Tuesday 23 January 2018

Avoca, the stellar Irish success story, has a suitor

Generations of the one family have nurtured the iconic Irish brand to prosperity, but the end of the Pratt era may be nigh, says Donal Lynch

WE ARE FAMILY: Amanda, Simon and Ivan Pratt in the Avoca store in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow. Photo: Garry O’Neill
WE ARE FAMILY: Amanda, Simon and Ivan Pratt in the Avoca store in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow. Photo: Garry O’Neill
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

To wander around Avoca's Suffolk Street flagship on a weekday afternoon is to feel the strengthening pulse of middle-class recovery. To the untrained male eye, there's nothing here that anyone might be in dire need of, but what do I know: a queue of women has already formed at one of the tills and they can't get the expensive haberdashery out of the place fast enough.

Chunky knitwear in bright colours sits alongside plants, copper pans and cookbooks, all displayed under the latest halogen lighting. Upstairs, the cafe offers hearty fare at modest prices. And throughout the place there wafts the sweet aroma of orchids, possibly from the rooftop terrace.

It's a formula that has spelled huge success for one of Ireland's best known brands. It's been a bumper year for Avoca. Operating profits at the company will surge by 50pc to over €3.3m and it seems positioned to better even that figure next year. The business has already seen the benefits from its continued expansion, as Avoca Handweavers and subsidiaries saw sales jump 12pc to €55.6m and staff numbers increased to 665. Avoca was voted Ireland's Store of the Year two years ago, as well as being selected by international trade magazine Retail Week as one of the 100 most inspirational stores in the world.

There have been some missteps along the way: in 2005, the Pratt family had borrowed €17m to develop their Rathcoole premises, the thinking being that if it didn't work, they'd be able to sell the property on at a profit. Then the crash came and the cafes turned out to be a saving grace for the stores ("People while away recessions in cafes," AA Gill once wrote). For the last few years, the only really vexing question about Avoca was how exactly would they continue their momentum. Over a decade ago, Simon Pratt, the company's managing director, pondered a fork in the road: "Should we continue to grow organically, bolting on a new store each year," he wondered aloud. "Or should we sell a chunk of the company in return for venture capital and really go for it - aim for 25 shops in three years across the UK or US?"

As it turned out, the company opted for organic expansion, continuing to keep it a family-run business. But recently the human story appears to have overtaken the business one and it could mean a radical change in direction. Pratt has said that the business will not be passed on to the newest generation of the family. "It would be almost inevitable that there would be conflict, and the idea that my kids could end up not speaking to my sister's kids is just appalling," he was quoted as saying in an interview last year, adding that family businesses are "the best and worst in the world. You have awful rows, but they're sorted out very quickly." Pratt's sister Amanda has already left Avoca Handweavers amicably to advise on a revamp of Bewley's Grafton Street outlet, but kept her stake in the family-run business. "I just want to do something different with the rest of my life," she said at the time.

In the meantime, Avoca has entered into talks with a number of possible suitors, with the US-owned food service giant, Aramark, thought to be prominent among the front runners. "The situation is that we have had a lot of interest from outside parties. We are having conversations with a lot of people," Pratt said last week, adding that if a deal was to take place it will be a couple of months away.

If one is reached, it will mark the end of an era. Avoca has run through the lives of the Pratt family for a generation. It was started in the Wicklow village of the same name and is one of Ireland's oldest working woollen mills. Three sisters, the Wynnes, inherited the mill in the 1920s and introduced colour to the fabrics. Avoca Handweavers' tweed was produced and exported, including for use by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Famously, the material they produced was also used for a waistcoat for King George VI and baby blankets for the children of Queen Elizabeth II. The reputation did not help the mills in the early years, however. In 1974, solicitor Donald Pratt was employed to sell the mill when it faced closure. Instead, he decided to buy it himself and began running the place with his wife Hilary (who apparently told him that if he did buy it, she would never speak to him again). They produced a range of bedspreads, throws and women's classic clothing in the best fabrics. Then, in 1989, the younger generation took over. Amanda, Simon, Ivan, Stephen and Vanessa wanted to create an Irish craft brand that left behind what Simon once called the "stage-Irish element". They did so in some style.

Now the question is whether the investors who are expressing an interest in Avoca can maintain the same homely touch that made the business a success in the first place? And if the Pratts do finally sell up, what will be the next chapter for this most business savvy of Irish families?

Sunday Independent

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