retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I know I've always been something of a disappointment to Feargal Quinn.

I've had the pleasure of getting to know Feargal over the years, to the point where I feel comfortable calling him by his first name, rather than Mr. Quinn or Senator Quinn (which would be appropriate since he spent more than two decades in the Irish Seanad). I've interviewed him for various projects, which always has been a delight because he is nothing if not quotable, but I've also shared a couple of dinners with him, and he pretty much defines what it is to be a raconteur. The man knows how to tell a story.

One of the things that Feargal has long delighted in is his choice of socks. They're always wild and colorful, and he takes great pride not just in showing them off, but often in telling the story behind them, if there is one. When I've seen him at various events, in places ranging from Dublin to Shanghai, he's usually lifted his pants leg a bit, displayed whatever unique hosiery he happens to be wearing, and then, with a mischievous grin, ask to see mine.

Alas, I always have been disappointing on this score. (Probably on others, too, but that would require a digression of some time and length.) I basically have only sweat socks in my drawer, and they come in two colors - white, and black. In seeing them, Feargal generally would shake his head, but he'd never lose the grin, and the message - sometimes spoken, sometimes not - was that perhaps next time I'd do better, and that he hadn't lost faith.

That message - about always working to do better, and always having faith in the ability to be better - is one that pervades Feargal's new memoir, "Quinntessential Feargal," now available on Amazon.com.

Feargal has written two other books, the far more business-oriented "Crowning The Customer" (which is a classic in the genre) and "Mind Your Own Business," both of which also are available on Amazon. "Quinntessential Feargal" is more of a memoir, albeit one that is full of wonderful business lessons mined from a life well and robustly lived.

The man knows how to tell a story. He talks about his parents, especially his dad, who was an entrepreneur who was practicing disruption in the retail business long before "disruption" became a catch phrase for techies and venture capitalists. During the thirties and forties, Eamonn Quinn became successful by challenging conventional wisdom and not accepting "we've always done it that way" as the foundation for a business plan.

Lesson learned. Using language that is musical and poetic in that way that one expects of an Irishman, along with an eye for the telling and contextual detail, Feargal Quinn tells his own story as a businessman, using his father's example to create the company eventually known as Superquinn, which set new standards and was known globally for its approach to customer service. Never a big company, Superquinn was a company that always thought and acted big. It was a pioneer in the area of loyalty marketing, and revolutionary in how Feargal invested in the company's people - management routinely shared the weekly numbers with all the people who worked in the stores, on the theory that people who had a sophisticated understanding of the business would better represent the stores and feel invested in their success.

Not only does the man know how to tell a story, but Superquinn stores always did, as well. Long before product sourcing became trendy, Superquinn featured posters in the bakery, seafood, meat, and produce departments that identified the bakers and fishermen, ranchers and farmers from whom the products had been acquired. Through pictures and narrative, the stores told a compelling story about people and food and national pride.

This commitment to people can be seen throughout "Quinntessential Feargal," in which the author takes great pains to give credit to the hundreds of people of have been part of his life's adventure - including, of course, his wife Denise and his five children (all terrific people, by the way), and Anne O'Broin, his personal assistant (and one of my favorite people), who has been with him for so much of the journey. Unlike some CEOs, who celebrate themselves and their own accomplishments with braggadocio and edifices both real and virtual, Feargal's approach is to celebrate other people and to understand that service can be its own reward.

As the Irish market changed, Feargal eventually sold Superquinn in 2005 ... but by that point he had been elected Senator and was deeply involved in the Irish political scene, bringing a businessman's instincts and experience to government bureaucracy.

Two notes about this section of the book. To Americans, some of the political processes described will seem somewhat arcane and, well, foreign. But I found it to be interesting, if only because it is fascinating to see how another democracy works from the inside. I was particularly interested in how at various points in his career, Feargal found himself fighting against protectionist policies, concluding - as the government usually did - that while they might seem self-satisfying in the short-term, in the long run they were far more likely to work against a nation's ability to be sustainably prosperous.

In reading "Quinntessential Feargal," I was reminded of a wonderful line from Ernest Hemingway: "Good writing is good conversation, only more so."

I've been privileged in my life to have some good conversations with Feargal Quinn. Sitting down with his new book was like having another one.

Only more so.

KC's View: