Ireland has just lost one of its more unique public figures with the passing of Feargal Quinn at the age of 82.
Tributes from across the political divide and from old business rivals such as Ben Dunne Jr have been paid to the most genial of figures
He started out in business as a teenager at his father’s holiday camp in Skerries as a waiter, bingo caller and shoeshine boy before establishing a supermarket business, Superquinn, which he would eventually sell on in 2005 for more than €400m.
He managed to pack into a busy life more than 10 years’ service as chairman of An Post and 23 years in the Seanad where he was active in publishing private members’ bills. He was always an adept media performer and it was only fitting that he should end up fronting two RTÉ TV series aimed at reviving the fortunes of hard-pressed independent retailers.
The young Feargal had retail in the blood. His father, Eamonn, set up shop in the 1940s with the launch of a chain of grocery stores known as Payandtake.
As a teenager, he worked in France where his mind was further opened to retailing’s new realities.
It was at the holiday camp in Skerries that Quinn met his future wife, Denise Prendergast, then visiting with her parents.
Not long after, in 1960, he opened his first store in Dundalk. His first outlet in the capital, in Finglas, opened in 1965.
His arrival as a businessman coincided with a revolution in the grocery world. The old world of counter service and high levels of staff was by the ’60s giving way to one based on self-service. As businessman Alex Findlater recalled, this meant that customers could buy low priced items without having to face ‘superior’ sales assistants.
Ben Dunne opened the first large supermarket in an old warehouse in Cornelscourt, south Dublin. This coincided with the opening of the Stillorgan shopping centre. Soon, supermarkets sprang up all over the place. They soon proved to be major cash cows for the cannier owners. Dunnes Stores led the way. It could cross-subsidise using profits generated in its higher margin fashion business. It gradually assumed top spot in the grocery world through competitive pricing.
Quinn soon spotted his niche at the upper end by offering top quality service and greater product variety.
Superquinn opened stores across Dublin in Sutton, Blackrock and also in mainstream areas such as Kimmage and Bray. However, Quinn never really managed to break out of his Leinster heartland, ending up with just a couple of stores in Munster and none in Connacht or Ulster.
Somehow, though, by dint of sheer perseverance and with added doses of chutzpah, he boxed above his weight, regularly appearing in top TV and radio shows.
He was a regular on shows hosted by the country’s leading broadcaster, Gay Byrne.
In the early 1980s, almost counter-intuitively, he opened what was Ireland’s first luxury supermarket at the new centre in Blackrock, south Dublin.
Goods were produced on the premises. The smell of sausages wafted across the aisles. The freshly-made pizza was among the best in town. The layout was top class. The wine was highly rated. Quinn showed up to help pack customer bags on occasions, displaying his usual geniality.
At times, business could be tight. The competition in Irish grocery could be tough. In the early days, Ben Dunne and his sons, Frank and Ben, commanded the stage.
Pat Quinn of Quinnsworth was a rival media star. Along came Albert Gubay from the UK seeking to pile them high and sell them cheap. Tesco came and went before eventually taking over Quinnsworth. In the 1990s, the German discounters arrived, pinching more middle-class custom as time went on.
Today, Margaret Heffernan — the leading figure in Irish grocery and fashion — has brought Dunnes Stores upmarket and its stores have some of the features of a Feargal Quinn store.
Stability in personnel was always a key feature of Superquinn. Feargal operated with a tight team that included head buyer Damien Carolan and Vincent Doherty who ran the property side of the business. Family members and in particular, son Eamonn, were closely involved in senior posts.
The company maintained good relations with the trade unions.
Gerry Light, assistant general secretary of Mandate paid tribute, saying: “One of Feargal Quinn’s greatest legacies is that his company fully embraces trade unions. He was certainly no shrinking violet, but he was always respectful. The respect was mutual.”
But Quinn above all was a salesperson and marketeer par excellence.
As he put it in his first book, Crowning the Customer, a best seller: “When you exercise, it isn’t doing you any good until you start sweating. When listening to customers, it isn’t doing you any good until you start hearing the criticism.
The danger in business is that the sound of the praise drowns out the blame. You hear selectively and what sticks to you is the praise.
Quinn used to say that you had to listen not just to customers but to those who are not your customers. It is little surprise, then, to learn that Superquinn was quick off the block with its use of customer panels. The company first launched an online shopping service in 2000.
It also attempted with less success to crack service station retailing — now a huge area of growth.
By 2005, Superquinn was boxed in and Feargal — approaching seventy years of age — bowed to the inevitable and accepted a takeover offer from Select Retail Holdings, a consortium which was interested above all in the Superquinn property portfolio. The family banked almost €430m and arguably got out just in time before the recessionary storm hit landfall.
Quinn kept himself busy. Elected and re-elected several times from 1993 to the Seanad by the NUI electors, as an Independent, he campaigned vigorously in 2013 in opposition to the government’s abolition proposal. Quinn strongly favoured reforms of the upper house including a simplification of the voting system and big extension in the Seanad voter roll.
Writing in 2016, he insisted that the Seanad could no longer serve as a safety net for those who failed to secure election to the Dáil.
Before retiring in 2016, he promoted Bills on reforming construction contracts and the removal of upward only rental clauses which artificially propped up rents.
He also introduced a bill to encourage the spread of use of defibrillators.
While fond of publicity-grabbing promotions he was publicly spirited to a fault, serving as chairman of An Post for eleven years, helping to push through the National Lottery.
At his heart, he was a family man but as his old rival, Ben Dunne, suggested yesterday, he was also a tough opponent.