LONDON — Arthur Ryan, a retail pioneer who founded the Primark retail chain in 1969 with a single store on Mary Street in Dublin, died Monday following a short illness, according to the company. He was 83 years old.
“Arthur Ryan will be remembered as one of the great giants of retailing,” said George Weston, chief executive officer of Associated British Foods, parent of Primark.
“When my grandfather Garfield Weston and uncle Galen Weston recruited Arthur to run Penneys [before it became Primark] in 1969 with only one store in Dublin, they knew they were hiring an exceptional trader. But what three generations of Westons learned over the following decades was that Arthur was also a great leader and business builder, driven every day by a relentless desire to delight his customers.”
Weston said Ryan, the founder, chairman and former ceo of Primark, “made fashion accessible to all, and his legacy looms large. He built a phenomenal world-class retailer, the foundations of which will always belong to Ireland.”
Weston extended “deepest sympathies to Arthur’s wife, Alma, and all his family and friends at this very sad time. We will all greatly miss his larger-than-life presence, his sharp wit and his friendship.”
Primark is a wholly owned subsidiary of Associated British Foods and today has more than 370 stores across 12 countries, including the Republic of Ireland, the U.K., Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France, the U.S., Italy and Slovenia.
Now in its 50th year, the company employs more than 75,000 people, although its beginnings were inauspicious: Ryan recalled in an interview with Primark that the store had no customers on its opening Saturday.
Ryan opened the first Primark store — then known as Penneys — in 1969 and a few years later he took it to Britain. In 2005, Primark ramped up growth with the acquisition of a large portfolio of Littlewoods stores, and began paying ever-closer attention to catwalk trends.
In April, Primark opened its largest retail unit, in Birmingham, a five-floor store spanning 161,000 square feet and staffed by more than 1,000 people, including 500 in new jobs. The aim is to provide Birmingham citizens with an immersive retail experience and affordable fashion and lifestyle products.
There is a Disney-themed café, a barbershop by Joe Mills and a Duck & Dry Xpress beauty studio. There are water fountains, digital charging points, recycling areas and a Hogwarts Wizarding World section.
According to the company’s latest trading update, sales in the 40 weeks to June 22 were 4 percent ahead of last year, with openings set for State Street in Chicago and Bonn, Germany, bringing the gross increase in selling space to nearly 1 million square feet, in line with the company’s plans.
Paul Marchant, ceo of Primark, called Ryan “a true retail pioneer who innovated and was never complacent, despite many successes. He challenged us all to be the best we can be. His drive and passion was always shown alongside great humility, integrity and support for our people. All of these characteristics remain guiding principles at Primark today.”
Marchant said Ryan “remained deeply connected to the business and the customer, regularly visiting stores and walking the shop floor. His legacy will continue in the business that he founded and built.”
Ryan was a private man who rarely gave interviews and who often traveled with bodyguards for fear of being kidnapped during the years of conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century.
In addition to his wife Alma, Ryan is survived by their children, Jess and Barry, as well as children from a previous marriage.