July 20, 2011
IF anything sums up what went wrong with Ireland, it is the saga of Superquinn. On the positive side, if anything shows how we can get out of this mess, it is also the receivership of one of Ireland’s best-known brands. Before looking at the receivership and the implications for the rest of the country, let’s consider for a moment Superquinn.
In 2001, Feargal Quinn, a man I had never met, asked me to speak at a conference he was hosting. Now it wasn’t any old conference, it was a gathering of Europe’s top retailers who operate under an umbrella group called EuroCommerce. This organisation represents retail brands and over 100 commercial federations in 27 European countries. These were people who knew their businesses and Feargal Quinn was the president of this organisation.
He was courteous to a fault, which you would expect from the man. But more interesting was the fact that he seemed to know everyone in the business and he understood the business backwards. Here was a retailer to his toes.
As is often the case at conferences, if you bother to listen, you will learn more from the participants than they ever learn from you, the speaker.
The people whom Quinn had assembled in the RDS that day in 2001 knew more about European economics, trends and what was actually happening on the ground than any learned economist. They spoke about interest rates, exchange rates, producer prices, trends in global food manufacturing, sourcing products in exotic locations, the prices of freight from and to China, what was selling in Shanghai and why there was going to be a commodity-price boom in the years ahead.
But they didn’t only know the macroeconomic patterns; they also understood what was going on inside the heads of their consumers.
They knew what was happening to family budgets, they knew what was happening to savings and, more significantly, they understood their customers.
And Feargal Quinn was the guy they all looked up to.
That afternoon, one boss of a huge Dutch retailer told me that Quinn was simply the “best in the business”, that he was always ahead of the game, always knew what his customer wanted and where the customer was going next.
In the 1970s, when he was building the business, Quinn visited the US to see how suburban trends in the States were changing the way people were shopping. But it was more than shopping — he was studying the way we were living and the way our suburban lifestyle was changing everything about us.
He saw that this would happen in Ireland and that Irish tastes would change as global tastes did. He saw the emerging patterns in obesity and the way in which health-conscious Americans were adapting their diets accordingly. He understood that as a society gets wealthier, among the most conspicuous changes are in diet and the way people shop. He also learned from the Americans that the customer is king, or in Superquinn’s case, queen.
The Irish housewife was changing in the 1970s and 1980s. She was more educated than her mother and, unlike her mother, she was working. The explosion of the female workforce was going to change profoundly how and what we ate and how we shopped.
Feargal Quinn understood this, arguably before anyone else. He was amongst the first Irish retailer to speak of the “shopping experience”. He understood human psychology and the fact that we identify with brands and we behave like herds. He copped on to the fact that many rational, clever humans end up identifying with a product or brand. And ultimately, rather than saying: “I like that” product, many people say: “I am like that”. I am a “Superquinny” type of person. Like it or not, that is the way many of us behave.
He put it all in his bestselling book ‘Crowning The Consumer’. But before he wrote it down, he had already put it into effect in his shops. This knowledge was then used to change the face of retailing in Ireland.
I have asked lots of working women whether the Super- quinn experience is different and they have all agreed that it is. Yes, it might be pricier than other supermarkets, but overall it is a more pleasant experience.
Now just before you think this is a PR stunt for Feargal Quinn, all I am trying to point out was that here was a man who knew his trade and you can’t ask for more than that.
When he sold up, it was a sign to us all that the boom had gone mad. He could see that the prices people were prepared to pay for his supermarkets were crazy, so he sold everything he had worked to create.
This was the story of boom-time Ireland. And the story of the sort of ‘financial gobshitery’ that replaced basic economics, driven by greed and hubris.
The bankers who hadn’t a clue what they were doing and mistook a large overdraft for an economic miracle were both in control and out of control at the same time. The balance sheets of good companies like Superquinn were loaded up with debt which would ultimately cripple them because no matter how good a company is — or a country for that matter — if you take on too much debt, the entity will default. And this is what sunk Superquinn.
As the Americans say, “Good company, bad balance sheet”. So what do you do? You fix the balance sheet and save the company. You call in the receiver, ensure the future of the company by telling the creditors of the company to line up in an orderly queue and do a deal with the new owners. New capital always takes precedence and you start again.
Thankfully, this is happening in Superquinn and another proper retailer, Musgrave, is taking the opportunity presented. It is not unusual, it is called capitalism. Some creditors win and some lose and away we go.
Now consider what we can learn at a national level from the Superquinn saga.
IRELAND is like Superquinn: a good economy, hijacked by eejits and financed by fools. The worst thing about a fool is that he doesn’t know he is a fool. The way you deal with these types is you apply the rules of capitalism to them. The same banks that lent to the developers that took over Superquinn are the same so-called pillar banks that we are supposed to save.
So save them — but apply the rules of capitalism to the saving. Tell the creditors to line up and accept the terms. If the main creditors are now the ECB as well as the bondholders, you put them into a room and tell them the game is up. Force debt for equity on them and start again.
The state of chassis in the euro at the moment gives us the opportunity to act, take the lead, be decisive and move on.
One thing is clear, the ECB and the European leaders have no idea how to deal with this crisis, so why wait? How much more evidence of European incompetence do we need?
What works for Superquinn will work for Ireland. Let’s do it.