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A long tradition of equality and diversity

Orla Hughes of Portwest workwear is proud the company’s record on equality and fairness goes back four generations

Equality and fairness are very much part of the DNA of the Portwest workwear business, according to Orla Hughes. Based in Westport, Co Mayo, Portwest is the world’s fastest growing workwear company, with sales last year of €167 million in 110 countries around the world.

“It’s a very exciting time to be in the business,” says Hughes, who joined as commercial manager for Europe last year. “We are growing at 30 per cent per annum, with 75 to 80 per cent of the business in Europe and the UK. We now employ 400 people, 90 of them in our Westport HQ.”

The business was founded in 1904 by her great-uncle Charles Hughes. “He passed it on to my grandfather Padraig Hughes and 40 years ago it was taken over by my father Henry and his brothers Cathal and Eoin. They took it from a national business to a being a global company. The fourth generation of the family has started working in the business over the past three to four years.”

She is proud of the company’s track record on equality and diversity. “The biggest diversity issue for us is gender,” she says. “In Europe, 40 per cent of our employees are women. In Westport, it is two-thirds women. What’s really key for us is that half of the eight heads of department in Ireland are women. You hear a lot of the time that women are not making it to senior roles. That’s not the case with Portwest. It’s 50-50 at that level. Above heads of department, it’s family members so the gender issue is not in play there.”


Role model

Her grandmother has acted as a role model for others to follow. "My cousin recently showed me a picture of a story from the Sunday Press newspaper in 1968 about my grandmother Maura Hughes who had set up her own business with my grandfather," Hughes says.

“When we hear about women in leadership roles, we tend to look to America, but I take a lot of pride in the fact that in the late 1960s in Ireland there was an article about a woman in the west of Mayo with 13 kids who had started her own business,” she says. “She started up the Carraig Donn knitwear business with the support of my grandfather. There were a number of reasons why my grandmother started the business. Firstly, she didn’t want her children to go to England for jobs during the summer. She also wanted to give women in Ireland a chance to earn money for themselves and their families at a time when married women weren’t allowed to work outside the home. This was pre-1973 when that law changed.

“My father grew up in a household with this mentality,” she says. “All the children were given the same opportunities and education. And we believe that those family values should match the company values. These are the values that our grandparents gave to their children and our parents gave to us. My grandfather supported his wife to be successful in developing her business in an era when that wasn’t the norm. It is now the norm for us.”

Orla Hughes was a participant in IMI's Taking the Lead - Women in Leadership programme: imi.ie/courses/taking-lead-women-leadership