Penneys: A look behind the scenes at the fashion empire
Six key figures at the Irish retailer talk about keeping the show on the road as it celebrates 50 years
Primark people: Sharon Singleton, Jermaine Lapwood and Kelly-Ann Carroll
What happens behind the scenes at Penneys, the Irish fashion chain, which turns 50 this year? At the Dublin headquarters we meet six key people in the empire, which now has 371 Penneys and Primark stores here and across Europe and the United States, with more to open next year.
Born in London to Jamaican and Irish parents, with roots in Co Mayo and Co Kerry, Jermaine Lapwood is Primark’s head of innovation and future trends. Passionate about designing clothes – he was drawing trainers on the back of his maths book at school – the father of two, who is based in Manchester, set up his own clothing company at the age of 16 before heading to university.
After stints with Marks & Spencer, Matalan and Donna Karan in New York, he moved to Primark in 2014 as head of womenswear design, before taking up his current post four months ago. His challenge? How to engage Primark’s 75,000 employees in sharing ideas about improving customer experience.
The Birmingham megastore shows the way, with its Disney cafe, barbershop and blow-dry salon. “I don’t believe the high street is dead,” says Lapwood. “Retail is much more than just selling product, so my role is how to create excitement in a store every single day.”
Adam Gaffey, an assistant buyer who started at Penneys as a trainee in men’s jerseys and T-shirts, is a former part-time model and founder of Men’s Fashion Ireland, an independent magazine that appeared for five years. His job means buying for an established menswear market – 25 per cent of those choices would be his own taste, he says. Communicating with people, seeing how things are done efficiently and looking at different business models are key to his work.
“We have sales meetings every Monday involving all regions, so you can identify regional differences. Spain and Portugal, for instance, shop for bright colour early in the season, whereas the Irish customer is quite safe but is shopping for more trend-driven items. I enjoy the pace of fashion and like being under pressure in a business that has evolved so much in two years.”
Lorraine Culligan, Primark’s group director for people and culture, has worked with the company for 14 years under the acclaimed Breege O’Donoghue, Primark’s executive director. From Mullingar, and with a degree in social science from University College Dublin, she cut her teeth during eight years at Dunnes Stores “so retail is all I have ever known – it’s in my blood”.
She clearly remembers her first interview with O’Donoghue. “I was just engaged and had wondered whether to wear my ring or not. O’Donoghue saw it, but all she said was, ‘Have you any special holidays coming up this year?’”
Culligan’s job entails hiring and managing talent, focusing on employees’ learning and development, and connecting the company’s staff with one another.
“Small details are important in terms of how you do business. I have to be commercial, as a financial person, as well as maintaining professional standards. There is no hierarchy [in Primark]. Everybody is accessible. When interviewing I look for someone with passion for the customer, with a passion for retail, one who has lots of ideas, is going to be committed to the end and who is flexible and open to change.”
With two young daughters and a job entailing almost weekly travel abroad, she has a demanding remit, but she is disciplined, rising at 5.30am, going to the gym at 6.30am and being at her desk at 8am. “I have to lead by example, and I love people and helping them sort out problems – but I realise the importance of companies having to be a lot more flexible about how and when people work; you don’t have to be in the office all the time. The world is changing.”
MARCELLA PEATE SORENSEN
Marcella Peate Soresen, who is personal assistant to Primark’s chief executive, Paul Marchant, was born in Denmark and came to Ireland at the age of 10. After her Leaving Certificate her mother urged her to “get out of the house and get a job”; she applied to Penneys “because I love wearing their clothes”. She spent five years working in sales and customer service on Mary Street in Dublin before moving to reception and administration. She was Culligan’s PA for nearly two years before taking up her present position, last November.
“It’s more of a partnership,” she says. “It could be everything from getting a cup of tea to booking travel and being a bit of a sounding board and confidante. It’s a privileged position, and there is a lot of listening. He is so accessible and will always give people a bit of time, and never lets emotion get the better of him, being more of a solutions person, level-headed, patient and kind.”
She loves her work; its pace is challenging but rewarding. “If you show ambition you can end up anywhere in the business.”
From Ennis, in Co Clare, Sharon Singleton who Primark’s head of merchandising. As well as having a degree in business and marketing from the University of Limerick, she won a Fulbright scholarship through Enterprise Ireland to Parsons School of Design, in New York, and worked in fashion for the Children’s Place and Donna Karan in Manhattan, acquiring experience in both merchandising and buying.
“You were encouraged to try a lot of things, and I was told I had a flair for merchandising, so I gave it a go and have been with Primark for 11 years,” she says. So what does merchandising entail? “It’s the financial and numbers side. How much do we buy? How many stores does it go to? Which regions? How long does it remain on sale? And overall profitability. Of course, there are risks, but no-risk is not safe – for me that is what the business is based on.
Our open-plan offices are great places to form relationships, and what I love most is seeing talent coming through. My job is to create an environment for champions; it’s about people management and less about spreadsheets. The job can entail having to decide between 3,000 and 3,500 colour options across 15 categories [in any one season], and we analyse our sales every week.”
Ask Singleton about adverse publicity and she replies: “We take our responsibilities very seriously and support local farmers. Ninety-eight per cent of our factories are shared with other retailers, and we are proud of our sustainable-cotton programme and ladies’ denim range. We have a massive footprint in the world, and we ensure that our standards are kept high.”
Armed with a degree in history and Irish, Kelly-Ann Carroll started her career at Primark 12 years ago, as an administrator and trainee buyer, although her relationship with the company started as a child, when she modelled childrenswear – her godfather was the late Arthur Ryan, founder of the company.
As a buyer of men’s T-shirts, she was head of the biggest section of menswear after three years with the company, at the age of 26 – “a big achievement for me and my team”.
She has learnt a lot from her godfather. “I was lucky in having spent time with him and learning from him. I always wanted to be a buyer, but he really gave me an insight, as he was a buyer himself, so I went in with my eyes open and had a great understanding of the business from an early age.
“It is how you need to be on top of everything and focus on the customer and listen to them... We have to have amazing fashion at the right time but also introduce these other exciting experiences for them.”
Carroll’s role now involves product marketing for menswear and beauty, along with project management and collaborations sourcing the right brand ambassadors. (Starting this weekend, each region’s top Primark influencer will be wearing the latest collections in the “Primark 50” windows that will appear in all of the company’s stores.)
“You have to understand your customers, about how they spend in the marketplace and in other stores; you have to observe their behaviour, how they are interacting and how social media is growing, as well as what is being predicted from a trend point of view, history of sales, and bring those elements together. Spending time in the store is really important.”
Photography: Naomi Gaffey. Styling: Corina Gaffey. Hair: Joe Hayes. Make-up: Kate O Reilly