Arthur Ryan, the chairman and founder of Primark, the low-cost fashion chain that began as a single store in Dublin and grew into an international retailing giant, died on July 8 at his home in Ballsbridge, Ireland. He was 83.
The company announced his death on its website.
Mr. Ryan was working as a buyer for Dunnes Stores, an Irish retail chain, when he was recruited in 1969 to establish Penneys, a clothing store in Dublin.
By keeping overhead costs low and prices affordable, Penneys expanded to Derby, England, in 1973. The name was changed to Primark because J.C. Penney owned the copyright to the name outside of Ireland. Primark stores in Ireland are still known as Penneys.
Primark now employs more than 75,000 people in 372 stores across 11 countries, including Spain, Italy and the United States. It does not have an online store, but its profits have grown even as rival stores have struggled.
“Arthur Ryan made fashion accessible to all, and his legacy looms large,” George Weston, the chief executive of Associated British Foods, which owns Primark, said in a statement.
Mr. Ryan appointed Paul Marchant to take over as chief executive in 2009 but remained as chairman, holding that position at his death. He had continued to offer advice on expanding the chain to new cities, Mr. Marchant said.
“He was well-read, he was very bright, it would’ve been foolish of me not to draw on that brilliance every day,” Mr. Marchant said in a phone interview. “He had the ability to see around corners.”
Mr. Ryan had a reputation for working hard and calling staff at all times of the day. If employees did not answer the phone, he would persist until they picked up, an experience that Mr. Marchant described in his eulogy for Mr. Ryan on Saturday: “When you eventually answered you would be greeted by, ‘I didn’t wake you up there, did I?’ or, ‘Ah, there you are, the dead arose and appeared to many.’”
Mr. Ryan was also known to frequent Primark stores, identifying clothes that weren’t selling and marking down their prices, sometimes to one euro.
He was “obsessed with cost control,” Mr. Marchant said, to the point where he would go around company offices and turn off the lights in rooms that were empty.
Mr. Ryan was quick to offer advice to employees on how they, too, could save the company money. “He would often say, ‘If you’re flying with Aer Lingus, eat as much of that free bread and soup as you can in the lounge,’” Mr. Marchant said. “‘It’ll save on having to buy an evening meal.’”
Arthur Ryan was born in Dublin on July 19, 1935, to Margaret and Frank Ryan. His mother was a nurse, his father a civil servant. After graduating from the Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin, Arthur worked as a tie buyer at a department store and then at a fashion wholesaler in England. He returned to Dublin in 1965 to work as a buyer for Dunnes Stores.
When he was hired to run Penneys in 1969, the store was owned by Garfield Weston and his son, Galen, who later formed Associated British Foods, a conglomerate that today owns brands like Twinings and Ovaltine.
“I met Garfield Weston on a Friday at 2 p.m. and I started working at 3 p.m.,” Mr. Ryan said in an interview last year with the fashion industry publication Drapers.
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At the time, Penneys was a two-floor store on a street with little foot traffic. Accepting a business award in 2011, Mr. Ryan recalled looking down the street on his first Saturday at Penneys and thinking: “Quarter to 11, clean, this is good for shopping. A bit of flu around. I like it.” The weather was sure to encourage people to come to his store, he joked. “Mufflers, gloves, chilblains, this is for us.”
Mr. Ryan placed an emphasis on customer foot traffic throughout his career. While other retailers were lured to shiny malls, he calculated how to position his stores near existing bus stops and car parks without having to pay a high rent. “We are very, very good at picking locations,” he said.
Primark stores are particularly popular in main shopping areas across Britain; in London, there are two on Oxford Street alone. Wherever there is a store, people on the streets can be seen toting Primark’s brown paper bags filled with clothing that can cost the equivalent of just a few dollars per item. For some items, the dry-cleaning costs more than the clothing itself, Breege O’Donoghue, a former company executive, told The Irish Times this year.
While the low prices have attracted customers, some of the company’s cost-saving measures have been criticized, notably in 2013, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 people working in unsafe conditions in clothing factories housed there; some of the workers were making clothes for Primark. The company has since taken pains to assert that its products are made in safe conditions, and that its workers are paid fairly.
Mr. Ryan is survived by his wife, Alma Carroll Ryan; two daughters, Jessica and Alison; two sons, Colin and Arthur; nine grandchildren; and two sisters. A son, Barry, and a grandson, Barry Jr., drowned in 2015 when they and the grandson’s girlfriend, who also died, were swept out to sea by a freak wave in Cork.
Amie Tsang is a general assignment business reporter based in London, where she has covered a variety of topics, including the gender pay gap, aviation and the London fatberg. @amietsang
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