Arthur Ryan was scarcely a household name in the UK but his products – and brown paper shopping bags – are visible everywhere. Ryan, who has died aged 83, was the man who cut a swathe through the British high street by inventing Primark. The low-price clothing retailer upended such well-known chains as Marks & Spencer, and hastened the demise of others, establishing a new pattern of marketing that chimed with millennials and cost-conscious older generations alike. It brought fashion to a mass market alongside accusations of encouraging the “throwaway society”.
The formula is clear: simple pricing, with low-cost suppliers often in the developing world, a keen eye on fashion shows and trends, with virtual lookalikes on sale at a fraction of the price of the real thing, and rapid reaction to what sells or does not.
As Ryan put it: “No gimmicks. You like it or you don’t. And they’ll tell us soon enough. If we don’t like it, we get rid of it. We don’t have annual sales because we don’t hang around waiting for January if we get a problem in October.”
The retailer has not been without controversy. In 2013 its purchasing policies were called into question after 1,134 people died when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka collapsed. About half of them were working for a Primark contractor. The company responded quickly with its managing director flying out, a review of its Bangladesh contracts and nine months’ wages for workers affected. But like others in the industry its practices remain under scrutiny.
Critics have attacked the company for the environmental impact of selling clothes so cheaply that they can be worn once then thrown away. In response it has introduced recycling bins at some of its stores, encouraging customers to recycle old clothes, and a new denim range made from sustainable cotton.
The brand was conceived in 1969 as Penneys, when Ryan, along with his finance director, Paddy Prior, and backed by the powerful British-Canadian Weston family, established the first store in Mary Street, Dublin.
As the business expanded, with the addition of Seamus Halford and, later, Breege O’Donoghue, to become the retail “gang of four”, Ryan recalled in a rare interview, “we worked in the store all day, then the deliveries would come in in the evening and we would allocate the goods to the branches. Then at night we cleaned the stores, as we couldn’t afford cleaners.”
The flat management structure stayed a feature of the company, while in the tradition of other successful fashion retailers, Ryan remained hands-on; as one colleague later put it, “knowing Primark down to the finest detail, every item, its price, the people who design it, the people who make it, the people who buy it and the people who sell it”.
Ryan claimed to have told the Westons, whose Associated British Foods company gets about a third of its profits from Primark, that he was not interested in running a local business and that he would take Penneys to Britain. When he did so in 1973, the first store in Derby was under the new name of Primark, as Penneys’ resemblance to the US store chain JC Penney had caused legal difficulties.
He would visit the UK stores as often as once a week, as well as checking out his rivals along the high street. Expansion was rapid, assisted by a muted response from the big high street chains. A huge step up was made with the purchase of 40 Littlewoods stores in 2005. Another 16 from BHS, while the withdrawal of C&A from Britain provided more opportunities. When Primark’s flagship Oxford Street store in London opened in 2007, mounted police had to be called to control the crowds.
Today, Primark has more than 370 stores in 12 countries and employs more than 75,000 people in Europe and the US. In April the Birmingham megastore set a Guinness World Record as the world’s largest fashion retail store.
Born in Cork, the son of an insurance clerk, Ryan was brought up in Dublin, where he attended school at Synge Street Christian brothers before leaving for London, where he became a tie buyer at the imposing Swan & Edgar department store on Piccadilly. He then worked at the fashion wholesaler Carr and Macdonald, before returning home in 1965 to become a retail buyer for a department store in Cornelscourt, South Dublin, owned by the Dunne’s store chain, sometimes described as an Irish M&S, whose chair famously declared that “better value beats them all”.
Ryan got the message and four years later was identified by Galen Weston, whose international retail interests included Selfridges and ABF, as the man to create a competitive retail clothes business. In setting up Penneys, under which name the retailer still operates in Ireland, Ryan foresaw a fundamental shift towards what became known as the “value segment” – the growth market of the under-35s – and built on that to become, as dubbed by the industry bible Drapers magazine, “the most influential person in high street fashion”.
Ryan was always jealous of his privacy, generallyy refusing interviews and concerned for his own safety during the run of kidnappings of Irish businessmen during the Troubles of the 1980s. But he was no recluse. He was said to enjoy sport and to be a lively presence at parties.
He was married twice, first to Rose, with whom he had four children, and then in 1978 to Alma Carroll, who had sung with the Swarbriggs to come third in the Eurovision song contest the previous year. They had a daughter, Jess.
Three years ago Ryan was struck by family tragedy when his grandson, Barry Jr, was drowned with his girlfriend while fishing off rocks in West Cork, and his son Barry also died while attempting to save them.
He is survived by Alma and Jess, three children, Colin, Arthur and Alison, from his first marriage, nine grandchildren, and his sisters Anne and Louise.
• Arthur Ryan, retailer, born 19 July 1935; died 8 July 2019