How Primark founder Arthur Ryan battled personal tragedy and slave labour scandals to create UK’s biggest fashion brand

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HE was a business genius who paved the way for fast fashion on the British high street.

But Primark founder Arthur Ryan – who died on Monday following a short illness – suffered the personal tragedy of losing his son and grandson in a drowning accident, lived in fear of the IRA and had his reputation tinged by a child labour scandal.

Primark founder Arthur Ryan has died at the age of 83
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The 83-year-old Dubliner was a notorious workaholic who demanded a lot from his employees, and squeezed the best deals out of contacts so he could pass on savings to millions of customers.

Unlike other retail tycoons, who court the limelight, Arthur Ryan was a fiercely private man. Here we reveal his fascinating story.

Threatened by the IRA

Like many of his fellow Irish magnates, Ryan was regularly threatened by the IRA during the Troubles.

As a result, the twice-married businessman took no chances and moved into one of Dublin’s most secure luxury homes, where he lived with his second wife, Eurovision star Alma Carroll.

He surrounded himself by security and kept his daily schedule and lifestyle fiercely private from all but a select few.

Arthur with second wife Alma Carroll

The death of his son and grandson

Although he kept his personal life under wraps as much as possible, four years ago his family were propelled into the spotlight when his son Barry, 51, his grandson Barry Davis, 21, and Barry’s girlfriend Niamh O’Connor, 20, died during a freak accident off the coast of west Cork.

While enjoying a coastal walk, Niamh was swept into the sea by a freak wave and Barry Jnr jumped in to save her, closely followed by his father.

Tragically, all three drowned.

Niamh O’Connor was swept into the sea on Cork in 2015
Barry Ryan Sr was hailed as Arthur’s ‘hero’ after he drowned trying to save his son and girlfriend
Barry Ryan Jr drowned after jumping in after his girlfriend

In a rare public statement, Ryan said: “You are my hero. We love you, Barry, and miss you and you will always be in our hearts.”

Pile them high, sell them cheap

But the CEO, then 79, still went back to work following the heartbreaking tragedy.

This was perhaps not surprising, as according to reports several years ago, the workaholic made it clear he expected a lot of himself – and his staff.

He apparently told those looking to join his business: “If you want to be home for your tea, don’t call.”

Ryan was a fan of the “pile them high and sell them cheap” mantra, masterminding the growth of cut-price fashion.

Fellow department store boss Ben Dunne spoke of some of the rules that Ryan lived by, adding: “Never buy what you like yourself, and if it isn’t selling, get rid of it quick.

“He was a great man for identifying his market.”

Sweat shops and child slaves

But Primark’s business model came under scrutiny when dubious workers’ conditions in Asian factories were exposed in the noughties, and charities and critics drew comparisons to Victorian-style workhouses.

In 2008, journalists revealed the use of child labour in Indian factories that supplied Primark with clothing.

The clothing giant sacked three of its Indian suppliers after it was uncovered that children as young as 11 had been recruited from refugee camps to sew garments for the retailer.

11-year-old Mantheesh (right) and a young boy work sewing sequins and beads on to Primark tops in undercover BBC footage
BBC

Orphan Mantheesh was discovered working in a factory in Bhavanasagar, a refugee camp, surrounded by Primark clothes that were destined for the UK and Ireland – she claimed to earn up to 60p on a good day, said the hours were unregulated and claimed she was often left working in candlelight at night.

Following the report by the BBC, a spokesman said: “Primark is an ethical organisation and takes its responsibilities seriously, and it is an absolute outrage for anyone to suggest otherwise.

“The BBC came to us with very serious allegations about the conduct of a small number of factories that sell to Primark which we investigated immediately and very thoroughly.

“What we found left us with no option but to drop those factories – no right-minded person would have done anything different.”

Protesters demonstrate outside Primark in Oxford Street after Panorama exposed child labour and ‘sweat shops’ in 2008
Getty Images – Getty

Less than a year later, the company again found itself fighting allegations one of its bestselling ranges was made by illegal immigrants in Britain, who were paid under half the minimum wage.

Manchester-based TNS Knitwear was infiltrated by journalists from the BBC and The Observer, who supposedly filmed workers making garments 12 hours a day, seven days a week for just £3 an hour.

Many of the clothes were sold just two miles away at the branch in Manchester city centre.

1,100 killed in factory blaze

In 2013, more than 1,100 workers who made clothes for Primark and several other global fashion chains were killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

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Factory owners created eight floors despite only having permission to build four, installed heavy machinery into the fragile structure that was only designed to be office space and ignored warning signs, such as cracks in the walls and foundations, the day before tragedy struck on April 24 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Primark’s parent company, ABF, paid out £8million in compensation following the atrocity, which is now regarded as the world’s deadliest structural failure accident.

Just months earlier in February 2013, ABF faced accusations of dodging tax bills in poverty-stricken Zambia by charity ActionAid.

The collapse of Rana Plaza killed more than 1,100 people in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters of this century
AFP
Rescue workers rescue a woman from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building 17 days after the building on May 10, 2013
Reuters

Business is booming

Despite it’s chequered history, Brits’ love affair with Primark continues –  the retail giant recorded its best earnings last year despite high street stores across Britain struggling.

The £7billion earnings were a six per cent rise on 2017 and pre-tax profits rose 15 per cent to £843million.

On news of his death this week, several of Ryan’s former colleagues and friends paid tribute to the retail mogul.

Paul Marchant, who succeeded Ryan as CEO in 2009, said “Arthur Ryan was a retail pioneer and a man of remarkable business acumen.”

Alessandra Steinherr, Kem Cetinay, Paul Marchant, Alice Liveing and Stacey Solomon attend the grand opening of the worlds largest Primark store on April 10, 2019 in Birmingham
Getty Images – Getty


Meanwhile, George Weston, Chief Executive of Associated British Foods, said: “Arthur Ryan will be remembered as one of the great giants of retailing.”

While the company may have lost it’s pioneering founder, the high street behemoth shows no sign of slowing down.

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