Where might most of us be when we are about to turn 71? Playing golf, perhaps, if we’re lucky enough to still have good health. Or maybe enjoying time with our grandchildren, or volunteering at a charity shop, or finally getting to grips with that unruly rhododendron at the end of the garden.
Breege O'Donoghue, the septuagenarian executive director of Primark and this year's recipient of the UCD Quinn School alumna of the year award, is preparing to conquer the United States. If that sounds a little onerous, it's worth remembering she managed to conquer most of Europe while aged in her 60s.
Primark, the value fashion retailer that trades in Ireland as Penneys, is limbering up for an ambitious crack at the US market. It will open its first store at an iconic site in downtown Boston in September, and aims to have 10 shops within a little more than 12 months. After that, it must either stick or twist on its US foray.
The Irish company, which this week reported half-yearly sales of £2.45 billion (€3.43 billion) for its parent, Associated British Foods, has also engaged in a breakneck expansion across Europe in recent years. It now operates 287 shops across nine countries and is the market leader in Ireland, the UK and Spain, while it is fast finding its feet in the likes of Germany and France.
Either side of the Atlantic, Primark will soon be fighting a war on two fronts. O’Donoghue, who is responsible for overseeing its entry into all new markets, appears comfortable as its graceful general.
“I couldn’t contemplate retiring,” she says, showing not a hint of exasperation at what must be a tiresome question for a dynamic woman. “I love what I’m doing and I’m in love with Primark.”
O'Donoghue is one of the most powerful people in Irish retailing. A 35-year veteran of Primark, and a board member since 1988, she was part of the vaunted "Gang of Four" led by the legendary Arthur Ryan, who over several decades transformed it into one of the fastest-growing and most successful volume retailers in Europe.
Its corporate nerve centre is a building on Dublin’s Mary Street, which Primark is currently joining to an adjacent property it bought on from Nama on Parnell Street. From the outside it looks humdrum. Inside, however, lies one of the most attractive office spaces in the city, housing more than 600 staff. The revamped complex, soon to be renamed Arthur Ryan House, is like a retailing Google.
“Come on, I’ll show you around,” beams O’Donoghue, striding off with an elegant elan. She is a small woman but possesses a wiry fitness. It must be the bikram yoga.
She is, as one might expect, immaculately dressed from head to toe in her employer’s clobber. She insists her outfit cost no more than €50, including a €12 elaborate costume necklace. “The jacket was in the cleaners last week and it cost me more to clean than to buy.”
There are no offices as such in Primark’s headquarters, nor is there a boardroom. The sleek, modern complex is slavishly open plan, with buyers, designers and administrators working side by side.
The entire building is filled with light, thanks to two enormous, glass-roofed atriums. It has 64 glass-cubed meeting rooms, 34 “breakout” spaces where employees are encouraged to work collectively, and two auditoriums – the “Onesie” and the “Twosie” – with a capacity for 235. Only healthy foods are subsidised at the cafe.
Reinforcing the dotcom vibe, there is a 415-inch plasma screen in the mezzanine-surrounded courtyard, which plays footage on a loop of Primark new store openings. Below it there is also what appears to be a large, ornamental staircase. It goes nowhere – steps for the sake of steps – but the summit appears to have been expropriated by staff as another informal meeting area. “Some of them call it the Spanish Steps,” she says, grinning.
She may be the matriarch of a burgeoning, volume-driven, youth-orientated fashion retailer now. But all this glass, steel and modern appeal is irreconcilable with the picture of O’Donoghue’s youth. She was, she says, a “farm girl”.
Primark might be about to make its transatlantic mark on Boston, but O’Donoghue was born in the original of the species – Boston in Co Clare, near to the Galway border. She describes an almost idyllic childhood, working hard, learning values.
Her eyes light up at the mention of one of her favourite childhood memories – Paddy, the family’s horse. Even then, it seems she had an appreciation for fashion, albeit of the equestrian variety.
“There was tremendous pride in Paddy because he was a beautiful horse. We used to make him pretty with bells and bows. He was our pride and joy, and we had a beautiful trap for him with gold and black and lights at the side. I still have photos of him.”
O’Donoghue travelled to Gort to attend the local convent school. As the family had no transport apart from Paddy, she had to lodge in the town as it was too far to walk or cycle to school. Perhaps this early, albeit pragmatic, separation from her homestead contributed to the wanderlust that gripped her as a young woman.
After she finished school, O’Donoghue wanted to attend third level but couldn’t afford it. As she figured out what to do over the summer she took a job in the Great Southern Hotel in Galway. It sparked a 17-year love affair, prior to her retailing career, with the hospitality industry.
She soon moved abroad, working her way around Switzerland and Germany as a stagiaire – a hotel trainee – developing the ability to speak several European languages as she went.
“It was an unusual path for a young girl at the time, yes, but it was a great experience. I experienced great culture, diversity, new languages,” she says.
Years later, due to her association with the Shannon College of Hotel Management, she was involved in sending other Irish young people to Switzerland to learn the nuts and bolts of the hotel trade while on placement.
“They were well prepared, if only because I had the experience of doing it with no preparation.”
She returned from her European sojourn to rejoin the Great Southern Group, quickly rising through the ranks. She became a hotel assistant manager, then managed the Great Southern in Bundoran, Co Donegal for a single season.
Aged about 24 she moved to Dublin to be part of the group’s research and development team. This was also a formative period in her life. When she reached the capital she sated her yearning for further education by enrolling in UCD to do a business degree by night.
“It was wonderful to get a third-level education. I got to mix the world of work with the world of scholarship. But being a night student I didn’t get the whole human education. Still, the lecturers were wonderful. But I had to keep down a job, cycle between them and pay my own way.”
