It Doesn’t Matter Whether Leaders Are Born Or Made. What Matters Is That They Lead

Written by Jim Walsh - May 2019

The death last week of well-known Irish businessman and Senator Feargal Quinn founder of the Superquinn chain of supermarkets, released a wave of justifiable sadness and many stories about his charm, friendliness, innovativeness, uniqueness and business acumen. He not only ticked all the boxes but did so in a genuine way.

One person went online to tell the story of recognising him in traffic while queuing at a toll bridge. She signalled for him to go ahead of her which he did. But when she came to the toll booth the operator told her that her toll had been paid for by Feargal.

But in all the eulogies lauding his kindness, business ability and fierce commitment to excellent customer service one word stood out for me, that is leadership.

There are not many business people anywhere that would be the subject of a positive full page advertisement in a national newspaper published by a former competitor. But that is what Tesco, a long-term foe of Superquinn did last week. In their advert, they described Feargal Quinn in three words, “Leader, Legend and Gentleman.”

He was a leader in the true sense of encouraging and motivating people by showing a real interest in their lives and leading by example, helping with his managers to pack bags for customers at Superquinn checkouts for example.

Listening to people, staff and customers, is a real leadership trait. In Feargal Quinn’s case he also listened and learned from competitors and peers.

When some years ago Walsh:PR hosted an international meeting for our partners in the IPREX global group, Feargal came along to speak. His talk was full of wit and storytelling, most of which came from his book Crowning the Customer. But what captivated the audience most was his knowledge of international food retailing.

Whenever a question was asked by someone, be it from Germany, Spain, the US or any of the other nationalities present, he immediately referenced a leading supermarket chain in that country and named-checked the owner/CEO whom he invariably knew personally.

The saying that leaders are born and not made was only partially true when applied to Feargal Quinn. He certainly had a natural ability to lead, but he clearly watched and learned from his father who owned a holiday camp and where the young Feargal learned about looking after the customer to bring them back year after year, the Boomerang Principle which he applied so well to his own business..

Another leadership trait he displayed was to surround himself with talented people and promote internally. For many years Walsh:PR provided communications support to Superquinn’s Alan McDonnell, the then Marketing and PR Manager. Alan had been the Superquinn wine buyer before being appointed by Feargal to take over the marketing & PR role in the early ‘80’s. It was an inspired decision as Alan was imbued with the Superquinn philosophy of always seeking to do things in a different way, and at speed. Thinking ‘Outside the Box’ was not part of business jargon then but simply was the way it was. And it was instinctive.

Commenting on Feargal’s management style, former Superquinn chairman Vincent O’Doherty has said: “The self-confidence he gave to his employees worked miraculously. His passion was for the business to succeed and for people to find their work to be attractive, interesting and productive. He would manage without managing.”

Any aspiring business leader should read Feargal Quinn’s books. The most famous is probably ‘Crowning the Customer. But there is also much to be learned from ‘Mind Your Own Business – Survive and Thrive in Good Times and Bad’ and ‘Quintessential Feargal – A Memoir.’

Want to find out more?