Breege O’Donoghue was part of the famous Primark Gang of Four, alongside the late Arthur Ryan. The businesswoman spoke to Alison Cowzer, as part of The Currency’s B2B podcast, about what she believes is the secret formula to running a business. Although she has led an interesting career, which is still going, she clearly has not forgotten her roots, and even turned up for her interview with wearing an emerald green suit from Primark.

In this interview, Breege O’Donoghue talks about:

  • The importance of education for self-development. O’Donoghue believed this so strongly that encouraged further education for Primark’s suppliers
  • Her experience with the Great Southern Hotels Group
  • Involvement with the UCD Smurfit business school
  • The role of ethics and ‘fast-fashion’
  • Going global with Primark
  • The value of giving the customers what they want and keeping employees happy
  • Going from being part of the management team to being a chair
  • How the late Arthur Ryan stole her shoes once
  • O’Donoghue stated “the harder I work the longer I live” when asked what her plans are next.

Alison Cowzer (AC): Hello. You’re very welcome. My guest today is one of the legendary figures in Irish business. She started her career with the Great Southern hotels and then went on to 37 years with Primark. Primark as we know is now a global phenomenon in retailing with over 370 stores worldwide across 11 markets and a turnover of €8 billion. So, you’re very welcome to the programme Breege.

Breege O’Donoghue (BOD): Thank you Alison.

AC: Really good to have you here. I suppose looking through your career, many of us will be familiar with the highlights that we’ve seen over the years. One thing that’s really struck me is this level of burning ambition to be the best. Is that something that was with you always?

BOD: I don’t suppose it was. It was a matter of how things evolved, or how things happened. Growing up in rural Ireland on the borders of Clare and Galway where we went to school through the fields and brought the sods of turf to the two room schools, it was all about work ethic and doing your best. This was very much honed by the family, honed by our wonderful teachers. So, I guess you know it stems from there.

AC: You started your career having been in education – you were very clear on the value of education. I mean, I saw at one point you mentioned that in those days education wasn’t necessarily based on merit but on ability to access education. That’s something that you’ve taken all through your life.

BOD: I think that’s really important in terms of continuous education. It wasn’t really based on merit. I had the ambition to go to university but it wasn’t practical for me at that particular stage economically and even to go to secondary school after 13 years of age I had to leave home and go to the nearest town and live. Then of course, I’m talking about you know the 1950s educational landscape in Ireland when very few went to secondary school.

AC: You would have been unusual really.

BOD:  Quite unusual and indeed in 1950 there were only 9,700 students in Irish universities. But for me, I think education is a continuous process.

AC: Is it true you’ve only just finished exams in the last couple of years?

BOD: Yes, I did the Chartered Director, which I enjoyed very much. While I had a fair amount of experience on boards, I felt well look, let me understand, put the theory behind the practice and learn lots of benefits including great networking, wonderful people I met in the course of that and also you know it was a learning programme and it’s stimulating and exciting. So, I recommend that. To those with whom I’ve worked all over the years, I’ve always recommended or supported continuous education whatever that might be.

AC: Is that something in the businesses that you’ve worked on, that you’ve encouraged people to get involved in?

BOD: Absolutely. So far as I remember, it can be 50 years ago when it wasn’t a practical proposition in the Great Southern Hotels Group for many people to go to Cornell University as I had done a short programme. So, we brought Cornell to Ireland. In order to make it economic, we invited all the hoteliers from other groups and had a long eight-day seminar down in the Killarney Great Southern for all senior leaders in the Irish hotel business. So yes, that was important and of course I was involved in the college of hotel management in Shannon. I was on the board of that for eight years and I chaired it for another eight years.

That was a wonderful example; it was led by a fantastic Swiss man where standards, only the best was good enough and where the cultural aspects were quite important and where students of the four-year program spent two years on learning experience – normally in Switzerland in the best hotels or in other continental hotels. So, that was all part of the learning process.

AC: And I know you brought that further. You’re now on the board of UCD Michael Smurfit business school.

