Quinn, John James (1920–86), businessman, was born in Corrintra, near Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, the second son among twelve children of Patrick Quinn, a farmer, of Corrintra, and his wife Annie (née McAdam) from Avelbane, Co. Monaghan. He attended the local national school at Oram and then the technical school at Castleblayney. Aware that his grand-uncle Eugene McArdle (c.1864–1940) was the managing director and principal of H. Williams and Co., a publicly quoted chain of Dublin grocers, wine merchants and wholesalers, John keenly studied commerce and bookkeeping in school and haunted the local shops.
In 1936 he moved to Dublin and served three years as an unpaid apprentice in the H. Williams store in Dún Laoghaire. A serious-minded youth with an unsparing work ethic, in the evenings he attended first the technical school in Dún Laoghaire and then a private school run by Thomas Potter. He accumulated assorted trade-related diplomas and also undertook correspondence courses, finishing fifth in the UK in the Institute of Bookkeepers exams in 1941, and also passing the fellowship examinations for the Institute of Grocers, London (1942), and for the British Institute of Commerce.
Transferring to the Baggot Street outlet, he headed the bottling department and learned much under the wing of his uncle John James Quinn (c.1893–1947). He devised a rations system that maintained H. Williams's supplies during the Emergency, and became branch manager in September 1943 before being put in charge of the Henry Street store. Promoted too rapidly to proceed with his intention of setting up on his own, he joined the board of directors in 1945 and succeeded his late uncle as company chairman and managing director in 1947. That year, he married Margaret (Peggy) Boyle from Liverpool, later settling with her and their eight children in Butterfield Road, Rathfarnham. His son Mick became an Irish rugby international.
On taking over H. Williams, he determined on overhauling an old-fashioned concern, and renovated the quaintly furnished shop premises, introducing meat departments and refrigerators. He also opened new branches and developed the wholesale line, enabling him to extract bulk discounts from suppliers. More ambitiously, in 1950 he converted the Henry Street premises into Ireland's second self-service shop (and first self-service grocers), whereby shoppers picked out goods manually and brought them to the checkout. He was, however, forced to revert to counter service: customers and staff were wary, there was too much pilferage, and supply shortages meant that the packaging and range of goods were inadequate.
H. Williams suffered during the economically depressed mid 1950s, and rumours abounded of either a takeover or a voluntary liquidation. Under pressure from shareholders, Quinn sold part of the Henry Street store in 1953 and became notorious in the trade for price-cutting. Justifying his methods as retaliation against hucksters enabled by weak regulation, he asserted his principled support for the fraying retail price cartel and for the small shopkeepers who were both his wholesale customers and retail competitors.
With self-service shops proliferating in Britain, in 1959 he converted his Henry Street store into Ireland's first supermarket – then defined as a self-service shop with a floor space of more than 2,000 square feet, selling fruit, vegetables, meat and groceries. The success of his second attempt to move from offering a service based on credit and delivery to one based on lower prices and cash payments validated self-service shopping in Ireland. Profits surged in the early 1960s as he switched all his shops to self-service and modernised their layout. Whereas longstanding rivals like Findlaters and Monument Creameries failed to adapt, Quinn's pioneering efforts put H. Williams at the forefront of Ireland's retail sector. He knew the Dublin market inside out, and easily withstood the first wave of competition from foreign-owned imitators.
From the mid 1960s he opened new shops, generally in Dublin's established, middle-class suburbs, expanding the chain from eight to twenty outlets by the mid 1970s and moving the corporate headquarters to Dundrum beside an impressive 22,000-square-foot 'superstore'. With total employment peaking at 600, H. Williams also bought three public houses in Dún Laoghaire, a farm, and the F. Hafner and Sons Ltd sausage company to add to the two fruit and vegetable wholesale subsidiaries in Britain.
To fund this expansion, Quinn enlarged the company's equity base fortyfold from 1963 through generous rights and scrip issues to the existing shareholders of a new class of share that was denied voting rights at the AGM. This preserved the Quinn family's control while permitting the relatively small number of longstanding shareholders to cash in by feeding non-voting stock measuredly on to the market. Holding 65 per cent of the voting stock, the Quinns dominated the board of directors and senior management. John Quinn personally owned 17 per cent of the voting stock and 12 per cent of the non-voting stock.
Maintaining an onerous work schedule, he avoided social events, and had no hobbies, aside from walking and later jogging, but was far from dull, possessing a lively, idiosyncratic mind. He enjoyed extended business lunches and normally concluded his Saturday-morning stock checks in a pub where he gossiped with other retailers. When at ease, he was entertainingly, sometimes overbearingly, opinionated on all manner of topics, his forthright condemnations of government policy reflecting his conservative economic philosophy and scathing view of Irish politicians and civil servants. Notably diet- and health-conscious, he condemned the effect on the body of processed foods, milk, cigarettes and alcohol. Despite being a good quote, Quinn received a hostile press from financial journalists, partly because he disdained humouring them.
