Leadership style: Primark’s Breege O’Donoghue

In a 37-year career Breege O’Donoghue played a decisive role in turning Primark/Penneys from an Irish brand into a global retail giant. This is her story.

At the Legend of Business interview at The Real Deal 2019 in Goffs recently, Penneys/Primary matriarch Breege O’Donoghue recounted key moments in her career and how she emerged to be one of the key drivers of Primark’s expansion over the years. O’Donoghue was one of the tightknit group of executives who worked with Primark’s visionary founder Arthur Ryan, who sadly passed away earlier this year, to make Primark one of the world’s foremost retail brands.

She officially retired from Primark in 2016 after 37 years of outstanding leadership. A graduate of UCD and a chartered director, O’Donoghue is still active in business is currently chair of the Business and Human Rights Implementation Group, chair of Real World Analytics, and chair of The Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, a non-executive director of Fáilte Ireland, a non-executive director of Shaw & Sons Ltd, a board member of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, and a member of the Outside Appointments Board (Civil Service Code of Standards and Behaviour).

“Have a plan and you can achieve that plan. You can do anything you want, provided your mind is made up”

For such an illustrious career, O’Donoghue’s origins were humble. “Growing up in rural Ireland in the village of Boston in north Clare – almost on the edge of the world – and in a loving family home, my earliest childhood memory when I was not yet four years old was the Arctic freeze, blizzards and snowdrifts that ripped Ireland in 1947 for three whole months.”

She described the family farm as both idyllic and hard work with a plethora of jobs to do before even going to school. “My Mercedes was Paddy, a beautiful horse with plaits and bells that brought us in a gleaming trap to mass and to the seaside on Sundays.” Money was tight and was always put aside for the rainy day.

“Christmas was magical. With all its preparations of making the plum puddings, plucking the geese and the turkeys, decorating the Christmas tree and waiting in anticipation of Santa.”

As O’Donoghue recalled, learning wasn’t only what happened at the school desk and she describes herself as a blend of formal and informal learning, having been too late for the hedge schools which thrived in the 19th century and too early for Donncha O’Malley’s free education reforms of 1967.

“1950s Ireland had a different educational landscape. Many pupils did not complete their primary education. Few went to secondary level and a tiny proportion reached third level. Taking 1950 as a snapshot, 14 was the established school leaving age and the the number of full-time students at universities was 7,900.”

O’Donoghue showed academic promise and her parents were determined that she get the best education possible and so at 13 she was sent to the Sisters of Mercy convent in Gort. She describes the education she received as academic rather than technical or scientific.

“It was WB Yeats who said education is not the filling of the pail but lighting the fire. Career guidance didn’t feature, the closest was the reverend mother trying to coax me into the Order to no avail. My colleagues and my family say ‘thank God, the church had a lucky escape.’ Career choice in those days wasn’t determined by ability but by means, I didn’t have the option to pursue a university degree at that stage, but I did have ambition. However, the foundation of education served me well as did a strong work ethic that was developed so well at home.”

The times they are a-changin’

Woman in brown silk dress with red hair on a white couch.

Breege O’Donoghue on stage at the Real Deal 2019 event in Goffs. Image: John Kennedy

Arriving into the world of work of the 1960s O’Donoghue was fortunate to get the opportunity to live and work in Switzerland and Germany which she said fostered her love of diversity, culture and language.

“40 years ago, on the final day of Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland historic visit I joined Penneys/Primark and became a board member eight years later. There were 24 stores then, now there are 370 in 12 countries and more than 75,000 employees.

“Over the years Primark’s strategic vision, branding and the estate has evolved in dramatic fashion through professional product knowledge, inspirational leadership and it continues to offer customers rich experiences”

“Yes, I have many memories. The late 60s was about pop music, long hair, psychedelic dresses. Much of it passed me by as I was in the world of work. The tone was set by the international student promise, the Civil Rights marches where Martin Luther King supporters sang ‘We Shall Overcome’. But closer to home in Ireland we had closer troubles and brightening horizons.

