Personal Luxuries

Weston supremacy

They’re hardly a household name, but own Selfridges and a host of other upscale stores. In a rare interview, Galen Weston joins daughter Alannah to talk family values and ‘retail activism’. Lucia van der Post reports.

September 03 2011
Lucia van der Post

For a family that is quite so rich, quite so powerful, and that owns so many businesses, it is extraordinary how under-the-radar the Weston family manages to be. The last Sunday Times Rich List, for instance, tells us that the Irish/Canadian Galen Weston family alone has a fortune of some £6bn, whilst the UK-based end, these days headed up by Galen’s nephew Guy, embraces some of the world’s most recognisable brands (they range from Ryvita, Twinings and Silver Spoon to Fortnum & Mason). It’s true that Alannah Weston, the sparky creative director of Selfridges who is the daughter of Galen and Hilary Weston, has become something of a regular on the newspaper lifestyle pages in recent times, but then she’s got a store and her Project Ocean to promote. But, given their wealth and influence, they generate nothing like the media coverage one might expect. Galen Weston, for instance, tells me he hasn’t given an interview for 30 years; and yet here I am, chatting to him in a chic white office high above what seems to be the commercial apple of his eye – Selfridges, the London store he bought for £598m eight years ago and which today, if it were up for sale, would have a price tag of well over £1bn.

Profits have soared since the Westons got their hands on it, and on the day I speak to Galen he tells me that the previous day had been the most successful trading day in the history of their ownership. Last year the store made £120m profit and they are almost certain, he says, to beat that by a margin this year – in other words, he must easily have recouped the cost of the store by now. The recession may be tightening the belts of Brits everywhere, but at Selfridges it’s all boom.

This has not happened by accident. Talk to either Galen or Alannah, and it’s clear that much care, expense and, yes, passion have been lavished on it. “When we bought it,” says Galen, “it wasn’t making any money, the windows had been subcontracted out to advertisers and it hadn’t had enough investment. We’ve poured millions into revitalising it and spent hundreds of thousands on just the windows. It was Alannah who insisted we do that and I think it was the fact that Alannah could see that they needed such urgent attention that persuaded her to come and join us” (at the time she was working for Rose Marie Bravo at Burberry as international head of press).

For those who aren’t familiar with the Westons, following their multifarious activities isn’t easy. Apart from anything else, you’d need a detailed family tree to make sense of the numerous family members and a flow chart to understand who owns what, given the inter-family cross-holdings in the various companies.

To begin at the beginning: the family’s fortunes were kick-started by a certain George, whose parents arrived in Toronto in 1868. There he prospered, leaving a thriving business to his son, Garfield. Garfield brought his family back to the UK in 1932, where he built up Associated British Foods into a vast business, with interests that spread to the United States, Australia, South Africa and Ireland, acquiring and building an empire of mainly food-based brands, as well as Fortnum & Mason (the grand store on London’s Piccadilly, which he bought in 1951).

Garfield had nine children, of whom the two most prominent were Garry, who seems to have been left to look after the then much larger British end and who died in 2002, and Galen, who was soon dispatched to Canada where things were not thriving. Which is how there came to be two branches of the family – the British Westons (these days, since Garry died, his six children, Guy, Jana, Kate, George, Sophia and Garth, all of whom are involved in some part of the empire); and the Canadian/Irish Westons, consisting of Galen, his wife Hilary and their two children, Alannah, who is creative director of Selfridges, and Galen’s son, Galen Jnr, who is currently the executive chairman of the 1,400-plus-branch supermarket and food distribution group Loblaws in Canada. The irony of the situation is that these days the British Westons are much less talked about in British circles than the Canadian/Irish side of the family. Thanks to the soaring success of their companies, to the handsome good looks of Hilary and Galen (they have that burnished, sun-kissed look of the international very rich) and the energetic efforts of Alannah at Selfridges, some publicity is inevitable.