BOD: Well I’m on the advisory board of UCD. That’s something I really enjoy very much. They have established, with the support of Primark ABF, a chair in green retailing and I think that’s quite important for the retail industry as a whole. The first program will start this year.

“The strategy is always to have the best people in the best seats”

Breege O’Donoghue with Alison Cowzer. Photo. Bryan Meade

AC: That whole professionalisation of learning within the retail environment, I mean it’s a sector that’s under pressure. There’s lots of casualties every week. At this stage we appear to hear of a new casualty in retail, and yet Primark have really gone against all of those trends. What’s the secret formula?

BOD: First of all, I’d say in terms of retailing, it’s really quite significant to the Irish economy. Because you know it has 265,000 jobs directly and a lot of others indirectly. So, the tourism business is really very significant in terms of the number of expenditure they’re spending and the number of visits that come here.

But to go back to Penneys, to go back to Primark, it does well in good times and in bad. Of course, it is a volume retailer probably selling more than 1.5 million pairs of socks today in the 12 countries in which it operates.

Now, it also provides long lead times to suppliers which enables them to plan well in advance. I recall sitting in a factory in China a few years ago and sitting with the supplier just asking how business is. She said Primark is very good for me. She said I compare you to 100 bedroomed hotel, 60 per cent to my capacity is reserved every single year for Primark, for the last 25 years.

AC: So, you’re giving real stability to the suppliers?

BOD: Yeah, and I know she said that’s going to pay for my overheads. It’s got to pay my wages and I go off and I sell the other 40 per cent. That’s really important. Primark also encourages people to come to the factories. To source their product near the factories to minimise the cost. If Primark is very flexible, it controls its overheads, it doesn’t spend a lot of money on advertising which is by word of mouth

AC: Word of mouth and social media is that really it?

BOD: Yeah. Well of course, when we invest in new stores or refurbishment of stores money is spent there. So, these are the factors.

Ethics is at the heart of Primark and price leadership in every market is really important, all things being equal. And I know I can wear this suit that I’m wearing now for under €30 and I can wear this with pride and know that it was not made at the expense of people in the supply chain.

AC: I mean that’s a really interesting point, given where this concept of fast fashion is at the moment and how that relates to sustainability. I suppose, the whole clothing business is in the eye of the storm in many cases in that scenario at the moment where we’ve got, I know you’ve described as a myth before, this idea of fast fashion: Wearing something on a Friday and never wearing it again.

You don’t believe that’s the case?

BOD: Well, just look at Primark, it produces quality clothing at value for money. This particular two-piece garments have been in the washing machine many, many times. And I have garments that I wear again and again. We provide best value merchandise at quality prices.

“Due diligence is hugely important. It may well take several months to have a factory particularly approved.”

AC: So that is interesting Breege, that you actually take lower margins because the consumer perception of lower prices sometimes would be associated with lower quality but it’s because you’re actually taking lower margins.

BOD: It is and because of the whole business model we do things very, very simply we have a state-of-the-art logistics which is really quite important. We have over 100 people working in key sourcing locations and they are experts in terms of ethical and sustainability and they supervise more than 2000 audits each year on the factories.

And of course, doing business with any supplier, it is part of our code of conduct that they have to sign up to the conditions of the Pennys/Primark supply chain. And that’s part and parcel of doing business with us.

Due diligence is hugely important. It may well take several months to have a factory particularly approved.

AC: You mentioned earlier about that concept of being first to market with trends, and very clearly being on trend, and yet letting your suppliers know well in advance what you’re going to be asking them to do. Where do you get the crystal ball that tells you what’s going to be on trend?

BOD: Well look, we have an outstanding team of buyers, merchandisers, designers and all the support tools that they would use. And also, it’s fair to say of course, where merchandise is booked very long in advance, that’s not necessarily the fashion merchandise. There will be a shorter timeframe. So, that’s important as well.

AC: As we mentioned earlier, in terms of numbers of stores, you’re now at what worldwide?

BOD: Just over 370. 373 in 12 countries. Which is 80,000 people.

AC: So, going back the earlier days Primark and the one store in Mary Street – which I think I spent half of my childhood with my mother in – we were always looking for bargains. But you joined when the estate was at around 17 stores?

