugs and run-ins with the gardai. It makes for, at best, an uncomfortable atmosphere for the families that Guiney is desperate to attract and for whom loading up the car and heading to the nearest out-of-town shopping mall can be an easier sell.
Meanwhile, Guiney and DublinTown face their own challenges.
There's a minority but vocal group of retailers that don't want to have to pay the compulsory levy to be forced to be members of DublinTown.
Businesses in the DublinTown catchment area - there are more than 2,500 of them - pay a fee of about 4pc of the rateable valuation of their property fees to DublinTown. Last year, the organisation had €3.1m at its disposal, including €2.7m generated from the levy.
It incurs costs for everything from cleaning graffiti, to removing drug paraphernalia, providing street ambassadors and promoting festivals and events. It has spent about €500,000 this year on Christmas lights - its single biggest expense by far.
Every five years, the members get to vote on whether or not they want the organisation to continue. The next vote is in 2017. At the last vote, a third of those businesses that cast their ballots were opposed to the initiative continuing.
But Guiney maintains that the venture works for businesses, and is more confident about next year's vote than he would have been about the previous one.
"I'd be far more confident than I was five years ago," he says. "We've a better understanding of what we're about. I think there will be a 'Vote No' campaign."
He maintains that relative to other charges businesses pay for, the levy for DublinTown isn't huge. But some businesses are certain to view it as just another cost on top of many others.
"Look outside of our area and you see a big difference - even in graffiti, for example. Some people say the levy should be voluntary, but that's not fair either," he says.
"In terms of the feedback we get, that it's considerably more positive than it would have been five years ago. I'm confident we'll win."