The other irony is that when Galen was summoned from Ireland (where he had already started Primark – Penneys at the time – and bought Brown Thomas, Dublin’s best department store) to run Loblaws in the 1970s, he seems to have drawn what might be called the short straw. There were some 200 stores and subsidiaries that badly needed whipping into shape. Which is precisely what he proceeded to do so successfully that today the upmarket Canadian department-store chain Holt Renfrew, which Galen bought in 1986, is now thriving. Clearly, retailing is what the (Canadian/Irish) family seems to love best, though Galen doesn’t care for the description “department store”. “It’s passé,” he says, and he’s trying to dream up something more contemporary and engaging. But he loves department stores themselves.

Not that he thinks the retail environment is easy. “Shops are not a growing business so it’s a scary place to be. Whether it’s England or Germany, France or Italy, most people have less money to spend. You’ve got to be in the right locations – that’s why we’re successful with Holt Renfrew and with Selfridges – and then you must own them 100 per cent. You have to constantly upgrade to keep making sure you’re the best and the most exciting place to be. And you can’t be passive. You have to stand – metaphorically – in the street and shout at people, wave at them, tell them how great you are and that if they come in they’ll have a great time.” He believes that department stores have to be happening places. They need glamour, buzz, events (Selfridges has dozens every year), surprises. But it’s because he believes that if you have the best and the brightest stores in the best places there is still a future for shops that he has just bought De Bijenkorf, a chain of 12 Dutch upmarket department stores.

“The chain is 141 years old, they’re all in wonderful old buildings in the very best locations,” he says. “The thing about retailing in the UK and in Holland is that the populations are served by less retailing space than in many other countries. In America, for instance, there is a great deal more retailing space per person than in the UK. This means that the opportunities in the UK and Holland are greater – if you get it right.” Paul Kelly, his right-hand man (he’s MD of Selfridges Group Ltd), to whom he pays great tribute and who has been with him since his Brown Thomas days in Dublin, has been dispatched to set the transformation in train.

While Galen Weston is chairman of Selfridges, he – and both Alannah and Galen Jnr – also know that they need to have other highly talented people around them. Besides Paul Kelly, there’s Anne Pitcher, now MD of Selfridges UK, whose role has also been vital. And then there’s family. Hilary, his wife and lifetime companion, has been with him every step of the way. They met when he was 23 and had gone to Ireland to establish Fine Fare, a chain of self-service supermarkets, and she was a 19-year-old model.

It was there that he had the idea of starting Primark. “Ireland in the early 1970s was in a depressed economic state. You could buy shops for almost nothing so I bought a whole bunch of them and then I had to fill them. Hilary herself made the first dress we sold and because she always loved fashion we later bought Brown Thomas together.”

He – and clearly Alannah – both think that Hilary Weston is something of an unsung hero. “Hilary would often edit with Alannah, and Hilary has this way of just spotting something that isn’t quite right or could be improved and she’ll say something small like, ‘Isn’t it all a bit black?’, and everybody will suddenly realise that yes, it is a bit too black.”

It clearly really is a family business. “We’re always zapping pictures on our iPhones to each other of things we’ve seen,” says Galen Weston, “suggestions for how things could be displayed – anything that we think might be interesting or useful.” Nevertheless you get the feeling that it wouldn’t do to slack. When I asked Galen Weston what were the major difficulties facing his son with the Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws (which is publicly traded but of which George Weston Foods owns 62 per cent), he fired back, quick as a flash: “Pleasing me.” And as for Alannah, while clearly glowing with pride at everything she’s done, he says, “Oh, I come in every Wednesday morning and give her hell.”

Just because she’s the chairman’s daughter doesn’t mean Alannah has carte blanche. Every idea, she tells me, she has to cost out, make a clear case for it to the board who “aren’t going to let some girl run away and do silly things”.

With Project Ocean, her most recent and most campaigning initiative, which brought in over 20 conservation and environmental groups to educate and entertain their customers with the wonders of the ocean and the dangers it is facing, she had to make an impassioned speech to the board, do all the checks, and had to persuade the whole team to come along with her. As she puts it, “I couldn’t deliver stuff on my own. I’m lucky to have world-class businesspeople around me, which allows me to do my bit.”

