Galen Weston obituary: retail genius with strong Irish links

Anglo-Canadian’s business empire included Brown Thomas, Penneys and Arnotts

 Galen Weston in 2009 with his wife Hilary when she  recieved a degree of doctor of literature  at UCD. Photograph/RollingNews.ie

Galen Weston in 2009 with his wife Hilary when she recieved a degree of doctor of literature at UCD. Photograph/RollingNews.ie

 

Born: October 29th, 1940

Died: April 12th, 2021

In any history of Irish retailing in recent decades, one name will likely stand out – that of Anglo-Canadian businessman, Galen Weston.

Weston, who has died aged 80, was the driving force behind a transatlantic company with landmark stores in North America, the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands.

His and his family’s connection to Ireland was and remains profound, both in business and in personal terms. He came to the country, a young man in a hurry, setting up a grocery store that he turned into a supermarket chain.

In short order, he married one of Ireland’s highest profile fashion models, bought the country’s premier up-market department store and then gave it to her as a present.

And, to cap it all, he narrowly escaped being kidnapped by the IRA.

Any one of these would have marked a man as someone out of the ordinary. For Weston, they were all merely individual incidents in a long life of achievement.

Willard Gordon Galen Weston was born in Marlow, Buckinghamshire in 1940, the youngest of nine children to Canadian parents then living in England. Aged five, the family returned to live in Canada where Galen spent his formative years. He studied business, arts and science at Huron University and the University of Western Ontario

As a young man, he worked in his father’s retail outlets and in time became the third generation leader of a business founded by his grandfather, George Weston.

George began his career as a baker’s apprentice in Toronto, eventually founding his own baking and distribution company. By 1900, George Weston Ltd, maker of Weston’s Home-Made Bread, was the largest baker in Canada.

George’ son, Willard Garfield Weston, took the company public in 1928 and began acquiring other enterprises in Canada, the US and in the UK.

By the outbreak of the second World War, the company had 30 bakeries in the UK and, while based there, Garfield Weston also became an MP for the Conservative Party, simultaneously expanding his Fine Fare supermarket chain into Associated British Foods, which he continued to grow through the 1950s and 1960s and was run by Galen’s brother Gary who died in 2002.

Following university, in 1962, Galen Weston moved from Canada to Dublin and, with his own money, opened his first grocery shop. A second followed and, by 1965, there were six – the embryonic Powers Supermarkets chain.

Four years later, he bought the bankrupt Todd Burns department store on Mary Street in Dublin and turned it into Penneys, opening four more shops and, within two years, 11 more, including one in Northern Ireland.

In 1966, he married Dublin-born fashion model Hilary Frayne. Both were strikingly good looking and cut a dash on the social scene at the time, especially when it came to polo (a sport at which Weston excelled) and matters equestrian in general.

Hilary Weston became involved in the business, particularly with Penneys and the Primark fashion brand, and as a director of Brown Thomas. (She has had a notable career, both in business and politics, including serving as lieutenant governor of Ontario, 1997-2002.)

In the 1970s, Powers Supermarkets was big enough to swallow its rival chain Quinnsworth and, in 1971, Weston bought an interest Brown Thomas (which he gave to his wife, echoing his own father’s present of Fortnum & Mason, the high-end grocery shop on London’s Piccadilly, to his wife, Weston’s mother).

Weston acquired full ownership of Brown Thomas in 1984.

In the early 1970s, following the birth in Ireland of their two children, Alannah and Galen jnr, the couple moved to Canada where George Weston Ltd’s frozen food grocery chain Loblaw was in danger of collapse.

Galen shut failing stores and focused on product development and marketing. With the help of William Shatner (in his pre-Captain James T Kirk mode) and a dancing penguin, the actor assured potential customers through TV commercials that at Loblaw, “more than the price is right”.

It worked. Loblaw is now “by far the largest, most powerful grocer” in Canada, according to board member Anthony Fell. It is also the most profitable. As a measure of his comeback success, in 2013, Loblaw bought Canada’s Shoppers Drug Mart, a pharmacy chain, for about $12 billion.

Although resident in Canada, the Westons continued to maintain a home in Ireland – the estate of the former president Sean T O’Kelly, near Roundwood in Co Wicklow. It was there in 1983 that an anti-terrorist Garda unit foiled an attempt by five IRA gunmen to kidnap the Westons. The gang’s intelligence was lacking (in more ways than one) as the family had been alerted and was away. The gardaí ambushed the gang.

In 1990 and with the help of Brown Thomas’s then managing director, George McCullagh, the up-market Grafton Street retailer took over the Switzer Group, which gave Weston’s burgeoning Irish empire control of Cash’s of Cork, Moon’s of Galway and Todd’s of Limerick.

In 2003, he bought Britain’s Selfridges Retail Ltd, owner of a UK chain, including the flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, and which is now the holding company for Holt Renfrew in Canada, de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands, Brown Thomas in Ireland, and Arnotts, acquired in 2015 and run now as Brown Thomas Arnotts Ltd.

Selfridges is now run by the Weston’s daughter, Alannah, while their son Galen jnr, a former investment banking analyst with Salomon Brothers, is chairman and chief executive of George Weston Ltd, executive chairman of Loblaw and chairman of Choice Properties, an investment trust.

“My father’s greatest gift was inspiring those around him to achieve more than they thought possible,” said Galen jnr.

Throughout his life, Galen Weston maintained close contacts with friends and business associates in Ireland. All spoke fondly of him this week, many describing him as inspirational in his approach to business.

Paul Kelly, former managing director of Brown Thomas, said Weston was, quite simply, “an amazing man”.

“We worked together for over 37 years and I loved him dearly. He was always so full of energy and a joy to be with; in his company you always felt you were the centre of his attention.

“He also had this uncanny sense of knowing what was coming around the corner, always trusting his own instincts. Galen loved the business of retail, talking to customers and teams on the shop floor, hearing what was new and exciting. I think perhaps this is where he was at his happiest; in the boardroom he was a razor-sharp operator always one step ahead of us all.”

Kelly said Weston “loved Irish people, the humour, the work ethic. He had a great affinity and belief in Ireland and its people”.

Last year, the Weston family wealth was estimated by Forbes to be $7 billion (€5.8bn); Bloomberg said it was $10.7bn (€9bn). A UK newspaper suggested it stood at €11.8bn ($14.4bn).

After retirement in 2016, Weston continued to work with the family’s charitable foundations, which have donated some $100 million to research into Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and motor neuron disease, and patronised numerous galleries and museums across Canada.

Galen Weston died in Toronto “peacefully at home after a long illness faced with courage and dignity”, his family said in a statement. He is survived by his wife and two children.