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Galen Weston's Influence On The Irish Grocery Trade Is Still Being Felt Today: Analysis

British-Canadian businessman Galen Weston, who has passed away at the age of 80, leaves behind a vast business empire on both sides of the Atlantic, including controlling stakes in Loblaw and Primark owner Associated British Foods, as well as the prestigious Selfridges, Brown Thomas and De Bijenkorf department stores.

Commenting on his passing, his son, Galen G. Weston, chairman and CEO of George Weston Limited, said in a statement, "The luxury retail industry has lost a great visionary. His energy electrified those of us who were lucky enough to work alongside him to reimagine what customer experience could be."

One of Weston's longest-standing business relationships, however was with the Irish grocery industry; a legacy that is still felt to this day.

Early Start

Having completed his education at the University of Western Ontario, Weston moved to Dublin to set up a grocery store, a venture that would evolve into the Power Supermarkets business, launched in 1964.

As he told Irish Business in 1981, Ireland at the time was "where the real opportunities existed. The population was coming to Dublin, the European Community was becoming more and more aware of Ireland. [Sean] Lemass was beginning to take a different perspective upon capital coming into the country and it looked like there was going to be a major opportunity for growth."

Power Supermarkets grew rapidly. In 1965, Weston ploughed £5,000 of his own money into the development of a new shopping centre in Phibsborough, while also snapping up available sites in Dublin and its surrounding area.

He married former model Hilary Freyne a year later, and by 1967, Weston's Power Supermarkets business had 13 outlets in Dublin, Dun Laoghaire and Drogheda. The same year saw him acquire Todco Limited, the holding company for the Todd Burns department store on Mary Street – which would become the first location for the Penneys chain (known as Primark overseas).

Weston also proved eager to evolve with the times; in the late 60s, Power Supermarkets became the first Irish operator to accept payment by cheque, up to a value of £10.

Speaking in 1969, following the acquisition of a number of Findlaters outlets – which took his supermarket estate to 28 sites – Weston revealed that his business operated on a "net profit of 1.5% to 2%", adding that each shop assistant in each of his stores had to take in "a minimum of £300" per person per week.

Quinnsworth Takeover

Arguably his shrewdest grocery purchase – at least on this side of the Atlantic, following his father's move for Loblaw in the early 70s – came in 1972, as he took over the Quinnsworth business from founder Pat Quinn, making the latter a millionaire by the age of 36.

As Quinn recalled in an interview with the Toronto Star in 2008, shortly before his death, Weston phoned the popular polo-necked entrepreneur on 12 May 1972 to make a bid for Quinnsworth, only to be told "My stores are not for sale."

"Everything's for sale," was Weston's reply.

Competitive Streak

The growth of the Power supermarket business, now trading as Quinnsworth, meant that Weston had cause to demonstrate his competitive streak; in 1973 he acquired the Kilbarrack Shopping Centre from Joe McMenanim just as rival Ben Dunne was purchasing a six-acre site in the village, sparking a battle for the attention of the North Dublin shopper.

Elsewhere, Quinnsworth's 'Price War 81' campaign, in which the grocer cut prices on a number of staple items, led to a major grocery price battle; rival Superquinn responded with Price Guard, where it promised to meet or beat its competitor's prices on 300 items.

Weston had cause to be adventurous; after all, his Quinnsworth chain held 14% of the then £1.4 billon Irish grocery market (in 1981), compared to Dunnes Stores with 8% and Superquinn and Tesco (in its first Irish incarnation) on 4% each.

Yellow Pack

Another celebrated innovation was the extension of the Yellow Pack private label range – originally trialled in both Loblaw and Weston's UK-based Fine Fare business. The range, which included a range of essential purchases, cost between 10% and 25% cheaper than major brands in their respective categories.

The ramping up of this range in the early 80s drawing the ire of the Irish Goods Council, whose chief executive, Vivian Murray, told Checkout, "We are dealing with what we see, and here we suddenly saw a range of imported products competing directly with Irish-made goods. [...] Considering the present economic situation in Ireland, Quinnsworth were remarkably insensitive in this case. They might have taken account of the fact that their action could spark off a reaction by other chains to import at a particularly sensitive time for the Irish economy."

Quinnsworth rejected the charges, noting that of the 27 products on sale at the time, 22 were manufactured in Ireland.

In 1983, however, Irish business circles were reeling with the news of a foiled kidnapping attempt on Weston; sadly, the vice-chairman of Quinnsworth, Don Tidey wasn't as lucky, as he was abducted by IRA members four months later.

Tesco's decision to exit the Irish market in 1986 further furnished Weston's growing Quinnsworth empire, as outlets in Lucan, Ballyfermot, Bray and Newbridge, as well as the former Tesco flagship in Nutrgrove, became part of its group. Meanwhile, a year later, the surprise collapse of the H Williams chain also boosted the chain's growing portfolio.

End Of An Era

Tesco's decision to exit the Republic lasted just over a decade, however, as in 1997, the then-Terry Leahy led chain swooped for the Power Supermarkets Group, which encompassed 75 Quinnsworth and Crazy Prices outlets across the country.

"We haven't bought this business to shrink it, but grow it," Leahy said at a press conference to announced the deal, thus ending Weston's involvement in Irish grocery.

That most of the former Quinnsworth sites are still trading to this day – in most of the same locations – is a testament to Weston's dogged determination to foster an Irish grocery retail chain that could stand the test of time.

[Picture: W. Galen Weston, 1999, Loblaws Queen’s Quay, Toronto (CNW Group/George Weston Limited)]

© 2021 European Supermarket Magazine – your source for the latest retail news. Article by Stephen Wynne-Jones. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: The European Supermarket Magazine.

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