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Editor’s Comment: Retail visionary Arthur Ryan never forgot his roots

The industry is saddened this week by the loss of retail stalwart, Arthur Ryan, who has died aged 83. My thoughts go to all of his family, friends and colleagues.

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Prime movers: Paul Marchant, Keely Stocker, Jill Geoghegan and Arthur Ryan in 2017

Ryan launched Primark – known as Penneys in Ireland – in 1969 at 47 Mary Street Dublin, where the head office remains today.

He was a visionary of his time, launching an affordable, trend-led fashion offer that appealed to the masses.

I most recently saw Ryan in 2017, when we interviewed him alongside Primark CEO Paul Marchant for Drapers’ 130th anniversary book.

He was modest, straight-talking, passionate about product and so proud of what the business had achieved.

And so he should have been.

As Primark celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, it is a leading global retailer but many of the values of the brand, implemented by Ryan from the beginning, endure.

As the business has grown on an international playing field, it has remained true to its customer and stayed relevant in a highly competitive part of the market.

It has contradicted the rest of the industry and made brave choices that were right for the business, such as choosing not to have a transactional offer online.

Ryan was not afraid to put in the hard work from day one, which he highlighted in the interview, when he said: “I met Garfield Weston [whose descendants are the controlling shareholders in Associated British Foods] on Friday at 2pm, and I started working at 3pm.”

In his early eighties, Ryan was in the office every day and remained as passionate about the business and its people as he was on day one.

The strong relationship between Ryan and Marchant was clearly visible and their shared values were highlighted when Marchant talked about some advice Ryan gave him, “Two things you’ve told me are: first, always do the right thing for the long term; and second, always remember who we are.”

Ryan was notoriously media shy but what struck me when meeting him was how down to earth he was. He had a fantastic sense of humour and a no-nonsense attitude. Despite his many successes, he remained humble and told me: “My proudest moment so far is not being proud and leading the people who give life to the business. My advice would be not to forget your roots and to keep your feet on the ground.”

Arthur Ryan was an inspiration, a visionary and a true retail leader who will be very much missed.

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