Also just an image of the flooring I couldn't find earlier. An excellent choice of design and colouring:
This flooring in Clerys is very distinctive and memorable. It's quite rare in any retailing space to get dark timber flooring, and less still that it be complemented by a suitably matching walkway design. The combination Clerys went for looks very sophisticated in being modern but also subtly Edwardian in character.
So refreshing in contrast with the hideous beech effect covering pasted down across a certain other department store and many other retail outlets in the city.
Very interesting interview below with Galen Weston, owner of Brown Thomas (and Selfridges and many others) in last week's The Sunday Business Post. Opening a Brown Thomas north of the Liffey seems to be a medium term aim for the company - it'd be great if O'Connell Street could scoop it. Suggestions of Clerys being bought out are made, given the store is now more vunerable to takeover.
The biggest relevation that Arnotts are proposing to spend €700 billion on their revamp!
Weston's way to the top
15 October 2006 By Simon Carswell
The Brown Thomas head office at the top of its flagship building on Dublin’s Grafton Street is quiet but busy. From here, you can almost see the northside of the city.
It’s a view that Brown Thomas owner, Canadian billionaire Galen Weston, and his management team at the country’s leading luxury department chain must be considering more and more these days. This is the perfect vantage point from which to plan a full-scale retail invasion of the O’Connell Street-Henry Street area of the city’s northside.
It’s a part of Dublin ripe for an incursion. This part of town competes with the Grafton Street area for the ever-growing number of well-off shoppers with bulging wallets. Weston has been watching with great interest what is happening north of his Irish retail headquarters and, in particular, how his retail rivals, Arnotts and Clerys, are performing.
Weston’s day-to-day schedule is calculated with military precision. He is in Ireland for a flying visit, but managed to squeeze in about 30 minutes to speak exclusively to The Sunday Business Post, his first interview with an Irish newspaper in years.
Before the 4pm interview, he attended a management meeting to plan the continued upgrading of the Brown Thomas stores - Weston has four in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick (as well as two BT2 outlets) - and he poses for pictures during an eight-minute photoshoot on the Grafton Street shop floor.
Weston must be on his way to Dublin Airport by 4.30pm - I am told - if his private jet is to make its landing slot in London where he owns another flagship store, in the main shopping thoroughfare of Oxford Street. The store is Selfridges.
He later proudly describes the shop as ‘‘one of the top three stores of its kind in the world’’. ‘Top’ is a word that Weston can quite legitimately use to describe most of his businesses, whether they’re in Britain, Ireland or Canada.
But today, Weston’s focus is firmly fixed on Brown Thomas, the retailer that occupies the front line on the Irish luxury retail battlefield. Weston is polite, immaculately dressed and exudes the confidence that you would expect from someone who is the second-wealthiest man in Canada and one of the richest shopkeepers in the world.
Returning to the stylish office of Brown Thomas chief executive Dalton Philips, Weston prefers not to take his lieutenant’s chair, plumping instead for the guest side of the desk.
Brown Thomas has been located on the western side of Grafton Street for 11 years now, ever since Weston amalgamated BT and Switzers.
Weston says the deal - in which Marks & Spencer paid £18 million (€22.8 million) for his old site across the road - is still hugely memorable for him.
It represented a massive return on a 30-year investment.
‘‘I didn’t have a lot of money at that time. Marks & Spencer gave us £18 million and I had put £350,000 into the business initially, so to receive £18 million for a property which was falling down was a great opportunity, especially when House of Fraser was selling this building,” he says.
Brown Thomas is part of the Weston family’s Wittington Investment Group, which also owns A-Wear and BT2 in Dublin, Selfridges in London and Holt Renfrew fashion stores in Canada. Weston has strong ties to Ireland; he says he is ‘‘prejudiced’’ towards the country.
His wife, Hilary, a former top model, is from Dublin and Weston remarks proudly that his children were born here.
He arrived in Ireland in the 1960s to promote his family’s business interests through Associated British Foods (ABF), which owned Quinnsworth and Crazy Prices before their sale to Tesco. Weston left Ireland and his home, Roundwood Park in Wicklow for Canada after a foiled IRA kidnap attempt in 1983.
He is still clearly startled by the economic growth here.
