E46 That Great Business Show - A masterclass in worldwide fashion retailing, given by Breege O'Donoghue, former global director Penneys/Primark

Episode 46 That Great Business Show

Presented by Conall O Morain

2.00" Breege O'Donoghue's first insight is that a retailer should be 'producing what you sell, not selling what you produce'.

When Breege joined Penneys they had 'just' 24 shops, they now have near 400 stores in 14 jurisdictions.

She tells stories about the retailing legend, Arthur Ryan, (RIP, July 2019). 'He was not a tough man, not a tough bone in his body'.

For her first major meeting in London, Arthur Ryan 'borrowed' Breege's shoes, so Breege goes to the meeting in her hotel slippers.

On another occasion Ryan (a great mimic) pretended to be Gregory Peck, making her run out of Champneys, the world famous health resort.

She offers three lessons that Arthur Ryan taught her.

  • 'There are no mistakes, only learnings'
  • It's all right to look for help, in fact it's a very positive'
  • You're probably at your strongest when you're at your weakest, and to realise that'

Why Penneys/Primark didn't want to have an Irish business in Spain or Germany, but to have a Spanish business in Spain, a German business in Germany.

She explains their rigorous code of conduct for suppliers.

Penneys' first UK store was in Derby. She explains why Derby was chosen and why feet on the ground was essential.

"Don't be afraid to take risk. That's what business is about"

Breege tells us what makes a great buyer and how TU Dublin has been an essential part of finding great talent, for many years.

She talks of the importance of buyers being at festivals and night clubs all over the world. The difference for buying teams, buying for Florida versus buying for Chicago. Why do Spaniards like slippers? Americans don't have duvets, but have comforters - there's a reason behind each difference.

22.00" Breege explains the importance of independent audits making sure that garments are made ethically. She speaks of being in Gujarat and of the Penneys/Primark backed scheme that saw small holders increase profits from their cotton grow by 200%. That 'Cotton Connect' programme now extends to 185,000 women across many cotton producing countries.

She says that 'doing the right thing' is very important.

She talks about their very, very small management team, known at the time as the 'Gang of Four'. She references the rows they had, and the reconciliations -'Let's move on'.

What are the opportunities for another Irish retailer to make it internationally? She says that replacing retailers lost to Covid is a first priority.

She says that 'the high street will always survive' and talks of what's happening to retail in Paris.

She explains how Primark in Birmingham gives customers an 'experience', far more than a clothing shop - it includes a Disney café, the first outside the Disney properties.

Data is hugely important, she expects to see so much more on garment tags.

There was Beatlemania, SpiceGirlMania and now...Primania....the excitement that happens when a Primark store initially opens. She explains the process they go through when opening a store, the meticulous planning and consultation, and of course....PR.

39.00" What does she tell young businesses she mentors. i) education ii) be curious iii) take a risk iv) 'do the right thing' v) understand the differences vi) read all the fashion magazines, including Vogue, Bazaar and not just the UK versions, but also the Spanish, US versions etc...

She emphasises networking. She tells us the Breege O'Donoghue way of telling a co-worker that 'things are not working out'.

She says in her lifetime she has come across very few bad employees, but she has come across bad managers.

'Empower young people. Pile responsibility on their shoulders to see where they'll go'.

Where are suppliers (who have been in business for years) getting their ideas? Check it out, and ask.

She explains (kind of!) how hard she worked, sometimes 7 days a week. Holidays were shorter than normal an one day/all day trips to the UK were regular.

She hints at what some of the boardroom 'discussions' aka rows, were about.

Did it ever come to the board to change the name from Penneys to Primark?

Her involvement in other businesses and on the board of private and State businesses.

She may have liked to have been an astronaut!

Breege's 'hire in a heartbeat'....she refuses to answer, but eventually.....opts for Bono.

And what is she doing now, besides sometimes TWO yoga classes a day....and her obsession with sports (she digresses into the wonderful 1990 World Cup, Mick McCarthy, Ray Houghton), the T-shirts being printed overnight depending on who Ireland was playing, their platinum record in aid of the Children's Hospital. Her competition to spell 'Schillaci'.

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