Banking plan latest smart move by Cork merchant prince family

24 November 2013 15:13

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Banking plan latest smart move by Cork merchant prince family

The Musgrave dynasty has spent the last 137 years innovating and expanding their empire. Ralph Riegel looks at the family history

But perhaps most challenging of all was Musgraves ability to meet head-on the onslaught of giant UK and European grocery multiples since the 1970s to not only retain but increase their share of the multi-billion euro Irish grocery market.

Little did two Leitrim-born brothers, Thomas and Stuart Musgrave, realise back in 1876 that when they opened their first shop at No 103 North Main Street in Cork that their firm would help define Ireland's entire grocery trade over the next two centuries.

From that first humble shop selling flour, meat and butter, the Musgrave brothers established a retail group that today boasts annual sales of €4.5bn and has operations throughout the Republic, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Spain.

The group is now the largest private company in Ireland if judged by turnover.

Musgraves is Ireland's primary grocery distributor and boasts market-leading outlets and brands including SuperValu, Centra, Budgens, Londis, Superquinn, Daybreak and Mace.

Musgraves Group chief executive Chris Martin attributes much of their modern success to the values inherited from their past.

"We have a tremendously long history . . . our roots are very much family-based. That family ethos underpins everything that we do. We have a set of family values and those values are demanded by our shareholders," he said.

"But we have two values which are particularly pertinent. One is about being long term . . . and the other is about not being greedy.

Musgraves no longer has any direct family descendants in a senior managerial role – after over a century of proud hands-on family involvement – and have instead adopted a shrewd, if low-profile, ownership status.

In 2000, the Musgrave Family Shareholders Conference was established to allow for greater cohesion amongst the firm's inheritors, some of whom live in the UK, Canada and Australia.

Extended members of the Musgrave family control around 76 per cent of the firm with the remainder divided between employees, senior executives and a financial institution.

Three directors, descendants of the original founders, control about 31 per cent of the firm.

But the family has strictly adhered to a dictum adopted in the 1970s and 1980s that, to compete properly with international rivals, Musgraves must be professionally managed without constant family interference.

After the retirement of Hugh MacKeown just two Musgraves remain on the board of directors – Peter (vice-chairman) and Chris (non-executive director).

Which is a lot more than many of the descendants of Thomas and Stuart's contemporaries can boast.

The Musgrave brothers opened their first store seven years after John Sainsbury launched his first venture on London's Drury Lane.

The largest Sainsbury descendant now owns just 4.9 per cent of the UK grocery giant which is effectively controlled by the Qatar Investment Authority with a 25.9 per cent shareholding.

The Musgraves were eight years in operation in Cork before Michael Marks started selling goods from a stall at Kirkgate in Leeds and 18 years before he finally agreed a partnership with Thomas Spencer.

The retail giant they created, M&S, became a public company not long after Michael Marks' death.

The Musgrave family and their descendants have also managed to retain their quiet control of a burgeoning retail empire while other Cork merchant prince families failed to adapt to changing times.

Only the Barry family of Barry's Tea fame and the Crosbies of the Cork/Irish Examiner rank as proper comparisons – though the Examiner Group is now fighting back from being in receivership and has reverted in ownership from three to just one strand of the Crosbie family.

The Roche family boasted similar retail origins to Musgraves but effectively ended their High Street retail presence when agreeing to a €60m purchase by Debenhams of their nine Roches Stores outlets in 2006.

The deal ended 106 years of direct department store operations by the Cork family.

For Musgraves, the acid test came in the 1970s when, faced by the emergence of overseas multiples, the firm founded the SuperValu and Centra brands to compete.

Both emerged from the VG brand which was seen at the time as being too dated.

Competing on the Northern Ireland market critically helped prepare the Cork-based firm for the intense level of competition that Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Lidl and Aldi would ultimately introduce to the Republic.

SuperValu now controls 19.6 per cent of the Irish retail grocery sector, a market share that increased by 3 per cent last year despite the startling emergence of the German discounters.

Lidl and Aldi, according to Kantar World Panel (2012), have almost 13 per cent of Ireland's €8.9bn grocery market, a share that is growing by up to 25 per cent a year.

Superquinn, taken over by Musgraves two years ago, was the big loser in Ireland's grocery wars though both Tesco (28.8 per cent) and Dunnes Stores (21.6 per cent ) are anxiously watching their two German rivals.

Musgraves' ability to compete – and avoid destructive family ownership squabbles – sets it apart from most other Irish family firms.

Throughout its growth, Musgraves took enormous pride from their family involvement in business and the standards they applied to all their operations.

Both Thomas and Stuart were Church of Ireland members but became closely associated with Methodism in Cork when three of the founders' sons married women with strong Methodist leanings.

When Musgrave Brothers Ltd was formed in 1894, one of its articles of association forbade any trade whatsoever in alcohol. When Musgraves were instrumental in building Cork's famous Metropole Hotel on MacCurtain Street, it was specifically not allowed to serve alcohol despite operating in its early years as a hostelry for travellers, well-healed shipping officials and thirsty British soldiers.

In fact, the hotel that is now the headquarters of the Guinness Jazz Festival each year didn't obtain a bar licence until 1956.


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