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Obituary: Retail veteran Don McCarthy has died

Retail veteran and former executive chairman of House of Fraser, Don McCarthy, aged 63, died on 21 July after a long battle with cancer.

Best known as executive chairman of House of Fraser between 2006 and 2014, McCarthy played a role at many high street chains over the years, including Stead & Simpson, Kurt Geiger, Shoe Studio Group, Principles and Warehouse.

Having grown up in southeast London, McCarthy joined now defunct footwear chain Stead & Simpson, which also ran shops under the Ravel and Stylo banners, straight from school at 15 years old. Quickly rising through the ranks, he became manager of a Stead & Simpson store in Streatham aged just 17.

In 1975, aged 20, McCarthy decided he wanted to work in central London, so joined premium footwear retailer Kurt Geiger as assistant manager of its flagship store in Bond Street. The business was then owned by the South African Spitz family, headed by David Spitz.

A year later McCarthy was asked by Spitz to develop Kurt Geiger’s new, cheaper women’s brand Carvela and he became area manager looking after 12 stores as well as important concessions in premium department stores such as Harrods, Selfridges, Fenwick, House of Fraser and Debenhams.

However, typically ambitious, McCarthy wanted to branch out and start his own business, so with the help of Spitz he founded the multi-brand footwear retailer Shoe Studio Group in 1991, which quickly established itself as a market leader with 270 department store concessions at its height during the early 2000s.

SSG was bought for an undisclosed sum by US footwear business Nine West in 1997, as it wanted to expand into Europe.

As chief executive of SSG, McCarthy led a successful management buyout from Nine West in 2001 and the company established itself as one of the largest footwear and accessory companies in Europe, making £60m EBITDA on £140m sales that year.

For his 35 years in footwear, McCarthy won Drapers lifetime achievement award in 2015.

In 2004 McCarthy diversified into clothing, buying womenswear retailers Principles and Warehouse, merging the businesses with SSG to form Rubicon, which had sales in excess of £500m.

When McCarthy’s wife Diane fell ill with cancer in 2006, he sold Rubicon to Mosaic Fashions, owner of Karen Millen, Oasis and Coast, to spend more time with his family. Mosaic fell into administration in 2009, with Principles and Shoe Studio sold to Debenhams and Dune respectively.

In 2007, McCarthy joined a consortium including Icelandic investor Baugur and Scottish entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter’s investment vehicle West Coast Capital to buy House of Fraser for an undisclosed amount, with McCarthy becoming executive chairman.

In 2014 Chinese conglomerate Sanpower acquired 89% of HoF’s shares for £480m, making the department store the first major British retailer to be purchased by a Chinese company.

Following the completion of the sale in April 2014, McCarthy stepped down as executive chairman of HoF to focus on his investment vehicle No 9, which was set up in July 2014.

McCarthy was awarded a CBE for his services to business and charity in 2017 and raised £1.5m for the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea.

A loving and devoted father to his children John and Hannah, husband to Julie and brother to Maggie, Sean, Sioban and Maureen, McCarthy was a loyal friend and advisor to many in the retail industry and will be sadly missed.

Retailers have been paying their respects to McCarthy. 

Liz Evans, chief executive of Oasis and Warehouse, said: ”Don was an inspiring leader, mentor and friend to so many people in our industry. He lived life to the full and made every day count, a philanthropist who gave so generously to charities and causes close to his heart. Above all else, Don was a family man who was bursting with pride when talking about his daughter and son and their achievements. My heart goes out to all of his family and loved ones at this sad time.”

Paul Lorraine, UK general manager at Longchamp, said: “A true gentleman and entrepreneur, he will be sadly missed not only by friends and family but the whole UK retail industry.”

Philip Mountford, chief executive at Hunkemoller, said McCarthy was “one of the most influential people” in his life: “Don had the ability to stand back and look at things in a different way and find a logical, simple solution that wouldn’t have occurred to you. He was able to get the best out of people and treated everyone the same from the cleaner to the chairman, it didn’t matter who you were. He guided me through some difficult times as my deputy chairman at Moss Bros. He was extremely special to me and a great friend.”

Liliane Harris, owner of independent Larizia and agency M&L Harris, said: “I had the pleasure of meeting Don and dealing with him in the shoe industry. A man with ethics, honesty and a mentor to many, he was always available to give free advice. It is a loss to our industry. My thoughts are with his family and friends. Don will always be remembered.”

Nigel Oddy, former CEO of House of Fraser, said: “He was a true legend, a mentor and a great friend. It was an honour to have been recruited by him, work for him and get to know him. He was larger than life in all respects and he will be very sadly missed.”

Andy Harding, former chief customer officer at HoF, said on Twitter: ”[Don] was an absolute mountain of a man. A retail genius but unlike many of his contemporaries, he was a lovely bloke, a real gentleman. What a terrible loss. He was a hero.”

A spokeswoman for HoF said: “We are all deeply saddened here at House of Fraser to learn of Don’s passing. He is remembered regularly and fondly by those that knew him and made an incredible impression on both HoF and the wider retail industry.

“Don was a passionate believer in giving back to the industry that had given him so much being a patron and ambassador of the Retail Trust. Don was always passionate, driven and full of ideas for the benefit of HoF and the retail business. He kept a large circle of friends and contacts, regularly giving mentoring support to former colleagues of HoF and more widely.”

McCarthy’s funeral will take place at 2.30pm on Tuesday 7 August at The Church of The Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair, W1J 5RJ. 

The family kindly request no flowers; however should you wish to make a small donation please do so to the Royal Marsden using the link below:


Readers' comments (4)

  • my Brother and i had a pleasure to meet Don and had some dealing with him in the shoes industry , a man with Ethic honesty a Mentor to many always available to give free advise a lost to our industry
    my thoughts are with his family and friends will always be remembered

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  • I worked for Don McCarthy for a long time with Carvela, Vivaldi and Shoe Studio.
    He was a great mentor and always explained everything in detail to ensure you understood the concept. He will be greatly missed and my heart goes out to his family at this sad time.

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  • A very sad day at a very sad time.
    Don was a true leader and clearly loved by all that worked with him.
    Despite all his success a reminder to us all that with all the wealth, respect and strength we are never really under control and just spend life dodging bulletts.
    Deep sympathy for his wife but especially his kids who have lost both parents in such a short time and at no age at all.
    Simon B

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  • Eric Musgrave

    This is desperately sad news, but something of a relief for those of us who had seen how ill Don was. Although the tributes have focused on Don's relatively short time as chairman of House of Fraser, where he did an admirable job of controlling a bunch of squabbling investors, more should be made of his amazing 30-plus-year career in the footwear sector. Starting as a Saturday boy and ending up running Shoe Studio Group, one of the UK's largest retailers of premium footwear, was a remarkable achievement by a remarkable man. It was my pleasure to persuade him to accept the Drapers Footwear Industry Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Everyone who was at the awards dinner will remember Don's marvellous address in which he thanked his teams and colleagues from over the years. He also said he felt it was his responsibility to help the next generation of retailers by "sending down the elevator" from his lofty position. Many of us benefited over the years from that typical generosity. Our thoughts must be with Don's 20-something children, John and Hannah, who have now lost both parents to cancer, his wife Julie, who had such a too-short time with him, and Stuart, his long-serving right-hand-man, who has fielded all Don's friends' enquiries during the long two years-plus of his illness. RIP Don, and many thanks.

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