When Alannah was made creative director of Selfridges seven years ago there was many a cry of nepotism and the sort of cynical shrug that implied that it was a lovely title but other people would be doing all the work. But it wasn’t as if she came from nowhere and didn’t have other options. She had worked as a journalist on The Daily Telegraph’s Saturday magazine, covering the arts at a time when the YBAs were making waves. She clearly has a deep love of art, which is evident almost wherever you turn – and many of the Selfridges events are infused with some kind of artistic endeavour.

After the Telegraph Alannah went to work for Rose Marie Bravo just as she was bringing Burberry back from the dead. “I remember asking Roberto Menichetti [the designer first brought in by Bravo] what the spring looks were like and he turned to me and said, ‘Alannah, the most important thing is that you check all the bathrooms and make sure that they are clean.’ So I spent two years packing boxes and checking bathrooms. But it was a great learning curve. I would sit and listen to Michelle Smith, senior vice-president of womenswear, and I learnt to get my point across to Rose Marie in five minutes flat.” But she wanted to be doing something more creative so from there she started her own branding agency. She then opened an art gallery at Windsor, the high-end island resort in southern Florida founded by her parents, organising lectures, workshops, art tours and photographic shows. “It badly needed an injection of creativity,” says her father. “And it worked.” Its success is being built on by Hilary, who has collaborated with Iwona Blazwick to open a satellite of London’s Whitechapel Gallery coinciding with Art Basel Miami Beach. It launches on December 3 with an exhibition by the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes.

When Alannah’s father bought Selfridges in 2003 he had to win her over. “He doesn’t see the point in working for anybody but the family,” she says. “He said, ‘Just come and look.’ And I thought it over. I’d known Paul Kelly all my life so knew I had a mentor and friend. Also, I was fascinated by what to do with this great behemoth on Oxford Street.

“People now have so much choice – sports events, museums, theatres, these are all our competition. I saw it as a challenge to make it relevant. I think now people want so much more from their brands. They want intellectual, cultural and, yes, spiritual nourishment. They don’t just want to buy things.”

Which brings us back to Project Ocean, which is her first step into what she sees as part of a new role for stores. She calls it “retail activism” – using the shopping experience to effect social change. Project Ocean was inspired by her learning of the deep distress the oceans are in, how our very futures are threatened, and a desire to do something about it. “But the great achievement of everybody on the team has been to engage the customer at a deep level and to make the whole thing playful as well as educational.” (Customers, for instance, could donate money which turned into a virtual fish online, which they could keep track of.)

“The store as theatre was the 1990s – we still need that, but today we need to add another layer, we have to make it easy for the customer to participate, to feel part of the whole story and make it easy for them to be good.

“Of course,” she admits, “it is easier to be brave and adventurous if you are a family business because we can take a much longer view and I suppose staff think, well, it’s their money and if they want to take the risk, let them do it.” But speak to somebody like Anne Pitcher, and she will tell you that apart from bringing “much freshness of thought, Alannah also has a keen eye for the bottom line”. It’s hard to quantify what Project Ocean has done for the bottom line, but in terms of branding, of making it the store to watch, it has been a huge success.

Not that she’s resting on her laurels. James Brett’s Museum of Everything, which opens this month, will take over the Ultralounge exhibition hall and many of the store’s windows, and will feature the work of artists who are “outside the formal art world, who didn’t go to the Slade”. Then she wants to have a proper tailor in womenswear so women can have handmade shirts, she wants to reinvent the fitting room, make them a lovely place to sit, places where girlfriends can try on things together. “I want to bring in designers who are below the radar; have a room full of sewing machines, like the Sweat Shop in Paris, so that people can personalise their jeans; up on the roof there’s a whole space to be reinvented, there’s a hotel that needs to be burnished up and remade in the Selfridges enterprising image. It’s got,” she insists, “to be a place for everybody, where you can buy a piece of Chanel or a lipstick from Mac…”

So much to do, so little time…

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