‘‘I was buying two-acre supermarket sites for £5,000 in 1960s and 1970s, many, many of them,” he says.
‘‘I bought Brown Thomas for £350,000, bought my property down in Wicklow for £200,000. I understand it was sold for mega millions just a few weeks ago.
‘‘I had a very busy and exciting time in the 1960s and 1970s putting the foundations of our businesses together.”
Weston says he met inspiring people during his early years in Ireland and learned the value of money.
‘‘We moved very slowly over a 25-year period to grow our businesses and we were obviously aided by the growth of Ireland and the business success and dynamism of the country,” he says.
The shelves of Brown Thomas are laden with designer brands and luxury goods that, 30 years ago, would never have sold in any great amounts. The growth of Brown Thomas has mirrored the country’s economic progress.
‘‘We have climbed that ladder in terms of the kind of products that we sell and the kind of brands that we have and, hopefully, the kind of service that we provide. It has been a very happy marriage and a great investment,” he says.
‘‘The financial services sector in Ireland was a brilliant stroke,’’ Weston adds, excitedly.
‘‘The government leadership, compared to so many other countries that I am involved with, was thoughtful, positive and extremely helpful in terms of getting Ireland ahead of the game.
‘‘That is really the headline to me and it is the thing that fascinates me more than anything else, because Ireland is now a head of the game. Compared with the US or Canada, Ireland has this tremendous dynamic and it is moving so quickly. There are elements of risk coming into it, for sure, but it still has wonderful foundations.”
Rising interest rates and household costs could potentially eat into the spending power of BT’s core customers, but a possible economic downturn doesn’t concern Weston.
‘‘When you look from afar at Ireland, you think about those kind of issues, but when you come back and walk the streets, and you visit the stores and talk to the people, your fears are allayed. There isn’t anything like as much concern that there would be a setback,” he says.
‘‘There is still a tremendous energy here. Our businesses are on such a small piece of the market that there will be lots of opportunity for stores like ours and very good locations in all the major cities. We will continue to update our stores and make them bigger where we can, and provide more products at the top end, over and above just fashion.”
The arrival of high-end retailers, such as House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols in Dundrum Shopping Centre, which opened last year, has failed to knock Brown Thomas from its perch as Dublin’s top department store. Dundrum was seen as a major threat to Weston’s long-established market when it opened.
‘‘It has gone by without a lot of concern to us here, as you can see from our numbers,” says Weston. ‘‘We are growing very quickly and it really doesn’t appear to have affected us.
‘‘We have had a 15-16 per cent growth rate, and that is pretty much where we were before Dundrum opened, so we have done a lot of things to upgrade our store, making it worth coming into, and I think the very top end is not correctly positioned in the Dundrum Shopping Centre.
‘‘I just don’t think it is where people want to go to shop for expensive things. They are very happy to come into town. It is a special treat. They feel they are coming to the heart of the experience, where they are going to get the choice and all the other options that go with that - where they eat and enjoy themselves,” says Weston.
The Canadian retailer still watches Dundrum’s performance closely, though. He has to - Weston has a large Penneys outlet (a chain in which the Weston family have a controlling interest), a BT2 store and an A-Wear shop there.
But the number of large shopping centres that have sprung up across the country, selling some of the brands that Brown Thomas stocks, is a concern.
Asked if anything keeps him up at night, Weston says: ‘‘There are a lot of shopping centres coming into Ireland and some of the downtown will be challenged by them, but Ireland is continuing to grow and prosper. I don’t see any great drama on the downside.”
Weston says Brown Thomas will remain a high-street brand, and will not be tempted to shopping centres in the suburbs.
‘‘There are high-street stores and suburban stores, and the Brown Thomas name, as it stands, will remain a high-street store,” he says.
Weston believes there are plenty of high streets where Brown Thomas can live comfortably.
His attention has evidently been caught by the retail activity in Dublin’s north city centre - the massive growth of Arnotts, which is involved in a €700,000 million expansion, and the tough times at Clerys.
‘‘There will be lots of opportunity for Brown Thomas on the northside and downtown,” he says. ‘‘It just needs to clarify itself in terms of where the best location will be - and I think we will probably be there.”
If Clerys came on the market, would Weston consider buying it?
