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Drapers Next Generation: 'Retail is in the blood'

Primark’s chief executive Paul Marchant on playing to his strengths - and recognising his weaknesses.

How did you get into fashion retail?

Much to my parents’ displeasure, I left school at 16 with very few qualifications and one desire - to work in menswear. My parents were retailers - so it’s kind of in the blood - and I spent quite a lot of my spare time in their supermarkets. My brother had started as an assistant buyer at Burton menswear and when he got promoted to a buyer and started travelling to New York and Hong Kong I decided that was a job I would like. My career kicked off when I joined Debenhams a few years later.

What are your proudest achievements?

[The first] would be my first position as a buyer. Michael [Sharp, now chief executive of Debenhams] offered me the chance to be the tailoring buyer at Topman, which was amazing as a 21-year-old, travelling around the world. [The second] was my first directorship that he also gave me at Debenhams, when he made me the menswear director.

At the time I remember being very daunted. I think what is really important when you are given an opportunity that you are daunted by is to be patient, and realise that you can never be the best at everything. I knew I had a strength in product and a weakness in other areas, so I tried to surround myself with the best people in those areas. So that directorship was a really pivotal moment for me, made me grow up very quickly, and was really a springboard for my career.

The third was joining Primark. I joined in an extended nine-month induction as chief operating officer with the agenda - which proved to be right for me and the business - that I would take over from the retail legend that is Arthur Ryan. That opportunity was given to me three-and-a-half years ago. It was an incredibly proud moment.

You scooped the top award - Large Multiple Retailer of the Year - at the Drapers Fashion Awards in 2012. What sets Primark apart from the competition?

I think we just keep it really simple. While we’ve got a broad church of customers who come through our doors we only have one fascia to manage, and that allows us to be really focused. We spend a much greater time on product than any other business I’ve worked in.

People are amazed that Primark is not online. Is that ever going to happen?

We’re very mindful of the change in the way consumers are shopping. I think we can all have aspirations about what we’d like our business to look like, but it has to be commercially viable. And the facts are that with our average selling price and our margins, it makes it very difficult to send one unit to one person and in one location.

It’s not the way we do things - we’re all about volume.

Where do you see opportunities to grow the business internationally?

Our first move into the continent outside the UK and Ireland was only six years ago, so we’re still relatively new in terms of international trading. We’re now in eight countries, and we made the announcement recently that France will be our next market. We’re just finalising the details on a couple of deals there. The opportunity for us to expand within Europe is clearly there. I’m sure this brand will trade beyond Europe in the future, but there are no immediate plans.

What have you learnt from Arthur Ryan?

He’s been obsessed about a few key things since we started. Always to have the best price, always focus on the consumer. Today he spends 20 hours a week in the stores, and he’s 77. And he learns everything he knows from what he sees in those stores and what he sees in product reviews. He’s created a culture that’s all about communication.

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