Tuesday 18 December 2018

Liam Collins: Clerys survived the Rising and Great Depression of 1940, but it failed to move with time

Denis Guiney snatched it from the jaws of death but his ethos of giving shoppers a bargain died when he did, writes Liam Collins

SHOPPING MECCA: Clerys pictured in 1924, two years after it reopened after the Rising
SHOPPING MECCA: Clerys pictured in 1924, two years after it reopened after the Rising
SHOPPING MECCA: The original Clerys drawings of 1898
SHOPPING MECCA: Denis Guiney who bought the Clerys store for £230,000
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Although it was incorporated in 1898 as 'Clery & Company Ltd - General drapers, house furnishers and booksellers', the modern history of the iconic O'Connell Street department store can be traced to the dying months of 1940, when the lights were going out all over Europe.

The wealthy managing director and main shareholder of what was even then a venerable old Dublin department store, Sir Christopher William Nixon of Roebuck House, Milltown, the son of a prominent Dublin doctor, was in serious financial trouble. In 1938, with war looming and wages rising, he had borrowed the princely sum of £200,000 from the Equity Law Assurance Company of London, and now could no longer make repayments on the loan.

In October 1940, the company went into voluntary liquidation with Eustace Shott of Craig Gardiner & Co appointed as Receiver.

It was a situation that appears to mirror what has been going on with the company in the last 10 days.

His preferred bidder, the Cork 'merchant prince' William Dwyer, couldn't come up with the money and on November 10, Shott approached Denis Guiney, who had taken a sleepy drapery in Talbot Street and, in a few years, turned it into a business with a turnover of over £1m.

When the parties met two days later, Guiney offered €222,000 for the lot - the building had already been valued at £98,000. From Brosna in Co Kerry, Guiney had worked in retail all his life and could see the massive potential that could be unlocked in Clerys.

His only proviso regarding the deal was that it had to be completed immediately. The Receiver persuaded him to throw another £7,500 into the pot and he walked away as owner of the company.

Sir Christopher Nixon was outraged at the price and he and the board of the company went to the High Court to try to stop the sale.

In a celebrated judgment finding in favour of the Receiver's decision to sell to Guiney, Mr Justice George Gavan Duffy declared that "Mr Guiney's methods were unorthodox and direct - he consulted no valuer or brought in no accountants, yet he knew the causes of its (Clerys') distress and believed he could cure them. This self confidence and the absence of express advice might seem reprehensible to the more cautious operators who follow the beaten track, but he was risking his own money and not the money of his critics."

Clerys reopened on November 29, 1940 and Guiney was immediately on the road to success, clearing £54,000 worth of stock in the first week. According to his biographer, Peter Costello, Denis Guiney "rose from working in small country shops" to running the biggest business in Dublin. He transformed it "to serve the ever-changing needs of the population of a new kind of Ireland... Many talked about the 'New Ireland', Denis Guiney helped create it."

His company 'Clery & Co (1941) Ltd, wholesale & retail drapers' had a rateable valuation of £4,750 by 1947, making it by far the most valuable building in the country for many years.

Guiney was a marketing genius before the term was invented. He refunded the rail fares of customers who spent more than £5, he ran excursion trains from all over Ireland and he targeted his advertising at the big farmers and the new professional classes from outside the capital.

He ran tea dances in the department store to entice the middle classes who descended on the new suburbs to the north and south of Dublin after the war.

While Arnotts of Henry Street had always been a Dublin store, and mentioned by Sean O'Casey in The Plough and the Stars, Clerys was where the country folk shopped. They were loyal, thrifty and Guiney believed in giving everyone a bargain.

He was probably the most innovative retailer in the country until the arrival of Ben 'Better Value Beats Them All' Dunne Snr.

When Guiney died in 1967, he was succeeded by his wife, Mary, who lived in a mansion called Auburn on the Howth Road in Dublin and lived to the age of 103. Months before she died, she presented a celebrated cartoon by Warner of the various legal eagles involved in her husband's acquisition of Clerys back in 1940 to a retiring member of the judiciary.

But possibly she stayed too long. Clerys, which survived the 1916 Rising and the Receivership of 1940, was now facing a bigger calamity than both of these tumultuous events - the changing tastes of the Irish people.

During Mrs Guiney's later years, it fell to Arthur Walls, a well-known Dublin accountant whose wife, Pearl, was a niece of the Guineys, to run the store. The shareholders were a diverse group of relatives who mostly acquired their shareholdings through inheritance and were neither directly involved in the business or had enough capital to survive mounting losses.

Although it turned over €70m in 2009, the directors' report of that year, signed by Denis Ryan and PJ Timmons, not only graphically told the story of Clerys' shocking fall from grace, but perfectly captured Ireland on the cusp of financial collapse.

"Ireland has suffered a stunning reversal of fortune in the past year as the domestic property crash and the global credit crunch plunged the economy into a severe recession," it declared. What more needed to be said?

With the shareholders unable to bear the losses, the company was, after more than 70 years in business, sold to the US private equity firm Gordon Brothers, who paid €15m and absorbed a €26m debt with Bank of Ireland.

But they too failed to stem the tide of public apathy towards what had once been Ireland's most famous department store and, in many ways, a national landmark for country and city folk who met 'under Clerys clock' (or UCC) as the saying went.

When Michael J Clery took over the Dublin Drapery Warehouse in Sackville Street from Messrs McSweeney & Delaney in 1893, he didn't immediately change its name. But five years later, when he incorporated the business, he could hardly have foreseen that his name would grace the most impressive storefront in Ireland for well over a century.

But it did, even if it had to move out of O'Connell Street for six years after all but the facade of the building was reduced to rubble by the gunboat Helga, which bombarded the street from the River Liffey in 1916.

In various guises the business went on to survive the economic collapse of 1940, and the catastrophic floods in 2013 that closed it for six months. Last week, in what appears to be the final chapter in Clerys' long and colourful history, the company once more went into Receivership and overnight was acquired by a company called Natrium, a joint venture between Dublin-based D2 Private and Cheyne Capital Management in the UK, with funding from US-based Quadrant REA.

Somebody believes it has a future, but what will be done with this dinosaur of the golden era of city centre shopping remains to be seen. But Clerys as we know it has gone forever.

Sunday Independent

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