Go into any Primark store — or Penneys, as it is called in Ireland — and you will find rail upon rail of young, colourful and inordinately cheap clothes. The retailer’s current tagline is: “Amazing fashion, amazing prices”. A sweatshirt costs £10; shorts are sold for £2.50. Billboards ask customers to “share your look” on Primania.com.
This is the vision of one determined, meticulous and slightly mischievous retailer, Arthur Ryan, who has died aged 83 after a short illness.
Ryan was appointed by Garfield Weston, founder of the food and retail conglomerate Associated British Foods, in 1969. The company had just bought a department store in north Dublin. “It was off pitch but a big lump of land, like something out of [the British television sitcom] Are You Being Served,” remembers Garfield’s grandson George Weston, now chief executive of ABF.
Ryan decided to name the store Penneys — echoing the US retail giant, JC Penney. “I suspect Arthur hoped people would see it opening in north Dublin and think it was JC Penney,” says Mr Weston. The self-service style of the shop when it opened was new to Ireland, as were the low prices.
“People were amazed when they came in,” says Breege O’Donoghue, who joined Penneys to run its human resources department in 1979 and worked with Ryan for 37 years. “He wanted to give people what they wanted. Price was crucial but without compromising on quality,” she adds.
Primark has been plagued by claims its products are made by sweatshop labour, an accusation the company denies. The BBC apologised to the retailer in 2011 after a Panorama documentary on the subject was shown to contain false footage.
Mr Weston contends the low prices were achieved thanks to Ryan’s parsimonious instincts. “His attitude to overhead expenditure was legendary. He absolutely was the man who went around turning the lights off,” he says.
Ryan also had an unfailing work ethic. At 2am, on the night before the opening of the flagship London store in Oxford Street in 2007, he was in the back of the shop making sure an emergency generator was on hand. When he holidayed, he liked to visit Spain, where he could pay visits to other Primark stores.
Expanding the chain into the UK in the 1970s was seen as a big risk for a retailer that then ran just 11 stores in the Republic of Ireland and Derry but Ryan was attracted by a bigger market. In 1973, he launched the first store in Derby. Within a week, JC Penney — which had trademarked its name in the UK — sent a letter to say that Penneys could not use its name.
Ryan struck a deal allowing Penneys to keep its trading name in Ireland as long as it adopted another name abroad. In an interview with Drapers magazine in January last year, Ryan said that coming up with the Primark name took “about 33 minutes”. “We were under pressure from the courts to strip the shops, strip the goods and get tickets to cover the labels,” he explained.
Primark has gone on to become an international brand with more than 370 stores in 12 countries including the US, where it launched in Boston in 2015. At that opening, Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston, asked Ryan if he ever thought he’d make it to the States. Ryan replied: “Mayor, I didn’t think we’d get to Cork.”
Born in Dublin in 1935, Arthur Ryan started his career as a tie buyer for the now defunct department store Swan & Edgar in London. He later moved back to Dublin where he worked for Dunnes, a retailer known for aping the designs at Marks and Spencer. He had an innate sensitivity to competition. Ms O’Donoghue remembers him scanning customers as they came in to Penneys at lunchtime to work out from their bags where else they shopped.
Soon after Primark launched in Spain, a competitor there went into liquidation. Ryan could be heard down the phone that day singing “Olé, olé, olé!”.
His colleagues remember him as a caring man who sent impromptu gifts or books, and was deeply affected by the sudden death of his son and grandson in a fishing accident off the Cork coast in 2015. He was also a passionate Irish nationalist. He rarely gave interviews and was wary of the IRA after the security forces foiled an attempt in 1983 to kidnap his boss, Galen Weston. Don Tidey, his counterpart at ABF’s Irish food retail arm, Quinnsworth, was kidnapped the same year. Tidey, who Ryan liked to call “the Bishop”, was held underground for 22 days.
When not working, he drank in favoured Dublin pubs or kept up with the football. He had a longstanding friendship with the then player-manager of Millwall, Mick McCarthy, who opened a number of Primark stores.