‘‘It has got great history, history that connects with Selfridges, so clearly it is a fascination and an interest, but it is still too early to tell whether O’Connell Street is going to make the grade as the great fashion location for the northside. There is a lot happening in behind Clerys, but there is also a lot happening on the other side of O’Connell Street, going down Henry Street. We are going to sit back and see how that plays out.”
But would a Brown Thomas outlet on the northside not eat into the business of the Grafton Street outlet, cannibalising its well-established and loyal market?
‘‘It is a concern, but we have very high sales per square foot in this store and we have nowhere to grow. If you can’t do that in Grafton Street, then you go to the next place which provides for alternative shoppers who might want the same products, but aren’t necessarily committed to Grafton Street.
“As Dublin grows and becomes more and more sophisticated, there will certainly be a place for Brown Thomas on the northside.”
Clerys and Selfridges have strong connections. The second Clerys building was modelled on the Selfridges store in London after the first shop was destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising.
Asked whether there will be a Brown Thomas north of the Liffey in five years, Weston says: ‘‘I would think that, in five years, we will know where we are going to be on that side.”
Weston says he sees plenty of potential to grow the A-Wear brand further and he has turned to another of his entries, Penneys (known in Britain as Primark) for inspiration.
The growth of Penneys into a high street retailer on a par with H&M and Topshop in Britain and Ireland - under the stewardship of the low-profile Dublin businessman Arthur Ryan - has impressed Weston, whose family owns 55 per cent of ABF, the company behind the two retail chains.
‘‘It has been one of the most exciting business stories written over the last 20 years. It is a very tight and committed management team under his [Ryan’s] leadership that has been together for 30 years.
“They are fearless and unbelievably committed and determined tow in,” he says.
‘‘We would very much like to do with A-Wear what we did with Primark and Penneys, which is to take it to England.
“We have got a very good management team, but it is a very competitive part of the marketplace, especially right now and especially in Ireland.
‘‘So we are just testing in Birmingham and, hopefully, we will be testing soon in Oxford Street and, when we get the formula right, I am sure that we will do things.”
On his 2003 takeover of Selfridges, Weston says he could not have bought the landmark British department chain without the gains made from Brown Thomas. Weston paid stg£860 million (€1.25 billion) for Selfridges, which has shops in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
‘‘I am going to give credit to Brown Thomas because without Brown Thomas and that £350,000 in 1965, we would never have been able to afford it or want to do it,’’ says Weston.
‘‘Paul Kelly [former Brown Thomas chief executive and now Selfridges boss] did a great job here. We had someone who could lead it with confidence, because it is a great big monster and it is a huge challenge, with 4,000 people in the building, clearly one of the top three stores in the world of its kind, at a time when department stores are becoming more and more unfashionable.”
Selfridges in London, with its 500,000 square feet of retail space, dwarfs Brown Thomas, which has a total of 227,000 square feet in Ireland (110,000 square feet in Dublin, 57,000 in Cork, 43,000 in Limerick and 17,000 in Galway).
Weston’s daughter, Alannah, is creative director of Selfridges.
He also has a son, Galen Jr, who is known as G2.
Weston is not sentimental about keeping any of his businesses in the family, particularly if he were to find himself facing aggressive competition from advancing multinationals.
‘‘Sometimes you have to get out of something,” he says.
‘‘You don’t necessarily do the same thing for 50 years just because it is a family company.
“You have to be prepared to sell parts of your business to fund new, growing businesses.
‘‘That is all part of the free market system - when somebody tough comes along, you have to weigh up all your options and decide whether you can win. If you decide you can’t win, you change your game plan and do what is necessary.”
Is Weston surprised at how his family’s business has grown?
‘‘Yeah, although it has come slowly. We didn’t strike oil. We are in the consumer products business. There wasn’t some sort of ‘eureka’ moment. It has been a day-to-day thing, whether it is supermarkets or department stores or bakeries or sugar companies or whatever,” he says.
‘‘As a family, we have had five or six members take full control of different parts of the companies and we have been very fortunate with their ability and enthusiasm and capabilities.
“Provided you love what you are doing and you are fair to the people who work with you - and you are in those kind of relatively low-risk businesses - then you shouldn’t be surprised if it works well.”
© The Sunday Business Post