A North Clare woman was recognised for her business acumen and leadership at the 2014 IMAGE Business Woman of the Year Awards in Dublin this week.
Primark’s board director Breege O’Donoghue, from Boston, was presented with the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
In accepting the award, Ms O’Donoghue (70) recalled her childhood on the Clare-Galway border, her “loving family” and especially her mother, Molly.
“My mother had great influence on the family, independent, strong-minded and devoted to her husband and children, for whom she cooked, baked, knitted, made all our clothes and delighted in the joys of gardening and her beautiful flowers,” she said.
Ms O’Donoghue described the farm where she grew up as both “idyllic and hard work”.
“The trees were tall, the grass was green, the birds were chirping one to the other. There was no extravagance and money was always put aside for the rainy day. Christmas was magical, with all its preparations of making the plum puddings, plucking geese and turkeys, decorating the Christmas tree and waiting in anticipation of Santa,” she said.
“My parents’ strong wish was to ensure we had the best education possible, so at just over 13 years, I was away from home, as there was no transport links to secondary school in Gort…a period of great personal satisfaction under the guidance of the Sisters of Mercy,” she added.
“My education, still bright in my mind, was grounded in the Catholic belief and practice. To quote WB Yeats ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’. Career guidance was not a feature…the closest was Reverend Mother’s visits to try and coax one to enter the order, to no avail,” Ms O’Donoghue continued.
A career choice was not, she said, “in those days, determined by ability but by means. I didn’t have the option to pursue a university degree at that stage but I did have an ambition to do so. However, that foundation in education served me well, as did a work ethic, which was modelled so well at home.”
In 1972, she achieved that educational ambition and after attending classes at night, she graduated from UCD with a commerce degree. Over the course of her career, she completed many short programmes of study, including at Cornell University, Harvard Business School, LSE and International Language Schools in Germany, Spain and France.
The Clare woman began her career in hotel management with the Great Southern Hotel Group, before leaving to set up Penneys’ human resources department in 1979 and working as a board member to develop the Primark brand as a key player in the youth fashion market.
“I remember the pride of my first wage packet with my name on it,” she said. Ms O’Donoghue joined Penneys on the final day of the visit of John Paul II to Ireland and within eight years, was a board member. There were then 17 stores; today, the company has 285 in nine countries, with 58,000 employees.
“This year’s annual profit was €808 million. We are now entering the US market where we are building an appropriate structure and eight stores are in preparation stage. Primark’s business directly contributes to the employment of more than 800,000 employees across three continents and we estimate that two million people are supported indirectly,” she stated.
This is the eighth year of the awards but the first time Image Publications has included a lifetime achievement award. Melanie Morris, editor-in-chief of IMAGE Magazine, said there was “no shortlist” but that Ms O’Donoghue “stood out above all others”.
“We are overjoyed to honour Breege O’Donoghue, board director at Penneys/Primark. Holding a key leadership role at Penneys/Primark, her work alongside her board colleagues in introducing and positioning Penneys and Primark (or ‘Primani’ as the smart London set call it) – has brought accessible fashion from an Irish head office to an ever-increasing global market. She does so with a combination of charm, ability and that Irish spark, which opens doors and makes things happen.”
Ms O’Donoghue’s reputation as an accomplished business woman was garnered through her extensive career working with formidable Irish companies. Outside of her work at Primark, Ms O’Donoghue has been a government-appointed member on the board of a number of a State companies, including An Post, Aer Rianta and chairman of Shannon College of Hotel Management. She is currently a non-executive director at C&C Group plc and also chair of the Labour Relations Commission.
Ms O’Donoghue, in her speech at the awards, also touched on her family life.
“No life can be expected to pass without a share of personal loss, sadness and tragedies. Both my parents, fortunately, lived into their 90s, not so my late husband, the love of my life…it was he who was my rock of support throughout much of my business career and until his death, James was always interested, available, with sound advice and practical assistance, but never intrusive,” she recalled.
“So, from moments of sadness to moments of gladness, I have had the great fortune of 10 beautiful and wonderful (young people) children, who in those dark days inspired me and gave me that inner strength to battle bravely the great loss of a loved one,” she continued.
“Death called again with the untimely passing of Meabh, my daughter-in-law, the young mother-of-four and, earlier this year, my best friend – a young woman – went to God. Only to be predeceased a short while before by my other best friend, a young girl with an 18-month old child. So, yes, there have been challenges along the way, disturbing the waters of tranquillity, but mobilising the best in me,” she continued.
Ms O’Donoghue addressed changing conditions for women in the workforce over the course of her career to date.
“During my continuing working years, there have been many positive advances for women and others, for example, implementation of equal pay, improvement in the status of women, equality recognised and discrimination on the base of sex, race or otherwise, all unacceptable in principle. In fact, were it otherwise, I might not be standing here, have not had this career and so, too, for many other women. I salute the changes. For 21 years, I was a member of the well-documented Primark gang of four – the only female board member for 26 years and which was not without its challenges. I’m now one of two female members of a gang of seven, so the odds are moving in the right direction,” she outlined.
The Boston woman’s career in Primark has spanned many areas, with particular involvement in international expansion over the past nine years. Now, Ms O’Donoghue is instrumental in leading the company’s entry into the US market.
She outlined the huge milestones achieved by Penneys/Primark during her career and stressed the significance of strong leadership, describing it as the “single most important element of our success and our orchestra is conducted by Paul Marchant, who understands how all the pieces come together, all of which we will need as we enter the exacting, exciting and challenging US market, a whole new experience”.
Before finishing her speech, the accomplished businesswoman shared some advice she has for young people beginning their careers.
“Be true to oneself, show courage, independence, initiative, appreciate the need to recognise, respect and value differences. Know right from wrong. Be ethically aware. Be satisfied only with the very best. Do not be clothed in power and status, but generous in heart, mind and spirit and yes it is encouragement and love that inspire people to succeed and be happy the world over”.
Looking to the future Ms O’Donoghue said she had been blessed “with good health, energy and stamina, and yes I have had an interesting, fulfilling and happy life so far and I look forward to continuing that way for a while longer….It was William Butler Yeats who said ‘Think where man’s glory begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends’.