Sunday 18 March 2018

Feargal Quinn: the simple millionaire shopkeeper

Memoir: Quinnessential Feargal: A Memoir, Feargal Quinn, O'Brien, hdbk, 288 pages, €24.99

Family business: Feargal Quinn with his son Eamonn (left).
Family business: Feargal Quinn with his son Eamonn (left).
Quinnessential Feargal: A Memoir by Feargal Quinn

Hilary A White

Supermarket pioneer looks back on life with great pride without any mudslinging.

There is a story Feargal Quinn relates in this memoir from when he was growing up in North County Dublin. Europe was at war and the young lad decided that the field behind the new family home in Clontarf could be put to good use in the name of protecting neutral Ireland from stray German bombing. He divided the rectangular plot of buttercups and daisies into three parts. He'd pick all the buttercups from the middle third, leaving it white. All the daisies would go from the section beside it, leaving it yellow with buttercups. The final portion would have all its flowers removed to make it green, leaving a huge tricolour visible from the sky to identify the nation to passing planes.

Naturally, the plan was never finished but the intent is remarkable. After all, he was only six years old at the time.

Fly forward through decades of momentous commercial success, five honorary doctorates, a papal knighthood and a noteworthy move into Seanad politics and Quinn finds himself quoting Masatoshi Ito's line about "whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you're right". Quinn clearly understood this long before he had come to know of the Japanese tycoon.

The 79-year-old looks back on his life with great pride in this, his third published title (after 1990's Crowning the Customer and Mind Your Own Business in 2013). A family man through and through, he spends affectionate chapters introducing his kinspeople. His father, Eamonn, was the original captain of industry, a Newry grocer who after planting the first seeds of supermarket culture in the Republic with his Payantake stores and went on to open the successful Skerries holiday resort, Red Island. That his father charmingly met his mother Maureen at a post office in Dún Laoghaire influenced Quinn Jr's decision to take on the chair of An Bord Poist many years later. Other notable members of the Quinn dynasty of overachievers includes his cousins, former minister Ruairi and Irish banking giant Lochlann, but neither are given much in the way of paragraph inches here.

Long before An Post or the Seanad, Quinn was a simple millionaire supermarket mogul. Time working in France as a journeyman in his late teens introduced him to a new retail concept sweeping Europe - self-service. He returned to Ireland and at age 23 founded what would become the Superquinn chain.

After the success of the flagship store in Dundalk, new sites further south in Leinster began to be acquired with the help of gushing banks. Never a week passed without Quinn's near-pathological nose for publicity and a nifty deal pushing the company into the ground-level conversation of the consumer. Very little was spent on traditional advertising in favour of what reads like shameless stunt-pulling - elephants, open-air rivalries with competitors, you name it - that were designed solely to keep the word-of-mouth fires smouldering.

This along with a stern adherence to smiley, US-style service and innovations such as loyalty cards (a European first for the firm in 1993, according to Quinn) clearly paid off - the opening chapter is a log of the sale of Superquinn in 2005 and the mixed emotions of parting with it after 50 years. It was reported to have been purchased for €400m by a consortium who clearly recognised the brand name's time-forged muscle.

The publicity swoops and the chatty shop-floor manner with customers are evidence of Quinn "The Showman". He admits to this and puts it down to his time working for his father in Skerries as a waiter or bingo caller. The supermarket landscape - with Quinnsworth and Dunnes Stores sharing the spoils - was a cut-and-thrust world (especially during its "Price Wars" zenith during the late eighties) with each scrambling to get one over on the other. It was all part of the territory, Quinn happily shrugs with hindsight, even if it occasionally makes for an exhausting litany of wealthy grown men playing tit-for-tat. There is no mudslinging against his old rivals, however. Quinn comes across as a sportsmanlike competitor at all times and built bridges in the name of lobbying where mooted government policy looked to affect business.

He talks about inviting Bernard Dunne and Quinnsworth boss Don Tidey to his Howth abode for a chat and a swim on consecutive days to try and corral support, but neglects to say whether it was the same pair of togs that he lent both men. His family's own brush with a foiled ransom kidnapping in the early eighties also meant Quinn had great empathy for Dunne and Tidey, who did not manage to evade the threat.

Liberal exclamation marks fly at you from the page as Quinn details all kinds of yarnish carry-on from the good old days of Irish commerce or from his many salutary lessons learned about how to do good business (customer satisfaction over profit margin is a mantra that is played on loop throughout the Superquinn years and his time overseeing An Post). He brought this attitude to politics and laments the lack of business know-how in the solicitor-and-teacher dominated Dáil. He argues with equal robustness in favour of his beloved Seanad which he feels is a key component of the Irish political machine, if in need of a tweak here and there.

A life as long and varied as Quinn's ends up reading like a potted history, not just of Ireland's entry into the capitalist realm but also key events that would shape the nation to greater or lesser degrees. The Troubles. Veronica Guerin. The Stardust disaster. Reigning over 24 Superquinn outlets, with 3,500 jobs created and a say in Irish public life meant Quinn had degrees of separation with all. Quinn's medicine-show days reveal great drive and gumption, for sure, but it is in this memoir's asides, where he quietly, almost in passing, pinpoints what really matters in life that his essence truly shows.

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