Style Fashion

Tuesday 16 July 2019

John Mulligan: 'Penneys' quiet genius built a worldwide retail powerhouse'

King of fashion: Mr Ryan with his wife, the singer and entertainer Alma Carroll
King of fashion: Mr Ryan with his wife, the singer and entertainer Alma Carroll
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

It's no exaggeration to say Arthur Ryan helped to transform the fashion business.

From humble beginnings on Dublin's Mary Street, Penneys, or Primark as it's known outside Ireland, has gone on to become a powerhouse of the trade across Europe. It's now trying to repeat that success in the US.

As other high street clothing chains falter in the face of the onslaught from the internet, Primark has continued to defy the odds, snatching market share from rivals caught in the headlights.

With more than 370 stores across Europe and the US, it just recently celebrated its 50th birthday.

Part of the Associated British Foods (ABF) group, Primark is also the company's biggest profit centre.

In its last financial year, the chain accounted for £7.4bn (€8.2bn) of ABF's £15.6bn (€17.4bn) in turnover, and £843m (€940.6m) of its £1.4bn (€1.5bn) profit.

Even Arthur Ryan might never have imagined how big the chain would become. There has been talk for years debating if 'Peak Primark' has been reached. It seems it's nowhere close.

"I only want to make money," the retail legend once explained in a corporate video. "That's my starting point."

His death at the age of 83 after a short illness will be keenly felt in the business, where he was chairman, a role he took on after he retired as chief executive in 2009.

The son of a Cork insurance clerk, the low-key Mr Ryan had been involved in the retail trade since a young age.

Educated at the Christian Brothers' school on Dublin's Synge Street, he moved to London soon after. There, he worked as a tie buyer at department store Swan & Edgar on Piccadilly Circus, as well as for fashion wholesaler Carr & McDonald.

Having cut his teeth in the retail business in the UK, Mr Ryan returned to Dublin, working as a buyer for Dunnes Stores in Cornelscourt, on Dublin's southside.

But then he made the decision to accept an offer from Garfield and Galen Weston to transform the Todd Burns & Co department store on Mary's Street.

That decision was set to change not only Arthur Ryan's career and fortunes, but the face of fashion retailing.

Mr Ryan was headhunted along with Paddy Prior and Seamus Halford and they were given £50,000 with a mandate to bring the department store back to life.

In 1969, the first Penneys store opened there, and to this day the chain's headquarters is still in Dublin.

"Arthur Ryan will be remembered as one of the great giants of retailing," said ABF chief executive George Weston yesterday.

"When my grandfather Garfield Weston and uncle Galen Weston recruited Arthur to run Penneys in 1969 with only one store in Dublin, they knew they were hiring an exceptional trader," he added.

"But what three generations of Westons learnt over the following decades was that Arthur was also a great leader and business builder, driven every day by a relentless desire to delight his customers."

Mr Ryan was immersed in the business. The attention to detail, the ability to spot trends and react quickly to challenges helped Primark be a shark in the cut-throat seas of retail.

But he remained private - partly a legacy of the dark days of the Troubles when the IRA targeted wealthy businessmen to kidnap for ransom.

Tragedy struck the family in 2015, when his son drowned off Baltimore as he tried to save his own son and his son's girlfriend. All three perished.

Arthur Ryan's legacy to the retail trade, meanwhile, will reverberate for years to come.

"I just like sliced ham, and bread and butter," he once said in his typically understated way. "That's where I am. No risk."

Irish Independent

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