BOD: 24.

AC: And they were mainly in Ireland?

BOD: Ireland with a couple in the UK. It was, at that stage, going into the UK Arthur Ryan felt that the business could travel.

AC: So where did that decision point come? The famous Gang of Four of you sitting around the table deciding to go global from very much a domestic base. I mean, where did that ambition come from?

BOD: Well Ireland was a small country, so in order to have a good business for the long term it was necessary to look outside Ireland. It was easy to look across the pond and five years after Penney’s opened its first store in Ireland it moved to the UK. Then it built a very strong business in the UK and Ireland and in the early 2000s we looked to Europe.

Having done some market research we felt that Spain looked attractive for business. There are certain commonalities with Ireland. We opened our first store in Madrid, going back to 2006.

AC: The amount of due diligence that’s required as a retailer to go into a new market. I mean there must be massive changes culturally.

BOD: There’s a lot. You could say in Britain, people would often say we’re two countries divided by a common language and you could say for the continent it’s quite different.

But there’s also wonderful learning experiences in terms of culture. People in our buying office and elsewhere were learning the language so that they could communicate. They could have banter they could do their emails. This was quite exciting. Many of the people of this country went to work and went to support, and also from the UK, went to support the stores in the new country, new companies.

Now we have young men and young women that were retail sales assistants in Ireland and with the support in terms of education, empowerment and development, they’re running big businesses in Austria, in Italy, in France, in America.

AC: And is that a strategy to bring Irish members of the team and they would head up the individual locations?

BOD: The strategy is always to have the best people in the best seats. Going into the Spanish market, it was about: ‘We will learn from the Spanish and they will teach us what to do.’ That’s really fundamental.

Also, about having the DNA in the business and using the experience would serve the business well in Ireland and the UK. And giving them opportunities for promotion, opportunities to travel and, of course, to inculcate the DNA of the business with their European colleagues.

“We didn’t deal in mistakes. We dealt in learnings”

“I think work life balance is hugely important these days.”

AC: So, what is the DNA of the business? How do you articulate that?

BOD: No is not a word in the English language that we would have recognised. You know it’s all about the customer. The customer is absolutely centric and so far as give the customer what they want. Give the customer value for money. Have your focus groups, do your market research, understand what they do. It’s also about people. Hugely important. And it’s about leadership. And the buying teams are absolutely very significant people in the whole Penneys/Primark chain and in far as they choose the merchandise. Of course, they have lots of tools, both from technology and both from their visits to whether it is to the USA, whether it is the Far East. Learning and applying that and also allowing people to make mistakes.

We didn’t deal in mistakes. We dealt in learnings. So, it’s really about education whether it’s in the classroom or in the day-to-day. It’s about empowering people, it’s about allowing them to do their job. It’s about investing in them. It’s about understanding where they might want to go and supporting their career. And always, always do the right thing whatever that is. Allow them to take the initiative to take a risk to be courageous and support them in every way in doing that.

“Ireland is a very different place than it was in the 60s. I think the young people are truly fantastic in so far as they want to make a change, they want to have influence, they want to be empowered.”

AC: And obviously your career, it’s a long span across retailing but it’s also a long span across I suppose the generations of people that have come through the business. We hear a lot these days about the millennials, and I wouldn’t ascribe to the views that they’re a separate race that we have to treat differently or that behave differently really. I think they’re unfortunate in the sense that they’ve been labelled. Do you see a difference with the sort of younger generation coming through now versus what you would have seen?

BOD: Well life is changing. We’ve moved on. Ireland is a very different place than it was in the 60s. I think the young people are truly fantastic in so far as they want to make a change, they want to have influence, they want to be empowered. I think that’s hugely encouraging.

AC: And how would you advise other business owners to cultivate that and work with it as opposed to work against it. I mean with a very large organisation you have the opportunities to give those.

BOD: Well I think the most important thing is have the best person in the best seat for the job and support that particular person in terms of his or her career in terms of investment. I think work life balance is hugely important these days.

