Meet one of the most Powerful Women in Irish Retail

Dedicated to the memory of Arthur Ryan a great retailer and founder of Penneys who has passed away at the age of 83.

Breege O’Donoghue, the first, and for 26 years the only, female board member of Primark, is among the well documented gang of four who created Primark. Today Primark is a leading retailer operating in 365 stores across Ireland, Europe, the UK and the US. Always elegantly dressed in Primark and a big fan of Bikram yoga and horse riding, Breege is an extraordinary person who has sensible feel of style. Her look masks her strong personality and by firm character one could easily say that Breege is one of the most powerful woman in Irish retail. Until stepping down recently from her day to day role in Primark, Breege was a Board Member, and held the portfolio of Group Director, Business Development & New Markets. Her name is associated with, one of the many successful strategies was to make Primark a multinational organization and take it international. Today, Breege is continuing to promote Primark by being the brand ambassador. She is also engaged promoting Irish design on the global scale as chair of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. Breege chairs, and is a Non-Exec on other bodies, both in the public and private sector.

You are one of four who created Primark. A small Irish company originally known as Penneys was established by Arthur Ryan, and opened the first store in Dublin on Mary street in 1969.

Breege says, one particular individual stands out in the history of Primark, the enigmatic, highly talented, Arthur St John Ryan. The Primark journey began in 1969 when the company started trading as Penneys in an old fashioned department store with mahogany counters at the neglected end of a shopping street on Dublin’s north side. For hard pressed parents with children to clothe, fashion conscious teens and twenty-somethings with little money to spend, and for just about everyone in between, Penneys was fashion as they had never experienced before and they took to it like ducks to water. The response “Thanks - Penneys” when an item of clothing was admired, quickly became a consumer catchphrase and remains so to this day. The headline ‘Prada? No. Top Shop? No. It’s Primark, darling’, used on a Daily Telegraph fashion column in 2005, echoed this sentiment in the UK. 

I joined the company in 1979. Primark was then viewed as a business which would thrive beyond the shores of Ireland. Living on a small island off the northwest coast of Europe, detached from the European continent on one side, and buffeted by the wild north Atlantic on the other, the Irish have always had a taste for travel and broadening horizons. For Primark, that was no different, the move into the UK in 1974 followed 5 years after the first opening in Dublin. The next couple of decades were spent building and consolidating in Ireland, and the UK, before taking on the next challenge of continental Europe.

In the early seventies, following the opening of Penneys in Aberdeen, Scotland, JC Penney of America woke up to what it saw as the incorrect use of its name in the UK and Ireland and took the company to court in Edinburgh in Scotland.

Following a prolonged legal action, an agreement was reached with JC Penney under which the Irish company would continue to trade as Penneys in Ireland but would not use that as its trading name outside Ireland. It adopted the new persona of Primark. The name was one of a long list of possible alternatives produced within the company and found widespread acceptance as conveying a premium kind of feel without any specific combination of words. 

Primark is selling best value clothing internationally but yet it is operating in countries with some of the highest GDPs. What is Primark’s expansion strategy and why does it not think to open branches in third world countries, where the demand can be higher due the price affordability. 

Primark continues to explore opportunities and to bring the unique offer of “Amazing Fashion, Amazing Prices” to new markets across Europe. The company now has 80,000+ employees, with 365 stores operating in 11 countries, and in excess of 13 million sq feet of retail space.

Going into a new market, Due Diligence, Preparation, Understanding the market, Customer Behaviour, Shopping Behaviour, Culture, are always challenges. To promote the story, promise, value, proposition, and customer experience, one has to work hard to nurture trust with government and business influencers, businesses, educational establishments, universities, colleges and schools, and fashion establishments, as well as local communities, and especially the media, including social. Establishing the Primark brand that, pre-entry, may have been little known, is formidable. 

Who would you regard as Primark’s main competitors?

Competitors are everywhere in every country and they vary from country to country. Primark loves competition, the more competition, the better retailers we all become. Primark enjoys a loyal fashion following, and the brand boasts over 10 million followers on its social media platforms. Primark is Number 1 volume retailer in Ireland, UK, Spain and Portugal. 

The product price is very low, the price ranging from 35 euros for coats to 1euro flip-flops, what is the way to earn high profits? 

Primark maintains price leadership in every market. It is a volume business. Approximately 1.5 million customers visit daily. With a unique combination of the latest fashion, and lean operations, Primark offers customers quality, up to the minute designs, at value for money prices. Buying and Merchandising teams travel internationally to source and buy garments that best reflect each season key fashion trends. 

Primark orders large quantities of merchandise as far as possible in advance for the planning of production. For example, one supplier in China, once told me: “My business is like 100 bed hotel, I reserve 60% of it for Primark which I have done for in excess of 20 years as Primarks order is guaranteed, and will pay overheads including wages and expenses.” 

Primark spends little money on advertising, thus keeping costs down, and like other fashion retailers, the majority of products are made in developing countries, sharing 98% of factories with other High Street brands. 

Considering the number of countries where you operate and their different culture. Do you adjust the product to their needs? 

Doing business locally but thinking globally is essential. Fine tuning may arise such as colour trends in different countries, or geographical location, for example, swimwear will sell all year round in the Canary Islands. When Primark launched its first store in Spain in 2006 Fuzzy socks were in high demand because of all the marble floors and were purchased all year round by Spanish customers. 

