Wednesday 17 July 2019

The doyenne of Dunnes Stores has one mission - and that's to beat them all

Cartoon - Margaret Heffernan
Cartoon - Margaret Heffernan
While pondering upon Thursday’s strike by 6,000 Dunnes Stores workers, Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl suggested that if the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach were to “lift the phone to Margaret Heffernan, you might do more than any legislation”

Lise Hand

While pondering upon Thursday's strike by 6,000 Dunnes Stores workers, Fianna Fáil's Seán Ó Fearghaíl suggested that if the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach were to "lift the phone to Margaret Heffernan, you might do more than any legislation".

But given the adamantine attitude of the doyenne of Dunnes Stores to any attempted outside interference in the running of the family firm, in reality Enda Kenny or Joan Burton might do little more than get themselves sent away with a flea in their respective ears - assuming that either of them managed to get through to her.

Dunnes Stores may sell all sorts of curtains in their Home departments, but the one which surrounds the business workings and the personal life of Matriarch Margaret is forged of pure iron.

The latest one-day strike was typical of the chief executive's trademark modus operandi - the voices of workers on the pickets and their union representatives were all over the media this week, but there wasn't a peep from anyone in the company's management on the dispute. However, a statement was issued to staff last month defending the company's constitutional right not to deal with trade unions and warning that industrial action could lead to redundancies. The missive was simply signed 'Dunnes Stores'. But then Margaret Heffernan and Dunnes Stores are inextricably linked. Since joining the family business when she left school at the age of 14, after her father Ben Snr handed her a sweeping brush in the Patrick Street branch in Cork, she has tenaciously fought a never-ending succession of battles - legal, financial and familial - in her drive to repel anything regarded by her as a threat to the company.

Yet despite her extraordinary longevity at the top table of such a high-flying company, Heffernan herself has managed to remain largely below the public radar. Not a lot is known about her personal life, and what is known, points to a character full of contradictions. She is known to be both a tireless workaholic and also devoted to her family - her husband, medical consultant Andrew Heffernan, and four children. The septuagenarian is teetotal and, despite her immense wealth (recently estimated in the Sunday Independent Rich List at €270m) maintains a low-key lifestyle. She has spent a considerable amount on extensive refurbishment of the stores over the years, but when she bought Stackallen House in Co Meath and its 365-acre stud farm in 1993 for IR£1.75m, she instantly rued her decision. She promptly sold it on to Glen Dimplex boss Martin Naughton, declaring she hadn't done her sums properly, and that the property's running costs were too expensive for her. However, she is also known to be a quiet but generous patron of several charities, founding the People in Need trust in the 1980s, and also has made large donations to medical research.

As a private company Dunnes Stores is able to run its affairs with a high degree of secrecy, but every few years the iron curtain is dramatically torn aside - and never more spectacularly than during the tumultuous boardroom bust-up with the most colourful member of what was dubbed the 'Dunnasty'. All hell broke loose in February 1992 when her brother Ben Jnr hit the headlines after a misadventure in a Florida hotel involving cocaine and a call-girl. Back home, his incandescent big sister reportedly declared to solicitor Noel Smyth: "I'm sorry the little bastard didn't go to jail." The feud escalated rapidly, fuelled by a clash of personalities. Margaret wanted to take the chain upmarket - on one occasion when Ben flew to Singapore and purchased IR£20m worth of cheap nylon shirts without informing her, she sent him straight back to cancel the order. The heave against Ben headed for the High Court, and although it was settled 48 hours before the Dunnes' dirty laundry got a public airing - by then Margaret Heffernan had discovered several six-figure payments her sibling had made to Charles Haughey. She had even driven out to Haughey's palatial house, Abbeville to quiz the former Taoiseach. She subsequently lodged affidavits on the transactions, despite Haughey urging her to pull back - fateful documents which led to a spate of tribunals.

But Charles Haughey and Ben Dunne haven't been the only ones to run up against the teak-tough company boss. The company has never shirked from a scrap, from the infamous anti-apartheid strike of the mid-80s which lasted almost three years, to the recent dispute. Another legal action in 2011 suggested that the Iron Lady hasn't mellowed with age. The company's then-head of finance, Larry Howard took a High Court case seeking protection against being dismissed from his job. In his affidavit, he claimed that, at one stormy meeting, Heffernan told him she either wanted "f***ing men or mice". The case was also settled. Although there are indications that she is easing back somewhat - her daughter Anne Heffernan has replaced her recently on the board of a key company, joining her niece Sarah McMahon and Dunnes' biggest shareholder, her brother, Frank Dunne - her unbending attitude hasn't softened a whit. "She's not so much anti-union, as anti-opposition," reckoned Gerry Light, assistant general secretary of Mandate, the union which represents around two-thirds of Dunnes' 10,000 workers nationwide. "The fact that Dunnes has been named as a defendant in 448 cases in the High Court in the last five years speaks for itself. It's the very essence of the woman that she goes to the wire with everything. But nobody really knows the enigma of Margaret Heffernan," he added.

'Dunnes Stores beats them all' isn't just a company logo, it's the family motto.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss