End of an era as Clery's staff mourn passing of chairwoman Guiney

Tue, Aug 24, 2004, 01:00

A private woman who made few public statements, she remained the power behind the empire, writes Liam Reid.

Mrs Mary Guiney, who has died aged 103, was remembered yesterday as a formidable woman who, even in her 90s, fought to ensure that one of the country's best-known shops remained an integral part of Dublin city centre.

As chairwoman of the Clery & Co department store on O'Connell Street, Mrs Guiney fought off a number of attempts during the last 20 years to buy out her and her family, including one which would have turned the landmark building into a hotel.

Although a private woman who made few public statements, she remained the power behind the retail empire.

"She was an extraordinary woman who saw incredible changes not only in the store, but on the city's main thoroughfare O'Connell Street, and was always very excited about its redevelopment," a Clery's spokeswoman said yesterday.

"In more recent times the Luas and the Spire were all things that she welcomed for the regeneration of the O'Connell Street area."

While Clery's has not been as high profile as some other department stores in recent years, in the 1950s and 1960s it was the biggest and most successful store in the country, becoming almost a national institution.

Mrs Guiney was born Mary Leahy in Co Limerick in 1901. Like many girls from a farming background at the time, she became a shop assistant, and moved to Dublin.

In 1938 she married her boss, Denis Guiney, a Kerry-born retailer who had founded Guiney's on Talbot Street in 1921 and transformed it into a successful department store with a reputation for bargains.

In 1941 Mr Guiney bought the neighbouring Clery's department store, which was then in receivership, for £250,000 and over the next 25 years oversaw its transformation into a hugely profitable business. It attracted shoppers from around the country, at one stage offering to refund travellers their train fares if they bought more than £5 worth of goods.

Sales mushroomed, and by the 1960s it was the largest shop in the country. Clery's had a staff of more than 1,000, a restaurant, a ballroom and 42 counters.

Denis Guiney died in 1967 and day-to-day control was handed on to a nephew, Mr Arthur Walls, with Mrs Guiney the main shareholder and chairwoman of the company.

From the early 1980s, with its prime city centre location, Clery's became the subject of intense speculation over its future. With mediocre sales, there were a number of approaches to buy the business, which by the late 1970s was being run by a non-family management team.

In 1987 she turned down an approach by businessman Mr John Teeling, and in 1999 two takeover bids, which valued the business at over €30 million, were rejected.

"Why would I want to sell the best business and building in Ireland?" she asked after the Teeling bid. With retail business moving to the outskirts of the city, Clery's followed suit in the 1990s, opening small outlets in Leopardstown, Blanchardstown and Tallaght.

However this, and a 20 million redevelopment of the O'Connell Street store, has not been a great success. While it had sales of just under 30 million for the year ending January 2004, the company made a profit of just 71,957.

The ownership structure of the business is unusual. Although nearly 90 extended family members and former staff have shares, Mrs Guiney retained control of the firm through a 52 per cent shareholding, held in trust.

The low profits have led to speculation that the group will be the subject of buy-out attempts in the near future, with a number of foreign department store groups now taking an interest in Ireland.

Clery's building on O'Connell Street, which is over 130,000 square feet, is also believed to be one of the most valuable retail buildings in the country.