Meet the Smyths, the Mayo family turning toy retailing into child’s play

Caveat: With new stores opening often in UK, chain will hit 100 outlets in early 2017

The Smyths finely-tuned, volume driven, out-of-town operating model is tailored towards convenience for parents

The Smyths finely-tuned, volume driven, out-of-town operating model is tailored towards convenience for parents

 

A weeping horde of confused and terrified parents will stumble into Smyths Toys stores across Ireland and the UK this weekend searching in vain for a Hatchimal - this year’s viral must-have.

As with a few other things about Christmas, Hatchimals don’t exist anymore. The tardy must make do with a substitute and invent another tall tale.

Meanwhile, the ultra low-key Smyth family from Mayo who own the chain are about to hit a century.

This week, planning was granted for a new Smyths superstore in Gloucester, the 99th in its network. With a new one opening every six weeks or so in Britain, the ton is due early in the new year.

In the decade since entering Britain, the Smyths have trebled the business, with 28 outlets on both sides of the Irish Border and 70 in Britain. Group sales are nearing €600 million. Smyths is on course this year to challenge US giant Toys R Us as number one in the UK market. They already own the Irish sector.

If you leave aside British-owned Penneys/Primark, this is the easily the most aggressive foreign expansion ever undertaken by an indigenous Irish retailer. It is also the most secretive - interviewing a Smyth is like hunting a Hatchimal. Who are they?

Birdie and Paddy Smyth, the late parents, ran a pub and newsagents on Claremorris main street that also sold toys – the genesis of their children’s business. Paddy died a decade ago, while Birdie, a stalwart of the town, sadly passed away in August. They had six children – five boys and a girl. Four of the brothers – Tony, Padraig, Liam and Tommy, control the group, although the two eldest are most involved.

The family hails from Mayo but is associated with Galway, where the first dedicated toy store was founded by the brothers three decades ago and where most of them live.

A fifth brother, Joe, the youngest, was in college in Limerick when his brothers founded the group.

A software engineer, he appears to have had little involvement in the toy business and went to work for Apple. In recent years he co-founded technology company Altocloud with Dragon’s Den star Barry O’Sullivan.

The daughter, Maura Brennan, married the local vet in Claremorris, where she still lives.

Liam is the only other one of the siblings who is still based in Claremorris, where he and his sister have been involved in local facilities, such as the swimming pool. Liam runs the original newsagents and also sits on the board of the group.

The family has a background in the pub trade, and Tommy runs the well-known McSwiggan’s pub in Galway city, where Tony and Padraig are also investors in the 30-year old hostelry. Tommy and Liam have also invested together in wind farms.

Tommy, a keen yachtsman, and Liam both hold stakes of about 18 per cent in the toy group and are directors, but the largest stakes of 27 and 31 per cent are held by the eldest brothers, Tony, a chartered accountant, and Padraig.

A small minority stake, possibly held by other family members, is controlled by an Isle of Man entity.

Tony and Padraig run Smyths Toys, and their shareholdings give them joint control. Tony is managing director and has been closely involved in planning the British conquest and minding the balance sheet.

Senior management

The group’s senior management is stuffed with young executives, mostly in their 30s.

Remarkably, given the speed of the rollout, Smyths in the UK has little debt outside the group.

It owes about £80 million to its Irish parent, which is unlimited, so doesn’t file accounts. Smyths is financed by AIB and Barclays, and has a charge over the assets of the unlimited holding company.

Despite their financial secrecy, the Smyths are clearly among the richest retailing families in Ireland, behind grocery dynasties such as the Dunnes and Musgraves.

If Tony is the money man, then Padraig is the toy guy. Over the group’s history, he has been the one most closely associated with operational planning such as travelling the world to toy fairs looking for the next Furby, Hatchimal or Batbot.

Padraig is said to maintain the group’s relationships with the big brands such as Mattel and Hasbro.

The Irish group’s finely-tuned, volume driven, out-of-town operating model is tailored towards convenience for parents, with big car parks nearby and trolleys to haul bulky goods, rather than the kid-focused dreamland stores of rivals such as Hamley’s.

The Gloucester planning application lays out Smyths warehouse-like operational formula, comprising wide aisles and cavernous single storey outlets typically of about 25,000 sq ft.

Smyths stores sell 13,000 product lines and at peak times a typical outlet can shift 400 bikes a week, 800 trikes and scooters, 300 sandpits and 120 trampolines.

In coming weeks, however, they will sell very few Hatchimals. Sorry folks, they’re all gone. A disaster for worried parents, of course, but the Smyths will be alright.

Footnotes . . .

Solicitors are not usually known for their verbal incontinence, but the award for worst analogy of the week surely must go to the director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy (below). On Monday, he released a statement bemoaning the “tsunami” of new solicitors added to the roll in Ireland in 2016.

A Brexit-driven influx of 1,600 new briefs – 810 of them re-registered from across the water – could be described as many things: a potential boon for Brown Thomas, perhaps, or maybe a threat to Irish reserves of Krug.

But a tsunami? That might be a little over the top, especially at this time of year.

Anyway, the image of a tidal wave of pin-striped suits and leather briefcases crashing down on the beach at Sandymount is just too dystopian to contemplate.

What next? A tornado of teachers? A cyclone of chartered accountants? That really would be a national emergency.

be3

There was an immediate, predictable, but razor-sharp reaction from feminists on social media on Tuesday after TV3 unveiled its rebrand of UTV Ireland as be3, a “female focused” channel whose content will include dramas and soap re-runs.

In fairness to TV3, it makes perfect commercial sense to tailor one of the three stations in the group towards the sort of light entertainment shows that industry statistics have proven draw the bulk of their audience from women.

Feminists might not like the association between such content and women, but television channels base decisions such as these on qualitative research and advertising nous, not prejudice.

If people don’t like be3, they can switch over.

Within an hour of the launch, however, the first Unofficial be3 parody Twitter account appeared for those “not needing... intellectual content”.

The account, set up by persons unknown, has since been deleted. When I logged in on Tuesday afternoon, an account associated with the National Women’s Council of Ireland was among the first two followers.

The parody account’s first post was to announce a competition to choose new taglines for be3: “The most popular wins a rolling pin.”

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