“My educational ambition was realised when I graduated college in UCD in 1972 by being a night student. I was also fortunate in my 55-year career to attend many short programmes of study over the over the years, including Cornell University Business School, and of course language courses in Germany, Spain and France. During my continued working years, I was witness to many positive events to for women. For example, the implementation of equal pay, improvement to the status of women, equality recognised and efforts to end discrimination against sex, race or otherwise. I salute these changes.

“A steep learning curve was the demise of the printed press and the explosion of disruptive technology, the digital revolution or third Industrial Revolution, the Information Age came fast and furious at me at mid-career stage. For a while the young excelled while the over 40s struggled. Praise the Lord, I got through somehow.

“My career in Primark has spanned many high levels of activities on people and culture, commercial and business development but particular involvement internationally, including introducing Primark to the US.”

What leadership is about

O’Donoghue said that the full story of how Primark grew to become the company it is today has yet to be told and paid homage to Athur Ryan’s vision which centred on customer experience.

“In whatever role one plays in leadership, being true to yourself, show courage, independence and initiative and appreciate the need to recognise respect and value differences with passion, persistence and tenacity”

“However, it will be something like this. Over the years Primark’s strategic vision, branding and the estate has evolved in dramatic fashion through professional product knowledge, inspirational leadership and it continues to offer customers rich experiences. Innovation is key, offering best value whilst maintaining leadership in every market; like my €20 dress from this year’s collection – you can add another €9 for what you can’t see,” she joked.

“Primark enjoys number one market share in Ireland, Spain, Portugal and the UK, competing with world brands in Europe and the US. Primark continues to grow its business in new markets, where Primark is eagerly awaited. New store openings are often reported in the media as pop concerts. The authorities in Europe with whom we collaborate welcome us with open arms, the property developers seek us out, the high street and shopping centre management view Primark as an important way to deliver an exciting shopping environment with greater choice and particularly increased footfall to their locations.

“Primark’s business is agile, very little hierarchy, short lines of communication with common beliefs as a core vocabulary. Primark strives to drive continuous improvement, serve the customer better, consistently, more profitably by adapting constantly to major changes in the market. These are the fundamentals of the Primark business model, which we breathe day in, day out.”

O’Donoghue said that ethics is at the heart of the Primark story. “The concept of ethics can appear esoteric, as if in an ivory tower, a branch of philosophy. It is of course, a branch of philosophy concerning itself with the study of human values and the principles and methods for distinguishing right from wrong and good from bad. Ethics is not only for philosophers but for businesses too and in everything you endeavour. Ethics and values are words that tend to be used rather vaguely and have a number of different meanings. Ethics is about not only words and endeavours but ethics is about people and values, they influence our actions and attitudes, and will continue to have a growing and more explicit presence in business.

“If I were to impart my values, pride of place would rightly belong with my home and my parents. Respect for self and others, a policy of work ethic and a fair day’s pay from fair day’s work. Overlapping that too are the tenets of my religious and education upbringing.”

O’Donoghue said she is happy to continue to contribute to the world of business and is surrounded by a happy and fulfilling family life and great friends, not to mention a WhatsApp group of 50 family members.

Her advice to executives both starting out and ensconced in their careers is to be authentic. “In whatever role one plays in leadership, being true to yourself, show courage, independence initiative and appreciate the need to recognise respect and value differences with passion, persistence and tenacity.

“Know right from wrong, be ethical, be satisfied only with the very best. Don’t be clothed in power and status, but generous in mind and heart and spirit. And yes, it is encouragement and love that inspire people to succeed and be happy the world over.”

O’Donoghue concluded with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.”

In response to a question on advice she would have for future generations, she said: “For women in particular I would say continuous learning is important. Understand that Ireland is a small place. Open your eyes, ask yourself ‘what are my goals, where do I want to go?’ Have a plan and you can achieve that plan. You can do anything you want, provided your mind is made up.”

  • The Real Deal 2019 event took place in Goffs in October 2019 and was supported by Renatus, Bank of Ireland, Fitzgerald Power, The Sunday Times, The Panel, Davy, Byrne Wallace and The Pudding.

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 24 October, 2019