Excellence Hall of Fame – Feargal Quinn

Feargal Quinn

Nominated by: Mark Coyne
Seconded by: Michael Griffin and Yiannis Lagos

Bio

Feargal was born in Dublin in 1936. At the age of 6, while Europe was at war, he already displayed his unique ingenuity and concern for the greater good when he decided to use a field behind his family’s home to protect the people of neutral Ireland from stray bombing. His plan was to divide the field – which was full of buttercups and daisies – into three parts, picking all the buttercups from the middle to make it appear white, removing all the daisies from another section to make it yellow, and removing everything but the grass from another section to make it green, thereby creating the semblance of an Irish flag which could be seen from the air.

Feargal’s father was a grocer who in the 1940’s had sown the early seeds of a supermarket culture in Ireland with a chain of grocery stores called ‘Payantake’ before opening the Red Island holiday camp in Skerries to the north of Dublin. As a teenager, Feargal worked at the holiday camp as a shoe-shine boy, waiter and a “bingo caller”. After that, while studying commerce in University College Dublin, he worked part-time in retail. In his late teens, while in France, he was exposed to the new retail phenomenon of “self-service” which inspired him in his future ventures. A few years later, aged 23, he started a small shop in the town of Dundalk which was his first step in building what was to become the Superquinn super marketchain.

Although Superquinn was not the first supermarket in Ireland, it was influential in the development of the supermarket concept in Ireland in the 1960s. From the start, Superquinn was built on a foundation of striving for excellence. It focused heavily on food while always striving for excellence in customer service and very deliberately did not stock non-grocery items like hardware.

In 1962, Feargal married Denise Prendergast, who he had met when she came to Red Island holiday camp for a day with her parents in 1958.

By the early 70s, Superquinn had grown into a successful organization that employed over 300 people and had become a major player in the Dublin area. Its desire to be innovative combined with the emphasis on quality food gave rise to a decision that Superquinn would bake its own bread in-store. Coupled with this, the focus on customer service led to supplementing self-service aisles with staffed meat, fish and delicatessen counters, resulting in the highest staff-to-floor ratio in the sector.

When it came to marketing Superquinn, Feargal was a ground breaker. He shunned traditional advertising in preference for attention-grabbing stunts – such as once using an elephant to promote a store opening – and direct rivalries with competitors as an innovative means to raise awareness of Superquinn. In this regard he has been dubbed “the Showman” and perhaps Richard Branson learnt a thing or two from him!

In 1973, Feargal decided to run for the upper House of parliament in Ireland which is known as the Seanad, but was unsuccessful on that occasion.

In 1979, he was appointed Chairman of the Irish Post Office, An Post, which was losing about £12 million annually at the time. He spent 10 years helping to modernize the postal service and within three years it was generating a surplus. While with An Post, he was also instrumental in launching Ireland’s National Lottery.

In 1990, Feargal published his first book, Crowning the Customer, in which he shared insights on his unique business philosophy. It has been translated into 14 languages and has won praise from such people as Martin Sorrell, founder of the world’s largest communications company WPP. It remains in Amazon’s top 100 books globally relating to Customer Service and has been described as “an essential handbook for managers, company directors, employees and students”.

In time, other specialist in-store food production such as Superquinn’s trademark sausages were introduced. Feargal’s unrelenting focus on customer service also saw him introduce many innovative ideas including the launch of the first loyalty card to be introduced in the UK and Ireland, playhouses in-store to entertain customers’ children and customer feedback groups. In 1993, it was the first supermarket in Europe to introduce a technology-based loyalty scheme – called “SuperClub” – the technology behind which it later sold to companies in other countries. Another example of Superquinn embracing technology in the best interests of the customer was when it became the first supermarket in the world to guarantee the absolute traceability of all its beef from pasture to plate, using the TraceBack system developed in Trinity College – a development which made Superquinn famous throughout the retailing world.

In 1993, Feargal was finally elected to the Seanad and was subsequently re-elected on four consecutive occasions (1997, 2002, 2007, 2011). As a Senator he was a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs, the Joint Committee on Finance and Public Service, the National Economic and Social Forum, and the Joint Committee on Jobs and Innovation. He served as a Senator for over 20 years before opting not to run for re-election in 2016. From the time when Feargal was first elected he gave his Seanad salary to charity and then when the financial crisis hit and the State ran into difficulty, Feargal stopped accepting a salary altogether.

Also in 1993, the Irish Minister for Education appointed Feargal the Chair of a steering committee which, between 1993 and 1998, overhauled a key component of Ireland’s post-primary educational system and introduced a cross-curricular school programme for students who do not wish to proceed directly to third-level education as their interests and abilities had not been well served until its introduction. This became known as the Leaving Certificate Applied and has gone from strength to strength each year.

All this while, Feargal kept a firm hand on the running of Superquinn which continued on its journey of innovation and excellence. It was the first Irish supermarket to have a website and it awarded customer’s “goof points” if they were able to point out any shortcomings in its service. Another first for Superquinn was the introduction of self-scanning checkouts in 1996, and in 1999 it was the first to offer in-store banking. Superquinn was also instrumental in the creation of the online consumer portal Buy4Now in 2000, which was purchased in 2014 by the US company MyWebGrocer.

Feargal grew Superquinn into a globally respected business which had innovation and customer service at its heart. It had 24 stores that employed over 5,000 people before he sold it in 2005. Speaking of Feargal’s impact on the retail world, Sir Terry Leahy, former Chief Executive of Tesco, said that Feargal “created a wonderful supermarket built around the shopping experience which became a model for retailers around the world.”

In 2006, Feargal was appointed an Adjunct Professor in Marketing at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where he lectured twice a year until 2014. In 2009, he began hosting a television series, in which he worked with independent shops, helping them become customer-centric and modernise so they could compete with the changing marketplace which in many sectors is dominated by multi-national retailers. The series, Feargal Quinn’s Retail Therapy was produced by RTE and ran for 3 seasons. In 2011, he fronted another Irish television series, Local Heroes – A Town Fights Back, which saw a team of people work to reinvigorate the local economy in the Irish town of Drogheda which was suffering at the depths of the economic recession.

His second book, Mind Your Own Business, which draws on his 50 years’ experience in business, was published in 2013. In 2016, he published his memoirs as his third book, entitled Quinnessential Feargal.

Feargal was a founding member of the Irish Grocers’ Benevolent Fund in 1967, and has served as President of the Irish Quality Control Association, President of the Marketing Institute of Ireland, chairman of Springboard Ireland, and as a director of the US Food Marketing Institute. He has also served as chair of the Irish Management Institute and as President of EuroCommerce.

He is a Fellow of the Institute of Grocery Distribution (UK), was a board member of the Paris-based Centre international des étudiants et stagiaires, and was Chair of the Food Business Forum.

He has received five honorary doctorates from The National Council for Educational Awards, Sterling University, Trinity College Dublin, National University of Ireland Galway, and The Irish American University. He received a Papal Knighthood in 1994 and was awarded the Rehab Group’s People of the Year award in 1984. In addition, he was awarded the Ordre National du Mérite by the President of France, and in 2006, he shared the International Listening Association’s Listener of the Year Award with Oprah Winfrey.