Rather than studying for an MBA following her graduation, O'Donoghue chose to take another job in the Great Southern group, managing the finances for five of its hotels. She was still in her late 20s when she left UCD.
After subsequently setting up the Great Southern’s first human-resources department, she was approached by a dynamic retail executive to do the same for the fast- growing fashion business he ran. He was Arthur Ryan and the business was Penneys, which was at that time just breaking into the UK as Primark.
The move changed the course of her career and her life.
O’Donoghue was 35 when she joined the company for which she still works. She started the week Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. Her apparently vivid memories of that time involve a meshing of traditional religious faith with an exuberant idealism.
“I remember [the pope’s visit] like it was yesterday. It struck me that anything was possible. There was no difficulty about doing things – they just got done. It reminded me of 1990 and the World Cup – people went to Italy then and their colleagues stood in for them in work. Everybody was where they were supposed to be, everything ran on time. It was such a magnificent event for the country.”
Primark’s then-nascent expansion into the UK was what attracted her, she said. At the time the company had 21 outlets. It is now 14 times larger with 58,000 employees, including more than 5,000 in this country.
“I started with responsibility for human resources, which I looked after until last year. But, of course, other responsibilities got added over the years.”
Along with Ryan and the other members of the “Gang of Four”, since retired senior executives
, she built Primark with a model of on-trend fashions, sourced cheaply, at the lowest prices on the market.
“We’re a value player and price accordingly,” she says. “We sell a million pairs of socks per day – that’s a lot of socks – and that sort of volume allows us to buy at good prices. We book stock well in advance, we have an efficient back office and supply chain and we sell almost all our own brands. It’s quite simple, really.”
O’Donoghue has variously been in charge of HR, advertising and other senior corporate roles at Primark, and has been a director of the business since 1988. Currently she is in charge of new markets and business development, a vital role given its major expansion on two fronts. She chairs a committee of 18 senior executives that oversees this.
She is also responsible for corporate affairs, customer services and corporate travel. O'Donoghue is also a director of C&C, the Bulmers/Magners cidermaker, and she chairs the Labour Relations Commission. She has in the past served on the boards of Aer Rianta and An Post, among several others.
O’Donoghue can be found representing the group at new store openings all over the continent, invariably speaking in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch. She says she is still learning the latter two languages.
She has also represented Primark in less comfortable situations.
In April 2013 a poorly maintained building housing one of its sourcing factories in Bangladesh, at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, collapsed with the loss of 1,129 lives. O’Donoghue describes 638 of those who perished as “our people”.
The tragedy sparked an emotional debate about the business practices of western companies, many of which source their textiles and ranges from poor Asian countries such as Bangladesh. Are outrages such as this the real price of a €3 T-shirt, people asked?
Although many retailers sourced clothes from the building, Primark came in for most scrutiny. O'Donoghue and Paul Marchant, who replaced Ryan as chief executive, led the company's response.
They travelled to Dhaka in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, helping to distribute aid to those affected, and guaranteeing the mostly poor women who worked for the contractor their wages for nine months. Primark carried out a structural audit of its 103 contract manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh, and O’Donoghue liaised with authorities who helped draft new building oversight codes.
The company was eventually namechecked on the front page of the New York Times for its upfront response to the crisis.
Protecting Primark’s brand in the face of such a critical reputational threat may well have been at the back of their minds, but O’Donoghue maintains it was about “doing the right thing”. She talks at length about the company’s ethical code, and points out, with some justification, that most of the impoverished women who work in these factories have a better life than most other women in their countries.
“You’re faced with a problem and you just have to deal with it,” she says. “If the same thing happened tomorrow you’d do it again.”
She pauses, before quickly picking up the slack.
“But main thing is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. As best you can.”
Man of the world
As well as her business career, O’Donoghue is stepmother to 10 grown-up children. Eight of them attended her alma mater, UCD, where her late husband studied to be a doctor. The only time she appears wistful is when she briefly discusses her loss, which she says was “many years ago”.
“He has gone to God, but he was the love of my life. There would only be one. I was very fortunate to have my career when I lost him, and he was hugely supportive throughout my career. He was a man of the world.”
She smiles slightly. It is a longing smile.
Looking back on her career, she picks out her time in Northern Ireland with Great Southern in the troubled 1970s as one memory that particularly stands out: “This was Irish people shooting one another. It was terrible – it was a risk just getting from one place to another.”
She also picks out Primark’s corporate milestones – the 100th store in 2000, the first shop on the continent in 2006, the announcement of its US plans. The company has already signed an agreement with Sears to rent space at at least six mall sites in the northeastern US.
O’Donoghue also has kind words for Ryan, a retailing industry legend, who is still the chairman of Primark in his 80th year.
“He is superb in his own way. I suppose you could say he’s a legend but I’ve been lucky enough to work with many legends. He knows the business, he’s a good businessman and a good friend.”
O’Donoghue will give a speech tonight, when she picks up her UCD award at the InterContinental hotel in Ballsbridge, just up the road from her house. What advice will she give people?
“Business is still a major part of my life. It makes me very happy. But you need determination, tenacity, and don’t be afraid to take risks. You have to be yourself.”
When it comes to her values, the lady is not for turning. CV Name: Breege O'Donoghue Age: 70 Home: Ballsbridge, Dublin Family: Widowed, 10 stepchildren, 35 grandchildren First job: Great Southern Hotel, Galway Hobbies: Bikram yoga, cycling, the gym. Something we would expect: She loves to wear Penneys clothes.
Something that would surprise: She has been to eight prisons (as a member of the Commission of Inquiry into the Reform of the Penal System chaired by TK Whittaker in the 1980s).