New era for Kilkenny Group as Marian O’Gorman steps down after 22 years

Evelyn Moynihan steps up to lead the luxury goods retailer through pandemic

Marian O'Gorman, who for 22 years has been the driving force behind the Kilkenny Group's luxury goods outlets, is to step down as chief executive of the business. She will be replaced this month by fellow Cork native Evelyn Moynihan.

Ms Moynihan takes the helm after 16 months in various senior executive roles in the group, which comprises 16 outlets including its Dublin flagship on Nassau Street, five restaurants and an e-commerce division.

Ms O'Gorman will retain ownership of Kilkenny along with her four children and Conor Lynch, the group's finance director. She will become chairperson of its board of directors with special responsibility for its involvement in the Champion Green initiative, which promotes Irish SMEs and designers.

“It will be great for me to have her by my shoulder,” said Ms Moynihan, who has spent much of the pandemic expanding Kilkenny’s online business.

Ms Moynihan, who previously worked in senior roles for Diageo and Musgrave, takes over the business at a critical juncture. Kilkenny operates at the nexus of the three sectors of the economy most affected by the pandemic: retail, hospitality and tourism.

Prior to the arrival of coronavirus, tourists accounted for about 30 per cent of its sales, which were €34 million. According to Ms Moynihan, the pandemic wiped 45 per cent off its revenues but she is confident of a revival as soon as restrictions are lifted.

Some of Kilkenny’s rivals, such as House of Ireland, went bust after last year’s lockdowns and the overnight absence of international tourists who spent heavily on luxury Irish design goods in its stores.

‘Baptism of fire’

“It has been a tough year, a baptism of fire. Retail and hospitality have been shut for seven of the last 12 months. But we took the opportunity during this period to invest in our e-commerce platform and turn the group into a proper omnichannel retailer,” says Ms Moynihan.

Kilkenny employs 290 staff, although about 180 are currently laid off. As the pandemic laid waste to its traditional retail channels, Kilkenny Group invested €1.4 million in an overhaul of its IT and customer service systems. Online revenues, which were just 4 per cent of its sales, have grown by 300 per cent over the last 12 months and are currently almost a quarter of its business, with many staff redeployed from other parts of the business to cope with its online surge..

Its latest technology investments include a new virtual reality tour of its flagship Nassau Street store, which allows customers to “walk” around the outlet and virtually browse the shelves. It is set for a “soft launch” in coming weeks.

Ms Moynihan says Kilkenny is also focused on a drive for more export sales to the US – high-spending American tourists are traditionally prominent among its customer base.

“The domestic market still accounts for the majority of our e-commerce sales. Irish customers have actively sought to support local businesses in the pandemic and three-quarter of our goods are Irish designed and made.”

Pivoting to move with consumer trends created by the pandemic, Kilkenny has grown its sales of luxury homewares over the last year, as customers locked down and working from home invest in brightening up their surroundings with artworks, throws and other luxury goods, Ms Moynihan says.

“People have been buying pieces of Irish art to hang on the wall where they are visible for Zoom calls,” she says.

Click and collect

The group has adapted also adapted to the pandemic with a new click & collect service, which is suspended under anti-virus restrictions but which Ms Moynihan hopes to resume in coming weeks if the Government, as expected, gives the all-clear next month.

It is also investing in in-store technology, in anticipation of a reopening of its physical stores in coming months if the pandemic recedes. For example, Kilkenny Group will install iPads at strategic locations for customers to order from the store for home delivery later.

“We’re conscious that Irish households saved more than €13 billion last year. If we get a full reopening, we’re confident that we can quickly get revenues back to 2019 levels. But the mix will be different,” says Ms Moynihan.

“But there needs to be a reopening plan for the sector from Government. Even if it contains no dates, at least give us the sequencing of events. At the moment, we can’t even get builders in to revamp stores. It’s very frustrating. But we just have to adapt and get on with it.”

Ms O’Gorman, who previously worked at the Blarney Woollen Mills group for 28 years before Kilkenny was demerged from that business in 1999, said she is “excited for the future” and that she will focus on further growing Champion Green, which provides marketing supports and training to SMEs.