Arthur Ryan: Reclusive powerhouse behind retail giant Primark

The Irish businessman revolutionised the high street by turning his ‘look good, pay less’ approach to fashion into an international empire

Olivier Holmey
Friday 19 July 2019 12:23
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Arthur Ryan (left) with former Irish prime minister Enda Kenny in 2014
Arthur Ryan (left) with former Irish prime minister Enda Kenny in 2014

A young designer stood in a meeting room before Arthur Ryan, holding up two swimsuits, one pink, one blue. “This is Charlotte’s first range,” a colleague said by way of introduction. “Well, you know the rule,” Ryan responded. “If it doesn’t work, you don’t have a second range.”

This exchange, captured in a corporate video by the fashion retailer Primark towards the end of Ryan’s career as chief executive, largely summed up his approach to business. A no-second-chances businessman who put his work before all else, and expected the same level of dedication from his staff, Ryan was a formidable force in Irish and British retail over the course of 50 years.

From July 1969, when he opened the group’s first store in Dublin, to his death aged 83 earlier this month, Ryan dedicated his life to the Irish retailer Penneys, and to its international offshoot Primark. By cutting prices to record lows while still maintaining healthy margins, the model he pioneered made fashion more accessible than ever before, and generated billions of pounds in revenue. But these successes came at a cost, relying as they did on cheap labour from southeast Asia and driving the throwaway culture that has come to permeate high street fashion.

As Ryan once put it: “I only want to make money, that’s my starting point.”

Penneys began as a collaboration between Ryan and Garfield Weston, a Canadian businessman. Ryan opened the first store, in an imperfect location, with £50,000 of Weston’s money. A few months in, the sound of a busker gave him hope. “Buskers don’t stand outside empty stores,” he thought.

Four years later Ryan took Penneys to England. But the company had to give up its name there, as the American retailer JC Penney lay claim to the trademark. Ryan liked the Latin word “prima”, which suited his eagerness to come first, and soon Primark was born.

Primark slowly established itself in the UK, but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that it became the dominant retailer it is today. A bold store expansion in the UK and continental Europe, coupled with its growing appeal to fashionistas, turned it into the biggest fashion retailer in the country.

Ryan had long predicted, and to an extent provoked, today’s low-cost economy. Why would Primark go upmarket, he asked, when consumers could now pay little more than £100 for return flights to Lanzarote?

But while he knew what customers wanted, little was known about him. For years the chain-smoking executive gave no interviews and avoided public appearances. When he did emerge it was often to inspect stores incognito, reportedly dressed in a rumpled old raincoat.

Discretion was no game to him, as it came from a deep-seated fear of abduction, caused in part by the IRA’s unsuccessful kidnapping attempt on Galen Weston, son of Garfield, in 1983.

His remoteness did not shield him from controversy, however, as the press scrutinised Primark’s seemingly impossible prices. The explanation lay in part in Ryan’s negotiating acumen, but just as much if not more in Primark’s use of poor foreign labour. The Dhaka garment factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed in 2013, killing 1,134, was among its suppliers. Meanwhile, in the UK, the amount of textile waste piled up, with Primark blamed by many for the new disposable fashion culture.

Arthur St John Ryan was born in Dublin in 1935, the son of an insurance clerk. After attending the Christian Brothers’ school on Synge Street, he moved to London to work in retail, and there met his first wife, Rose. In 1978 he married again, this time to Alma Carroll, an entertainer who had come third in the Eurovision Song Contest the previous year.

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Ryan left the role of chief executive in 2009, but stayed on as chair. His successor, Paul Marchant, said of Ryan that he was a gregarious man armed with a sharp wit. As for Ryan’s views on himself, he once said: “I just like sliced ham and bread and butter. That’s where I am. No risk.”

On the day of his funeral, a line of Penneys staff applauded as the hearse proceeded down Mary’s Street, the site of his first store.

Ryan is survived by Alma and their daughter, as well as by three children from his first marriage.

Arthur St John Ryan, retail executive, born 19 July 1935, died 8 July 2019

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