THE doyenne of Irish retail has vowed that Dunnes Stores will remain a family-owned Irish company.
In a rare interview, Margaret Heffernan, a director at the company, said she is “confident” Dunnes Stores will stay in Irish hands.
“Our aim is to keep it as a family-run company,” Ms Heffernan said, dispelling speculation that the company could be bought by the American- owned retail giant WalMart
Ms Heffernan made the comments at yesterday’s re-opening of her company’s €30 million flagship store in Cork city centre, which will employ 200 people.
Hundreds of people queued from early morning before the doors opened, just as they did 65 years ago when her father, Ben Dunne, opened this, his first store, in 1944.
Ms Heffernan said that despite being in the middle of the most difficult trading environment she had ever experienced, and facing competition from all sides, she was confident of the company’s future.
“Ireland is going through a really, really difficult phase,” she said. “I would hope that Dunnes will continue to go from strength to strength. But we will only deserve to continue if we give the Irish public better value, which my father founded the company on,” Ms Heffernan said.
“It could not be done without the absolutely fantastic support and dedication and loyalty that we get from our people – it is just unbelievable.”
She also spoke about her tough work ethic, which she inherited from her father.
“I never wanted to do anything except work in Dunnes Stores with my father,” she said.
She started in the first Dunnes Store, in St Patrick’s Street, at the age of 14, when she used to sweep the floors.
“I was brought up in difficult times. I laugh with my family and say I never failed any exams, because I never did any. I still work as hard as I ever did, I love it and I love the people.
“And I know the company will go from strength to strength.”
But she warned that Dunnes, like other businesses, has to constantly control costs.
“We are controlling costs and taking a long look at the amount of stores we can keep open in Ireland,” she said.
She stopped short of suggesting that some stores may close but said the operation of all stores will be reviewed.
“We may take food out of some, or take textiles out of others. You have to cut your cloth to your measure,” she said.
Ms Heffernan, who is worth an estimated €600 million, mingled freely with customers and shook dozens of hands as well-wishers swamped the revamped shop.
She was dressed in a smart casual purple cardigan (€10) and a sleeveless dress – both from Dunne’s own range, she was quick to point out.
“I always say to my family, if you can’t wear our own clothes, how can you expect the public to buy them.”
Ms Heffernan was joined at the reopening of the St Patrick’s Street store by the next generation of the Dunne family dynasty – including her daughter, Dr Anne Heffernan, son Michael, nephews, Ben Dunne and Brian McMahon and nieces, Sharon McMahon and Annie Dunne.
The store is on the site of the company’s first Irish store, opened by Ms Heffernan’s father, Ben, in March 1944.
It was the start of the retail empire which now employs 20,000 people in 145 stores across Ireland, Britain and Spain.
Joan O’Sullivan, 75, from Ballinlough Road, and Maura Collins, 77, from Tramore Road, were among the first customers.
Both were young girls when Ben Dunne Snr opened the original.
“I remember that day well. Sure we were only young ones.
“We decided to come today, because it’s a bit of history,” Joan said.
They made a beeline to Ms Heffernan to shake her hand and wish her well.
“Thanks very much for coming – you’re great,” Ms Heffernan said smiling.
An emotional Dan Barrett was also swamped by media and well wishers.
He was the company’s very first employee 65 years ago and was Ben Dunne Snr’s right-hand man.
Now he is a director of the family-owned company and, in his 80s, continues to report for work daily.
He helped lead the countdown, as the spectacularly revamped store’s doors opened.