Arthur Ryan: retailer who turned a no-frills clothes chain into a fashion Mecca

Arthur Ryan, recently retired boss of Primark, went from a single store in Dublin to storm the British high street with his no-frills, no gimmicks ethos.

"They don't make them like Arthur Ryan anymore," was the chorus from retailers when the Primark boss retired after 40 years of piling it high and selling it cheap. From a single store in Dublin, he went on to storm the British high street with his no-frills, no gimmicks ethos. "I just like sliced ham and bread and butter," Ryan once said. "That's where I am. No risk."

Yet risk seems to haunt Ryan, says the Daily Express. He lives in one of Dublin's best-protected houses, never gives interviews, and is rarely seen in public without bodyguards. His great fear is kidnap a real enough threat for Irish retail magnates during the Troubles. In 1981, the IRA snatched department store boss Ben Dunne; two years later, they tried to kidnap Galen Weston, scion of the Canadian family behind Primark's owner, food and retail conglomerate Associated British Foods(ABF). Ryan still takes no chances. "His daily schedule is kept secret from all but his closest aides."

Ryan also likes to be able to drop into stores unannounced to observe the business incognito, says The Times. Indeed, many of the habits associated with his friend, Sir Philip Green (such as anonymous store visits), were practised first by Ryan at Primark. Ryan has always had a reputation for haggling mercilessly to secure the 12.5% margins that fuelled the chain's growth.

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But last year, when Primark was pilloried for using child labour (unwittingly, it says), his image took a turn for the worse. He was portrayed by some as a rapacious capitalist operating from the shadows habitually clad in a rumpled old mac.

Yet this 73-year-old chain-smoker is far from a cold fish, says the Daily Mail. Married to a former Irish Eurovision star, tales abound of his bonhomie at favoured Dublin haunts. He's a "subtle operator", says an associate. "You'd be in the Shelbourne bar, a drink would appear in front of you paid for by Arthur, but he'd be gone by the time you looked around."

His origins were humble. The son of a Dublin insurance clerk, he worked in London for a fashion wholesaler, Carr & McDonald, before being hired by the Westons to launch a budget clothing chain in Dublin. Ryan opened the first Penneys store on Mary Street in 1969 and, in 1974, took the model to Britain renaming the stores Primark to avoid legal problems with US chain JC Penney.

Primark ambled along for years, says The Sunday Times. Even ten years ago, its contribution to ABF's profits "amounted to little more than a rounding error". The turnaround came in 2005, when Primark acquired a huge portfolio of Littlewoods stores. Meanwhile, close attention to catwalk trends made it chic as well as cheap. It went from being the "shop that nobody admitted going to" to a Mecca for celebrity shoppers. It was "Primani", darling or "Pradamark".

Now accounting for over a third of ABF's operating profits, Primark is a dream business for the Westons, says the Daily Express, and Ryan a dream employee. While well paid, he has no equity stake in the 191-store strong chain. Perhaps a new management style beckons. But one thing is certain: Ryan's shoes, "low-cost or otherwise, will be hard to fill".

Ryan's legacy and the challenges for his successor

There's a world of difference between Grace Brothers and Primark, but Arthur Ryan's management style has a nostalgic whiff of Are you Being Served? about it. As The Sunday Business Post notes, Primark senior managers are still referred to as Mr, Mrs or Miss. Primark as a whole is "an extension of Arthur Ryan": from its lean and mean sourcing policy (it cuts out the middleman and goes direct to suppliers), to its culture of secrecy and restraint. The firm has never advertised. Until recently, its entire PR budget was believed to be less than £15,000 a year.

The furore following a BBC Panorama investigation into child labour changed all that, says Retail Week. Ryan left ABF chief George Weston to field the criticism. But a culture shift is underway. The group has turned its basic website into "an in-depth information portal", with pages on its ethical stance. It's no coincidence that Ryan's successor as CEO, Paul Marchant, is touted as having "a deep knowledge of supply chain issues" that should help address ethical concerns.

"There's no reason why a silver-haired septuagenarian shouldn't run a business such as Primark," says Damian Reece in The Daily Telegraph. "But as the company becomes more international a more public face becomes desirable." Let's hope Marchant doesn't mess with the blue-print too much. Primark may have lost its flighty Vogue following, but its "Look Good, Pay Less" motto has been a winner in recession: sales rose by 9% in the six months to September. What it needs now is not an innovator, but an operations man to scale up and grow overseas. "Next stops are Buenos Aires and Brisbane, not Brighton and Birmingham."