Friday 20 September 2019

Liam Collins: 'Arthur Ryan: brilliant businessman who brought fashion to the masses'

Family, friends and colleagues paid their last respects to the inspirational business leader Arthur Ryan, writes Liam Collins

The funeral cortege for Penneys/Primark founder Arthur Ryan makes its way past the first Penneys store, in Mary Street, Dublin.
The funeral cortege for Penneys/Primark founder Arthur Ryan makes its way past the first Penneys store, in Mary Street, Dublin.
A passer-by reads a tribute in the shop window yesterday. Photo: PA
Surrounded by friends and family, Alma Ryan at the funeral Mass of her husband Arthur Ryan at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, yesterday
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

In his lifetime, he went from a shop boy to a 'merchant prince' and at his funeral yesterday, Arthur Ryan was remembered as a self-effacing businessman who turned an old-style drapery shop in Mary Street, Dublin, into the headquarters of the internationally known brand, Penneys/Primark.

His wife of 35 years, the one-time Eurovision singer Alma Carroll, and children from his two marriages led mourners at Mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, after the cortege called at the company headquarters, where staff formed a guard of honour in tribute to the 83-year-old retail tycoon.

"He was a brilliant, complicated, dedicated, powerful man who built one of the best retail empires in the world and in the process made fashionable clothing accessible to millions," said George Weston, chief executive of Associated British Foods. Arthur Ryan's first partner in the business, Galen Weston, and his wife Hilary, and Guy Weston were also in attendance.

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

"Arthur was fascinating and wonderful because he just didn't fit the stereotypes," said George Weston.

"He was shy but could dominate the room; he was ruthless and caring; parsimonious and generous. He didn't suffer fools but he helped those in need; he was master of the detail, but also of the next 10 years. He was a storyteller who knew the detail. He was a huge presence who gave talented people space in which to operate. He was demanding of people but loyal to them and they to him. He was a hard man but a big softie."

He concluded by saying: "Arthur Ryan loved his country and I hope his country realises how much he did for it... Arthur, we supported you because you were the greatest business leader we ever knew."

Among the attendance at the funeral, celebrated by Fr Brian D'Arcy and Fr Lorcan O'Brien, parish priest of Donnybrook, were Breege O'Donoghue; Paul Kelly; Adele King (Twink), whose daughter, Chloe Agnew, sang; former Taoiseach John Bruton and his wife Finola; Paddy Cole, businessmen Paschal Taggart, Peter Gleeson, and Des McEvaddy; Don Tidey, the IRA kidnap victim; and former restaurateur John Howard.

"I was very fond of him," said socialite Gayle Killilea, recalling that although he was shy and retiring, Ryan publicly came out in support of her husband Sean Dunne's grandiose plans for the Berkeley Court/ Jury's Hotel site in Ballsbridge.

George Weston also recalled that Arthur Ryan was a strong Irish nationalist and once when he asked why a new store was being opened in Athlone rather than some more profitable location in England, Ryan replied: "Because it was the last place Cromwell stopped killing the Irish."

His cousin, the Cork writer Alice Taylor, said Arthur Ryan loved his family tree and his rural roots.

The current chief executive of Penneys/Primark, Paul Marchant, said: "Every conversation was a tutorial or a lesson in retail or in life.

"He lived for the business 24 hours a day. This meant him phoning people any time of day or night, and if you didn't answer, he would keep calling and calling until you eventually did. And when you eventually answered you would be greeted by 'I didn't wake you up there, did I?' or 'Ah, there you are, the dead arose and appeared to many'."

Mr Marchant also read a message of condolence from his friend Mick McCarthy, the Irish soccer manager, who was unable to attend the funeral. They met 29 years ago and became firm friends. "He was a constant source of support, knowledge and advice to me and he has always been there for me and my family," said McCarthy.

It is said in the retail trade that when he was recruited by the wealthy Weston family Arthur Ryan was told: "You have £150,000 to spend, but when it's gone, so are we."

He opened the first Penneys in Mary Street in 1969 and now, as Penneys/Primark, the company has 368 stores across the world, contributing almost half the profits of the Canadian conglomerate Associated British Foods (ABF) which last year had a turnover of £15.6bn.

"He had a great gift for picking people and then getting the best out of them," said a friend, referring to his close associate and confidant Paddy Prior; and Seamus Halford, who worked in Penneys from the beginning; and Breege O'Donoghue and Paul Marchant, who made a major contribution to its expansion.