I think it’s important to listen. Listen to your employees and see what they want. And yes, there are higher expectations. They expect a nice cafeteria, they expect to have a gym they expect to have flexi hours, they expect to have maternity leave, they expect to have paternity leave and I’d like to see more of that.

So, it is very different, but it’s, I think, hugely encouraging. I think in Ireland, while not that much different than other countries, but I think multicultural people who’ve joined us here has made us a much richer land. We benefit greatly from the cultural and other benefits of having a number of nationalities here in this country.

“These women were now empowered. But they also were voices in their own community”

AC: So Breege, you’ve mentioned ethics and community and doing the right thing. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

BOD: 2013, Primark decided to… obviously, cotton is a very big part of our program, it’s about empowering women and producing cotton sustainably. So, 1,151 women were chosen.

AC: And these are small holders?

BOD: Small farmers yes. So indeed, they went through a programme. Now this Primark did with the help of Self Employed Women’s Association, CottonConnect and agriculture experts. So, how do you learn about seed? How do you learn about what you sow? So, it was a three-year programme.

So, two and a half years later, I sat down with them in Gujarat, a thousand miles from Delhi in the middle of nowhere in 45 degrees heat. Now, they’re working in that. In the morning they feed the buffaloes, they put the children to school, they’re out in the fields from 9:00 until 6:00 that evening and they’re trying to produce cotton. Anyway, the results after the first couple of years was that they’d increased their profit to 47 per cent. They had decreased their input costs by 19.2, they had decreased the chemical pesticides by 40 per cent and chemical fertiliser by 44 and used less water 10 per cent.

First of all the men were anti at the beginning, but now some of the men..

“It was so inspiring to see how these women would just be able to take care of their lives which changed completely.”

AC: Jumped on board when it looked like it was a success?

BOD: And you know how did this money help you? I bought a tractor. I bought an acre of ground. I bought a something for in terms of energy for in terms of water irrigation, but most of all 95 per cent is to send my children to school.

AC: That’s a feature of most of the development work across the developing world is that when women are in charge of the of the purse strings, they use it to develop the community aspect of what they’re doing?

BOD: Well it’s exactly that, because these women were now empowered. But they also were voices in their own community. And some of these women were now managing 100 smaller women farmers. So, it was extended to 10,000 women farmers for another six years and now the programme operates in India, China and Pakistan with 160,000 women involved. And of course the first merchandise, 14 million pyjamas were sold in the year 2017 which were made from that sustainable cotton. Something like 6 million pairs of jeans and 4 million duvets.

AC: So, it was also bringing it back to grassroots.

BOD: Absolutely. And for example, all sustainable cotton without any increase to the customer.

AC: And that increase in yield and increase in efficiency. Again, back to where it started with education.

BOD: Yeah. It was so motivating. It was so inspiring to see how these women would just be able to take care of their lives which changed completely. And how hard they’re working, in 45 degrees day on day long and still doing the day job in terms of the house and the children.

AC: I mean that is now a generational thing that will improve as the education level.

BOD: Absolutely.

AC: As more girls go to school.

BOD: Yeah. It was really, really, really encouraging.

“It wasn’t really the Gang of Four, it was all those who were behind the Gang of Four”

AC: I mean being a Primark/Pennys customer regularly, there appears to be a fairly good vibe in the store. You don’t hear people moaning about the fact they didn’t get their break or whatever as you may in other retail environments is that something…

BOD:  Really, it’s an outstanding place to work and now under Paul Marchant’s new leadership in the last number of years he has brought the company into a new generation. And long may it continue. But no, I think we were blessed, and continue to be, with the outstanding staff commitment to dedication commitment to excellence. It was as if, and that still grows, it was as if as one’s own family business.

AC: And that whole family aspect, I mean I mentioned The Gang of Four earlier, working with such a close team with such global ambitions as they turned out to be. I know that turned into, you were one woman of four originally and became two of seven I think eventually. Just working as part of that team, I mean they must have been a chemistry that just was right?

“Arthur Ryan was a visionary. And he was a wonderful man to work with. It was a huge challenge in many ways, but it was always good camaraderie.”

