Sunday 18 August 2019

The lessons from Ryan's consistent Penneys culture

Arthur Ryan led Penneys from one store to an international phenomenon. His legacy holds key lessons

Arthur Ryan
Arthur Ryan

Alan O'Neill

I was in a queue at a boarding gate recently and overheard two Irish girls chatting. Now, you know you're in Ireland when you hear one person saying 'your bag is gorgeous', and when the other responds with just one word: 'Penneys!'

As I giggled and boarded my flight to Madrid, I mused on whether that element of our Irish culture would also translate to Spain and the 10 other countries that Penneys/Primark is trading in.

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I never cease to be amazed at the dramatic expansion of the Primark brand and how the simplicity of its model has taken it from one store in Mary Street in Dublin, to 372 stores across Europe and North America.

I feel a great sense of pride when I see the familiar branding and shop-fit in so many cities, each one thronged with local frenzied customers buying as if the stores were closing down.

And it's equally amazing to see the variety of customers, from the young fashionistas to the wealthy Middle Eastern families, with large paper Primark bags stuffed with multiple purchases.

There are so many lessons to be taken from its business model that I'm sure there will be theses and books written on the company in time.

But with the recent passing of its great visionary leader, Arthur Ryan, I wanted to acknowledge his legacy with some tips from his unique style of leadership.

I was privileged to support Primark recently on a project, but I also met this month with Lorraine Culligan, the group director of people and culture, to get some more anecdotes and insights.

Tips from the Arthur Ryan School of Practical Leadership

1. Have a Vision and Stick to it

From the beginning, Penneys was all about high volumes at value-for-money prices. That focus eventually became its formal vision statement, which is to "bring amazing, affordable fashion to all". Despite the growth in global wealth, that has been the mantra for 50 years.

Ryan would say "stick to the knitting", believing that Primark should never be beaten on price, that leadership is still its unique selling point. He had an obsession with satisfying the customer. He knew they loved a good bargain and championed value-fashion long before anyone else.

2. Be a Custodian for your Culture

Ryan initiated a culture that was consistent throughout the business, regardless of store location, structure or people. The organisation's values are: inclusive, ambitious, current and engaging. This can be seen in how the business zealously guards its DNA with these attributes. As the firm has now reached such international scale, the current leaders will continue to reinforce this culture, so that new colleagues will know exactly how they should behave.

3. Be a Role model

Ryan was a hands-on retailer. He was known to relentlessly visit the stores and be totally focused on product, people and the customer. "Before innovation became a buzz-word, Ryan was continuously trying new things," said Culligan. By closely observing all that was going on around him, he ensured Penneys/Primark had relevance, both as a great retail leader and an unashamed fast follower of fashion trends.

4. Keep it Simple

With very close attention to detail, he inspired his teams to get down to the basics of retail. Rather than get absorbed in corporate complexity, he would always challenge his people to keep it simple. Now, that might seem at odds with what appears to be a gigantic corporate organisation with extensive reach and 75,000 employees. But in conversation with Culligan about the HR initiatives under way, in particular the leadership programme, I can see it's true. It shows growth can be achieved from humble beginnings by doing the right thing each day.

5. Show Respect to Earn Respect

Ryan was tremendously caring and compassionate towards all colleagues in the company. The unfounded reputation for being a recluse couldn't be further from the truth. He chatted comfortably in his engaging manner with people in the stores and head-office departments.

"We always knew when he was out and about," said Culligan. "We'd get out-of-the-blue enquiries from colleagues about the pension scheme, because Ryan would always ask colleagues about their families and if they were in the pension scheme," she added. This is just an example of how he showed that he cared about people. By showing respect every day, he garnered amazing respect and loyalty in return.

Here is a sample message posted on the internal blog by a Primark employee who now works in one of its US stores: "As a 16-year-old retail assistant on my second day of work in Navan, Ryan approached me and asked if he could show me a better and faster way of folding jog legs.

"I was amazed that the founder of the company was standing helping me fold; he asked about my life and what I saw myself doing in the future. This was Ryan and this is the DNA he has embedded in the company."

The Last Word

Penneys/Primark is the jewel in the crown of its owner, publicly-listed Associated British Foods, which is majority-owned by UK-based Wittington Investments. In turn, Wittington is majority owned by Garfield Weston Foundation.

The other Canada-based Wittington Investments company is owned by the wider Weston family and owns the Selfridges Group. So you can see how retailing plays a pivotal role.

However, despite the ownership structure, the Penneys/Primark business will forever be known as an Irish company.

The Irish DNA runs through the veins of the business. That's due to the indelible impact of Arthur Ryan and the other original 'gang of four' directors, Breege O'Donoghue, Paddy Prior and Seamus Halford.

Led today by Paul Marchant, I'm sure their legacy will be continued for generations to come. Ar dheis De go raibh a h-anam.

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to

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