Richard Curran: ‘Feargal Quinn was the real deal and a retail revolutionary’
The Superquinn founder didn’t just influence Irish business people – he helped shape them
They say that entrepreneurs have a distinct ability to be both “thinkers” and “doers”. They are more than the armchair theorist and more than an action figure who goes with the crowd.
By that definition Feargal Quinn was the ultimate entrepreneur. He was full of ideas throughout his life (and not just about business) and he also had the boundless energy and enthusiasm to put them into practice.
He was one of a handful of Irish business leaders who built companies at home which were as good, if not better, than any of their counterparts around the world. Irish firms like that are easier to find today, but back then they were few and they paved the way for Ireland’s vibrant trading economy today.
At just 23-years-old he started his own supermarket business at a time when the notion of self-service grocery shopping was just taking off. His Superquinn store was not the first supermarket here but it helped to define the concept in Ireland and beyond.
By the early 1970s, Superquinn had grown into a successful operation with 300 employees. By the time he sold the business in 2005 it had 24 stores, 5,000 employees and revenues of around €600m.
He had carved out a near 10pc share of a massive and cut-throat grocery market.
What made Superquinn different was its founder’s extraordinary attention to detail and his openness to new ideas.
Feargal Quinn pioneered customer service in modern Irish business and put the customer at the centre of everything he did.
It seems obvious now, but it was revolutionary in 1960s Ireland. His book, ‘Crowning the Customer’, started out as a series of notes for staff.
After he got tired sending out printed copies to employees he decided to publish them as a book.
He told the publisher, Michael O’Brien, at O’Brien Press, that it should be a short read, with large print that could be read from start to finish in a single flight by a business executive.
He understood the pressure of time, short attention spans and the value of concise presentation before many others.
His philosophy covered everything from how high to place the fruit and vegetable shelves, to how you deal with complaints.
He gave the example of a man who bought a steak. He got home only for his wife to tell him to take it back because it wasn’t what she had wanted.
The man would return the product claiming it was gone off. The philosophy was to take it back, and give him something else in return, even if you knew there was nothing wrong with it. That man’s custom over many years was worth much more than a single cut of meat.
He used to say that a negative comment about your business would be passed on to 17 people, while a positive one would only reach about three. ‘Crowning the Customer’ has been translated into 14 languages, including Chinese.
The Irish grocery market was seen as ripe for takeover by larger British multiples for a long time. Ferociously competitive, Feargal Quinn applied his own ideas to Superquinn and believed that if an Irish company delivered the best quality and service, while retaining an Irish feel and identity, it would have a solid place in an industry that was becoming more international.
He brought the Irish language into in-store signage.
He developed the first technology-based loyalty scheme in Europe, called ‘SuperClub’.
He knew he couldn’t match competitors on advertising spend so he garnered publicity from stunts – like having an elephant at a store opening.
He had a policy of speaking directly to the media on controversial issues for the sector, which garnered publicity. Think Michael O’Leary’s low-cost approach to marketing, long before Michael O’Leary. They clearly differed on customer service philosophy, however.
Despite the success of Superquinn over many years (it spanned six decades and nine Taoisigh), Mr Quinn sold the company in 2005 for around €420m to a retail and property development consortium led by Bernard McNamara and Simon Burke.
The Superquinn name disappeared a few years later when it was bought by SuperValu. The decision to sell back in 2005 was not difficult, he said afterwards.
“I remember somebody saying to me, ‘I can’t believe you don’t put eight floors on top of that, two levels of car parking underneath. You could make much more money’.
“So others valued the premises much more than we could ever make from the grocery business.
“I went to the family and said, ‘others value this and I’m getting to the stage that I’m not going to start getting into construction and building, do you want to?’ And they didn’t.”
Feargal Quinn knew when to get out while he was ahead.
Outside of Superquinn, he wanted to give back to society. He had run for the Seanad as far back as 1973 and was eventually elected in 1993. While there he fought hard for small business, especially after the crash in 2008.
He backed a Construction Contracts Bill which would prevent large contractors from holding back payments to smaller sub-contractors. He backed a major legislative bid to abolish upward-only rent reviews as small shop owners and other commercial tenants went to the wall in the recession.
He backed a ‘Local Heroes’ initiative to help Drogheda fight back against job losses during the darkest days of the recession.
In 1993, he chaired a Department of Education steering committee which overhauled a key component of the post- primary education system. He donated his Seanad salary to charity up until the crash and then declined to take it at all after that.
He chaired An Post from 1979 and spent 10 years helping to modernise the postal system and was instrumental in setting up the National Lottery.
Feargal Quinn was the real deal – a hugely successful business figure who pioneered innovation in his own sector; a person who gave back to the State; who carried a sense of civic responsibility and national pride and was a champion of the little guy.