Just as H. Williams's expansion was gathering momentum, Quinn's business model was partially undone in the mid 1960s by the rise of three formidable Irish challengers: Ben Dunne (qv) of Dunnes Stores, Feargal Quinn (b. 1936) of what became Superquinn, and Pat Quinn (qv) of Quinnsworth. (Neither Feargal nor Pat Quinn were related either to John Quinn or each other.) Offering larger, car-friendly outlets with longer shopping hours located in Dublin's fast-growing outer suburbs, these operators were more ruthless in milking their cash flow for interest income and in extracting discounts, extended credit, and shelf-loading services from suppliers.
A combination of tougher competition and the administrative disarray arising from expansion meant that, despite its physical growth, H. Williams failed to surpass its 1965 profits until 1972, causing stock market investors to lose interest. In the late 1960s, Quinn bowed to the new realities by taking a harder line towards suppliers and introducing late-opening hours. Relying on quality, friendly service and extensive lines, H. Williams's plain, uncluttered stores eschewed the aggressive sales tactics otherwise predominating; the panicked adoption of trading stamps in 1969 representing Quinn's sole concession to gimmickry. Trading stamps delivered an immediate stimulus, but ultimately reduced price competitiveness and were difficult to drop, obliging Quinn to persevere with them until 1975.
He expressed sympathy for small retailers and bemoaned the public's price-driven preference for inferior goods, dismissing most of the food sold in Irish supermarkets, including his own, as bereft of nutrition. Shaped by an era when gentleman grocers acknowledged obligations to their employees and suppliers while maintaining their occupational solidarity in opposition to government price and supply restrictions, his outlook was rendered obsolete as market forces aggregated consumer power around a handful of large supermarket chains. Rivals regarded the increasingly disenchanted and unpredictable Quinn as a loose canon, liable to persist with engaging them in mutually harmful competition out of stubbornness and personal animosity. He particularly detested Dunne for his crass, cut-price salesmanship and bullying of suppliers.
Benefiting from a loyal customer base, H. Williams traded respectably into the mid 1970s, though the sale and leaseback in 1972 of its three most valuable outlets, at Henry Street, Baggot Street and Tallaght, boded ill. Similarly Quinn's new policy of renting rather than owning newly opened stores brought immediate cash relief while undermining the company's long-term finances. An accomplished frontline operator, Quinn adroitly directed local price skirmishes, but failed to develop a coherent strategy and accumulated an ill-assorted collection of shops, preventing the application of a uniform, easily advertised trading formula. With a few exceptions, the stores were also too small and were located on high streets with poor parking and no room for expansion. The profusion of small outlets contributed to the burdensome administrative costs, as almost all decisions had to be referred back to corporate headquarters where Quinn's hands-on approach inhibited management effectiveness.
Quinn carped relentlessly about government economic policies, trade-union militancy, an inefficient planning system, and competition from foreign retail groups. Yet the Irish-owned Dunnes Stores and Superquinn overcame these problems through economies of scale and by respectively annexing the lower and upper ends of the market. Caught in the exposed middle, H. Williams was vulnerable to Quinnsworth, which tended to site its stores in similar locations and was from 1972 backed by the comparatively limitless resources of the Weston international combine.
Since he was not the sole proprietor or even the principal shareholder, Quinn was further constrained by his relatives' wish to draw on the family nest egg. Starved of investment, the dowdy-looking stores lost custom in the late 1970s, as critics accused the Quinns of earning a good living off running down the company. Although dividends stagnated, the directors' emoluments rose sharply and the senior managers, including three of Quinn's sons, were well paid. His own yearly salary as chief executive exceeded £90,000.
As H. Williams plunged deeper into losses from 1978, Quinn unsuccessfully approached potential buyers before announcing publicly that the company was for sale in August 1981. There was little interest: many of the shops were unviable while an asset-stripping exercise was likely to prove politically contentious and too expensive in terms of redundancy payments. Moreover, the new owners would have to pry fourteen senior managers from their lucrative service contracts. The cost of buying out Quinn alone was put at £400,000 to £700,000.
By early 1982, Patrick Gallagher (qv) (1951–2006) and Finbarr Holland, two property developers in need of a supermarket cash cow, had emerged as suitors. Gallagher's £4.25 million offer seemed decisive, but his rumoured financial difficulties led Quinn and his sons to make a joint bid with Holland, their combined shareholding sufficing to block Gallagher until he ran out of time and withdrew. The Quinn–Holland consortium's successful £4.3 million bid was immediately recouped by selling three H. Williams stores to Quinnsworth. It was a reasonable outcome for shareholders and for the Quinns, who were either retained or paid off.
Retiring on a five-year consultancy contract worth £50,000 a year, John Quinn died after a long illness on 3 February 1986 in St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, and was buried in Cruagh cemetery, Rockbrook, Co. Dublin. The overextended H. Williams chain collapsed in controversial circumstances in 1987.