Primark is not just retail store but a multimillion global company with the strong production industry at the back. What are the criteria for choosing a manufacturing country and company? As well there is always a controversy about the low-cost retail stores that the products they sell are not made ethically. How does Primark manage to stay ethical and produce low cost? 

Environmental issue is a high rising topic today, with every company trying to be more sustainable.

What does Primark do to stay environmentally sustainable?

Primarks approach to CSR is framed by 5 strategic pillars - its people, its customers, its supply chain, its neighbours, and, the environment. Turning to commitment to ethics, Primark has been working hard for many years to ensure that its products are made with respect for workers’ rights and the environment. Primark standards are set out in Primarks Code of Conduct which requires all suppliers to comply with as a condition of doing busines. It meets international standards and set out the core principles regarding working conditions and working hours, fair wages and workers’ rights. Primark carries out frequent inspections of suppliers to ensure the Code of Conduct is being enforced, and that workers are being treated properly. This work is overseen by the Primark Ethical Trade and Environmental sustainability team made up of 100+ specialists based in key sourcing countries. Primark is rigorous in its approach to standards, and only selects and works with factories following sucessful rigorous due diligence, who can achieve the standards required. 

Primark recognises that no one retailer alone can have a positive impact on an entire industry, so to effect change and make an impact beyond direct influence, Primark collaborates with a large number of organisations including Governments, NGO’s, charities, institutions and other brands to help address issues across the supply chain. Priamrk has been a member of the Ethical Trade Initiative promoting respect for workers’ rights since 2006 and ranked as leader since 2011. Primark has collaborations with Government organisations including the UK’s Department for International Development and Germany’s partnership for sustainable textiles – Textilbundis. 

Breege, as a person who took Primark global, do you see a chance that Primark can expand to Georgia? 

The only answer I can give for that is, that is for the honours class! 

What about doing business with Georgia from the manufacturing side 

Primark has partnerships with a large number of experienced manufacturers, and many of these excellent and valuable relationships exist for over 30 years. 

How do you see the fashion industry to develop over time?

In our turbulent environment, strengthening customer loyalty is increasingly demonstrating to the empowered consumer that the retailer understands her preferences on lifestyles, and can anticipate changes in these attributes. A fundamental demonstration of such understanding, would come from eliminating merchandise type the customer doesn’t want, and focussing on what is relevant to her. The customers’ loyalty will be routed in her trust that the retailer is able to do this range editing. Achieving such focus will not come easily, it will involve not only using information technology to monitor consumer behaviour, but also using communication tools to understand consumer preferences and lifestyles. 

For the Forbes Georgia readers, I can say that when I was an intern in Primark in summer 2017 I saw nothing from what I expected to see from a fashion retail company. The 4 floor HQ on Mary street right on top of the first Penneys store, looked more like a tech-company office, with an open space reflecting company’s dynamics and creating a vibe of fast changing fashion. The employees can enjoy gym with yoga classes and many other activities as well as a coffee area right next to the Primark’s design studio. The creative team can easily visualise their ideas on mannequins’ and massive wall which is daily capturing the changing trend of fast fashion. The working atmosphere is rather relaxed with employees dressed in Penneys clothes mirroring the catwalk looks. Going down to the shop, I fell into the buzz of what is called a Primania. Thousands of customers walking into the store, holding at least 5 products and standing at the queue to fill the joy of amazing fashion and at amazing price. In the middle of the shopping floor, Primark has beauty salon where one gets a wide range of beauty treatments done, from getting nails down to eyebrow threading. 

Breege your personal story is very fascinating. You were born in the rural Ireland, straight after school graduation even though your desire was strong you could not afford to go to college and yet you became one of the successful leaders in Ireland and have built a global well-known brand. Tell us how did you achieve that?

I went to school through fields but I grew up with the belief that education is the key. I was lucky to spend the first 17 years working in the hospitality business. With the company I was with, I worked in Switzerland and Germany where I learned European languages. The European experience became an eye-opener for me. Those years strongly influenced my life. I have to say, I did not really face obstacles on my way, I always worked hard to achieve goals and actively engaged in self-development. It is only 2 years ago, at the age of 73, that I completed a Chartered Director Programme - I thought I knew it all in practice but I wanted to learn it in theory. Besides being involved in Primark, I was, and am a Board Member of many Irish, state, and privately owned, companies.

How do you encourage women who are only starting their career now? 

Be true to oneself, show courage, independence, initiative, appreciate the need to recognise, respect and value differences. Know right from wrong, be ethically aware. Be satisfied only with the very best, do not be clothed in power and status, but generous in heart, mind and spirit and yes it is encouragement and love that inspire people to succeed and be happy the world over. 

Described by Citibank analysts as a company with “roaring success” worth 20.2 billion USD, Primark became a success story of Ireland. I do very much hope that one day Georgia will enjoy fast fashion with Primark stores, and even with products made in Georgia. What is your advice to Forbes Georgia readers? 

Thank you very much, the advice I would give to Forbes Georgia readers is, buy Primark everywhere you go to stay trendy, with “Amazing Fashion, Amazing Prices”. We know you have a lovely country, but come to Ireland, we have a great country too. 

Thank you very much for the interview Breege.

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