Much to be learnt from the mighty Quinn

Many of the great stars of the 1980s are disappearing. Last week alone, we bade goodbye to businessman Feargal Quinn and to actor Ken Kercheval, the man who played the long suffering rival of JR Ewing, Cliff Barnes, on the TV soap, Dallas.

The passing of Feargal Quinn is a matter of particular poignancy to those of us who experienced the full rigours of a particularly challenging decade. The best of the Superquinn stores served as exemplars of what could be achieved by Irish people when they put their mind to it.

Over his long career Mr Quinn displayed many of the skills of an old style promoter. He may have been a man of modest physical size, but he knew instinctively how to draw attention to himself in the best manner possible. He was everything that blustering Cliff Barnes was not.

Over time, he began to develop a business philosophy centred around a strong service offer to the customer, but at the heart of the Quinn strategy was an acute sense that full delivery on the promise to the customer implicit in the Superquinn brand would not be possible without the wholehearted backing of the workforce.

Last Thursday, senior Mandate union official Gerry Light was quick to pay tribute to Feargal Quinn and the organisation he left behind. While the Superquinn name has all but disappeared – a questionable decision this on the part of its current owner, Musgrave Group - much of the philosophy of the founder survives in the DNA of the organisation in spite of the fact that it is now almost 14 years since the Quinn family sold their stake in the company.

As Mr Light noted, "the company still fully embraces trade unions."

This may appear curious given that the company, as such, no longer exists yet a strong CEO leaves behind DNA and an abiding philosophy.

The union leader’s point is that when officials deal with the former Superquinn stores, they are still dealing with people who absorbed his ideas on how to go about business on a day-to-day basis.

Measuring success in business is never easy. Superquinn, after all, ended up disappearing. In terms of size, it was bested by Dunnes Stores and ultimately by Tesco. It remained largely a Greater Dublin entity, though with a strong niche.

When measured in terms of sales per square foot, it ended up in around 20th place among European supermarkets – a pretty impressive performance. Feargal, of course, left the business with a large sack of money – well over €400m - having sensed, one suspects, that a store group of his size would struggle to compete against the retailing behemoths.

In the end he was outlasted by the Dunne family and in particular, by its remarkable CEO, Margaret Heffernan.

Trade unionists lament the fact that Dunnes Stores has remained – in their view – hostile to trade unions while relations between Tesco and the unions have also deteriorated markedly in recent years.

Mandate has been campaigning vigorously on the issue of working hours and in particular, on the lack of working hour security. There are few signs of melt in the Dunnes Stores iceberg when it comes to industrial relations.

However, it does seem clear that Ms Heffernan and her senior team have been adopting large chunks of the Feargal Quinn script when it comes to customer service and staff retention.

Anyone who visits flagship Dunnes Stores shops will be struck by the quality of the service and variety of the products on the shelves. There are echoes of the old Ben Dunne slogan – 'Better Value Beats Them All' - in the competitive offers on the shelves.

Familiar older faces remain at the tills alongside the burgeoning automated areas.

It was noteworthy that both Ben Dunne Jr and Maurice Pratt – two high profile grocery rivals of the 1980s and 1990s – queued up to pay their respects. Both highlighted his personal courtesy while pointing to his legendary shrewdness.

Mr Quinn was clearly, in turn, inspired by the example of his father, Eamonn – a grocery innovator in his own right. Entrepreneurship runs in the blood. His cousin Lochlann Quinn was, for many years, the right hand man of Martin Naughton, the founder and CEO of the successful Co Louth-based manufacturer, Glen Dimplex.

But he also drew on outside sources for his ideas. He was a particularly keen follower of US management guru Tom Peters whose book 'In Search of Excellence' became the first business book to really crack the bestseller lists after its publication in 1982.

Mr Peters rolled out his homespun philosophy. "Kindness is Free and Turns a Profit" was his motto. A Vietnam veteran and trained engineer, he forged a career at the management consultancy McKinsey and in Silicon Valley before turning to writing and a stellar career speaking at business conferences.

Mr Peters is correct when he states that while many senior managers have preached about their people being their most important asset, very few have actually "walked the walk" in that regard.

In fact, many in senior management have gorged like fat hogs at the trough while their underlings have been left to swallow scraps.

Over the past four decades, the pay packages of top Fortune-listed bosses have jumped almost tenfold in value while the median salary has edged by just over 10%. The political consequences are there for all to see.

The Peters formula for customer satisfaction is simple. It is : K=R=P. Kindness = Repeat Business = Profit. This formula also captures the Quinn philosophy. Mr Peters cites the example of Starbucks boss, Howard Schultz who visits at least 25 shops each week.

The idea, there, is if the boss "does not see it, does not smell it, he/she does not know what’s going on".

Mr Peters lavishes praise on capitalism – "the business of America is business"- yet lauds the US Government for putting him through college. He also points to immigrants as people who are "the very essence of America."

Feargal Quinn’s own homespun philosophy – as contained in his book ‘Crowning the Customer’- is couched in short sentences and easily digested ones, rather like his sausages.

Listening to customers – including the first customer, the employee- is at its core.

Somehow, in recent years, as technology has become deeply embedded and managements have retreated behind automated fences, in the effort to cut costs and pass administrative burdens onto customers, these lessons go unlearned.

If anything, we are witnessing a financially-driven retreat from meaningful human encounters in spite of the spread of social media with its opportunities for immediate feedback.

The undoubted popularity of Feargal Quinn arose from his ability to deliver the goods at affordable prices while retaining real humanity in the process.

There are lessons here that his successors in the business world could usefully learn.

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