Clothes maketh the man – and a thriving wholesale business

Future Proof: Niall Gleeson of RE Flanagan & Sons brings the Olymp brand into Ireland

Harry and Niall Gleeson of RE Flanagan: ‘If a groom needs a size 18 white shirt for the next day, we are the only wholesalers who can get it to him.’

Richard Edward Flanagan founded RE Flanagan in 1961, when he took an agency to distribute English luggage to Irish retailers. His son, Dermot, joined in 1966. By that time, Richard had already diversified to menswear, supplying Peter England shirts into the Irish market.

Father and son decided to go into distribution in 1969, and Richard’s brother joined the business, making it a three-man agency. Most of the products they supplied during the early years were made in the UK and the business had its first premises on South William Street, in a district at that time associated with the rag trade.

"They quickly started supplying all major department stores such as Arnotts and Clerys and other nationwide stores," says Niall Gleeson, the current owner and director of the company, and son-in-law to Dermot. "A lot of country businesses could only buy in small quantities, which meant we had a niche – everything was counted in dozens in those days."

Interestingly, the 1980s recession was actually good for business according to Gleeson.


“There were five people employed at that time, but the Peter England brand had already started to decline as the 1990s brought in demand for a new look.”

Italian knitwear

In 1995, when they took on the German Olymp brand, they quickly found success. Other products were imported and introduced to the range at that stage, such as Italian knitwear.

“Everything was made in Europe when I joined the company in 1998,” Gleeson says. “Very different from today where most apparel is made in China, Vietnam and India.”

The turn of the millennium saw Gleeson take over the business from his father-in-law after further investment in the company, with the Olymp brand at the forefront.

"We moved to Clonshaugh in 2006 to the IDA Business Park and my wife Louise joined to keep the accounts."

For the market that Gleeson is competing in, there are no other Irish wholesale distributors. That gives him an advantage.

He sees their USP as the quality product alongside a service competitors cannot match. Coming to the rescue of people in small communities around the country is a feature of the company.

“If a groom needs a size 18 white shirt for the next day, we are the only wholesalers who can supply retailers to dispatch for next-day delivery,” says Gleeson.

Five fits

He notes that, 15 years ago, a man’s shirt came in one fit; now there is more choice, with five fits. He says RE Flanagan provides more options than any other company.

RE Flanagan supplies the Best Menswear retail chain. Most of its other customers are independent retailers – 120 of them – scattered throughout the country, north and south of the Border.

When asked about Brexit, Gleeson says: “I’d love to know the impact that it’s going to have so I can prepare for it.”

Indirectly, it could affect the business if tariffs are put on food products which in turn will affect the income of their end users, such as farmers. There is also the prospect of border checks holding up supply chains.

There's a generational transition happening at the moment, with CEOs and other professionals no longer wearing suits

But he has already broken into new geographies.

“Iceland is a new territory for us. We discovered there was no distributor with a contract to cover the Olymp brand in that market so we asked if we could supply and Olymp agreed. It is unusual for them to agree to a distributor from one country to supply retailers in another country, but this may offer us other opportunities.”

Gleeson keeps in touch with his market by attending trade shows all over Europe regularly and is well aware of the major changes with his product.

“There’s a generational transition happening at the moment, with CEOs and other professionals no longer wearing suits – displacing the need for a shirt.”

To fill this gap RE Flanagan is introducing new product ranges to address the changes. Another priority is to keep focused on core products and to manage cash flow – essential for small businesses that offer credit.

Textile fairs

Attending the textile fairs and the main fashion exhibitions such as Moda in Birmingham, and others in Berlin and Dusseldorf, is something Gleeson had to do alone in the past, but this is no longer the case. “My son Harry recently graduated from college and is already in the family business, making it a fourth-generation company.”

Gleeson says he feels lucky to be aligned with a good brand such as Olymp which adapts and changes all the time with new trends, markets and practices. He feels that generous credit terms have also contributed to the longevity of the business and its continued success.

When the recession was at its worst RE Flanagan managed not to lose stock. “We maintain retention of title on invoices for all our products, which makes it easier to reclaim unsold goods.

“Our intention for the future is to maintain buoyancy and grow the business for the next generation.”