BOD: It worked. And it was certainly, it was a challenge. It was great fun. But you know it wasn’t really the Gang of Four, it was all those who were behind the Gang of Four. We just did what we did. But we had wonderful support, leadership and the employees believed in what was happening.

AC: Obviously the sad passing of Arthur Ryan this year….

BOD: Yes I know. And he was a visionary. And he was a wonderful man to work with. It was a huge challenge in many ways, but it was always good camaraderie. He was a very good listener. He was hugely focused on doing the business. He allowed learnings and to say there are no mistakes, let’s just get on with it. But also, he had a great sense of humanity in everything that he did. In fact, he was a soft man. He was a very caring man.

AC: That wouldn’t be the view, I suppose, of tough retailer, low margins and pile them high…

BOD: No. I recall the first time I travelled with him, staying in a London hotel for an early meeting in the morning. This is going back very late 70s, touching 1980. An early meeting in the morning, you left your shoes outside your door. But I had none the following morning. So, I went to my meeting without my shoes. Didn’t bat an eyelid. I learned afterwards of course that he had taken my shoes and I never saw them again. That was fun but it was also a test you know.

“So, that spirit would pretty well explain part and parcel of part of the spirit that was in the company. And it was great pride that we were growing and going into the UK in the 70s was a huge challenge.”

AC: An absolute test. So, you didn’t fold at the first hurdle?

BOD: No. So, we always had that great spirit of engagement.

And if I even go back to 1990, sports footballing was always in our business. And of course, we were very much involved with the Irish soccer team as sponsors and second respects providing the uniform. But in so far as our people were concerned, we were lots of charity works for the children’s hospital. Mick McCarthy was our key man up front as he was Captain Fantastic, a name which he absolutely hated, and then he became the team manager. He did walks with us for the children’s hospital a few went into Penneys.

We sold his book. We sold the record, The Team That Jack Built. In fact, I got, I think, a platinum record for selling over a million.

AC: Another accolade.

BOD: You couldn’t get through the front door Penneys unless you bought one and you certainly couldn’t get out the back. So, the point I’m making, the staff were hugely involved and of course there were incentives. They were getting off to the various matches.

So, that spirit would pretty well explain part and parcel of part of the spirit that was in the company. And it was great pride that we were growing and going into the UK in the 70s was a huge challenge.

AC: When Irish companies wouldn’t have had any sort of reputation.

BOD: It was a huge challenge. And you know, also say over the years Penneys/Primark acquired a number of stores from various business blue chip labels. Probably in quite well over 100 stores in the UK. And the interesting thing now, none of those stores on the high street.

AC: And Penney’s are still standing.

BOD: We acquire them and invested, and it was really about investing in the future and know where you’re going and that’s where it comes back to. What does the customer want? Give the customer what they want. And in today’s terms, you know, the customer wants it now. They want choice. They want it any time of the day or night. They want to shop in a beautiful environment.

“What does the customer want? What makes it attractive for someone to come to shops?”

“It’s about allowing board to challenge.”

AC: And that has really changed. Go back to the 70s and 80s where it was almost warehousing, as opposed to retail, that was pile them high. But the merchandising has changed enormously, the range has changed enormously across all of retailing.

“It is all about experience. What does the customer want? What makes it attractive for someone to come to shops? They want that environment and they want what goes with that.”

BOD: And I think also the environment and what else to provide. In the most recent shop opened in Birmingham, which is a very large Primark retail store, apart from being very beautiful it also has men’s hairdressing, beautiful women’s area in terms of hair and beauty and nails. But it also has a Disney Cafe. It has a Disney shop. You can your T-shirt printed there, you can have your bag printed there in whatever style you want.

AC: Can we expect to see any of that in the Irish market.

BOD: I can’t speak for that now. But I can say that store, it is all about experience. What does the customer want? What makes it attractive for someone to come to shops? They want that environment and they want what goes with that.

AC: Shopping is almost a leisure experience.