Although he adopted the Ben Dunne Snr mantra of buying big and selling cheap, Ryan added an ingredient that turned Primark into a global business by borrowing bright ideas from the best international designers to make its women's clothing stylish and fashionable.

Still headquartered behind the original shop in Mary Street, it is now in 12 countries with flagship department stores in London, Madrid and New York.

Portrayed as 'reclusive', he simply stayed out of the limelight, so he could lead a normal life. When he walked from his office in Mary Street to the Sackville Lounge for a pint in the evening, passers-by and most of the customers didn't know 'the man in the Mac' was a world-class retailer. A few of the newspaper people who drank there did, but they left him alone at the counter smoking and reading his Evening Herald - or as one of them put it, "watching everything that was going on from behind his paper".

In time he got to like the pub so much that he bought it from Donal and Kevin Hynes and later added the Playwright pub in Blackrock Co Dublin. "He got into the pub business because of insecurity, Penneys was a huge success - but it wasn't his," said one Dublin publican, "but he discovered that no matter how gifted or wealthy you are, running pubs was best left to publicans, and sold out."

Arthur St John Ryan was born on July 19, 1935, the son of a Cork-born insurance salesman. Educated by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street he emigrated to England after leaving school, getting a job as a tie buyer with Swan & Edge and working for the drapery wholesaler Carr & McDonald. He returned to Dublin to work in the newly-opened Dunnes Stores in Cornelscourt.

He was then head-hunted by Canadian businessmen Garfield and Galen Weston, Galen was living in Roundwood House in Co Wicklow with his new bride, the Irish model Hilary Frayne. Weston had acquired an old-style department store in Mary Street, Dublin, called Todd Byrnes, founded in 1894, and was struggling with the business which was "bleeding cash".

Ryan re-launched it as Penneys in 1962 and it was an almost instant success, but it took two decades to become internationally known as Primark. Because of copyright issues with the American retail chain JC Penney, it trades as Primark outside Ireland.

Ryan's retail philosophy was always fairly simple, almost no advertising or marketing and a constant stream of new and inexpensive designer-like gear. The shops never held sales. "Why would you wait until January when you have problems in October?" queried Ryan.

'Look good for less' was his mantra and the company stayed defiantly 'offline'. Ryan also had a sharp eye for detail and was constantly visiting his own stores unannounced and unknown to staff, who didn't know what he looked like. He made it his business to know exactly what was on sale in other department stores.

"He had no qualms about imitating and relentlessly undercutting," said one rival.

With success came money, and Ryan bought himself a handsome mansion, St Jude's in Kerrymount Avenue, Foxrock, Dublin, for his first wife Rose and their children Colin, Arthur, Barry and Alison. After his first marriage ended he met the well-known singer Alma Carroll, who had previously been married to publisher Gerry McGuinness, and represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1977 as part of The Swarbriggs Plus Two. They married in 1984 and have a daughter, Jessica, together. They lived in South Hill in Blackrock before moving to Lansdowne Road in Dublin 4.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that he was a man who keeps to himself," said one businessman who knew Ryan well. He enjoyed dinner parties with friends mostly in his or their homes and had a "droll" sense of humour and could be good company. He was godfather to Naomi, daughter of Adele King (Twink). He avoided the political and social circuits, was anonymous at soccer matches which he enjoyed in the company of his Mick McCarthy and didn't patronise upmarket restaurants. "I just like sliced ham and bread and butter," he once explained.

When he was asked to become a director of Aer Lingus by the then Minister for Transport Albert Reynolds, who knew him through the entertainment connections of his wife Alma, he turned down a seat on the board and the perks and prestige it entailed. He just didn't see the point in being a director of a company he couldn't control.

After controversy erupted following a BBC Panorama programme on links between cheap clothing and child labour, Primark axed three long-standing suppliers in India.

He retired as chief executive in 2009 becoming chairman, a position he held until his death.

His world was plunged into tragedy with the drowning of his youngest son Barry (51), grandson Barry Davis Ryan (20) and Davis Ryan's girlfriend Niamh O'Connor (20) who were swept off the rocks while fishing near Baltimore, Co Cork, in 2015.

Although frail in recent times, he was still a regular caller to the company headquarters in Mary Street and took a keen interest in the business prior to his death on Monday last.

Shauna Mackin, a relative, sang a beautiful version of The Parting Glass at his funeral, and the ceremony ended with Red Hurley singing Danny Boy.

Sunday Independent

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

Don't Miss