BOD: It is of course a leisure experience. And, of course, when you look at Penneys/Primark they showcase the merchandise online, the site is in six languages so there is a very high level of looking before they go and shop.

AC: So, all of that experience that you’ve brought, both from the hospitality side and original Great Southern hotels experience and retail, you’ve brought a lot of that now to new organisations that you’re working with. You’re chair of the Design and Crafts Council, chair of Real World Analytics and obviously, I mentioned earlier, and involved with UCD graduates in Michael Smurfit graduate school of business.

Being a chair as opposed to being a member of a Gang of Four or a senior management team, what do you think makes a good chair?

BOD: I think first of all being able to listen, but understanding the role of the chief executive and understanding the role of the chair. So that’s about the management and about policy. Having a good structure to support the board. Whether that is by way of remuneration committee, nominations committee strategic committee which might be appropriate. It’s about allowing board to challenge. Very important. Having a good mix of skills on the board, carrying out independent review of the board every couple of years and carrying out internal review of the board each year.

AC: So that governance…

BOD: The governance is hugely, hugely, hugely important. It’s really managing that board and allowing the chief executives and others to get on with their business. So really, first quality leadership, together with governance.

“The harder I work the longer I live. Life is no brief candle to me”

AC: And the areas that you’ve chosen to get involved, post the operational side of Primark, so the Design and Crafts Council, that’s something that’s in your blood.

BOD: It’s a very interesting business, you know in so far as it is responsible for the development of design and craft. An important industry to Ireland, employing 6000 people many of them in rural parts of Ireland and of course it’s about the heritage, it’s about the tradition. And if I give you just one example, Showcase, which is an annual event at the RDS each year where you have designers and makers there for four days. That in effect is worth about a 152 million in exports and over the three or four days they sell 25 million.

So that’s really important, in terms of that promotion in order that the craft and the design can develop.

AC: You’re also a non-exec director of Shaw and sons.

BOD: It’s a lovely business.

AC: I’m trying to remember their radio advertising, ‘almost nationwide,’ it think.. .

BOD: It’s a lovely business with lovely people and I enjoy it very much. A smaller business and, of course, it has the retailing there but the particular attraction to me is they’re delightful people to work with. They’re moving on the business, they’re changing the business and changing their environment, changing in their fashion.

AC: And I suppose that’s an indication of both of you giving back, you going back into another business, and working with them as opposed to bring them forward into the future. That whole mentoring aspect is something that you feel is important?

BOD: I do, I think it’s very important. You know I’m involved in the Going for Growth which is obviously in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland and KPMG. I’ve met the most fantastic women just finished a programme.

AC: I’ll just explained, that’s a group that’s set up to mentor particularly women entrepreneurs to increase their vision really and ambition.

BOD: In their own business. My experience over four programs is just truly fantastic.

Come as a group, we have a very strict program which involves a very clear-cut agenda on each day of the program. And it does include a deep dive for everyone. I facilitate that, but the all the members work as consultants to each other.

“The harder I work the longer I live. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a shining torch that I’ve got hold of for the moment. I want it to burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the next generations.”

AC: It’s kind of a peer group?

BOD: Absolutely and also tremendous confidence and they share, all on camera, they share what one would might not ordinarily share outside that group. They learn from each other. They give to each other. They support each other. I still am in touch with the groups I dealt with a couple of years ago. So, I really enjoy that. I honestly think I get more from that than they do.

AC: I doubt that very much. I can imagine early start up entrepreneurs to be sitting with Breege O’Donoghue around the table and getting your advice, I’m sure that they’re hugely appreciative of that.

The last question really I wanted to ask you was in relation to what’s next? People go through a number of stages in their careers but I mean there appears to be no stopping you. What’s next?.

BOD: Well you know, I think I’m unlike what Bill Clinton said. He had ‘more yesterdays than tomorrows.’ I hope I have a lot of tomorrows and to quote G.B Shaw when I say ‘I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.’

The harder I work the longer I live. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a shining torch that I’ve got hold of for the moment. I want it to burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the next generations.

AC: Well that’s a lovely note and Breege O’Donoghue. Thank you so much.

BOD: Thank you.