Business Person of the Month

September 2016: Margaret Heffernan, CEO, Dunnes Stores

By Business & Finance
18 October 2016
margaret heffernan dunnes
Margaret Heffernan was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by NUI in 2007

Tying with Tesco is a significant achievement in the grocery market as Dunnes Stores’ value of sales shows impressive growth.

win for Dunnes Stores counts as a personal victory for CEO Margaret Heffernan, as the doyenne of Irish retail is inextricably linked with the chain of stores bearing her family name.

Dunnes Stores is now Ireland’s joint second-largest supermarket, tying with UK retail giants Tesco to account for 21.6% of the Irish grocery market each, behind SuperValu with 22.4%. The latest supermarket share figures published by Kantar Worldpanel, for the 12 weeks ending September 11th 2016, showed that Dunnes Stores had increased sales by 6.3% to draw level with Tesco.

David Berry, director at Kantar Worldpanel, explained: “Larger trips have boosted sales for Dunnes, with the average spend increasing by €2.50 to €37.20 in the latest quarter, compared with the same time last year. Dunnes has successfully tempted shoppers to add more expensive items to their baskets, with the average price per item rising to €2.05 – an increase of 12% on last year.”

In general the summer of 2016 was a time of strong growth for grocers, with Euro 2016 credited with contributing to extra spend: alcohol sales over the period were up 11% over the previous year. Other significant increases in sales in the grocery sector were reported in vegetables, fruit and beer. Among the major retailers Dunnes Stores has posted the strongest growth for the quarter ending August 14th, with sales 5.8% ahead of last year.


margaret heffernan dunnes storesHeffernan has been at the forefront of a strategy refocus for the retailer, moving it away from the ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ end of the market and surpassing M&S as the traditional upmarket supermarket of choice. Key to this has been an impressive roster of collaborators, drawing on a wealth of Irish design talent.

With manufacturing costs prohibitive for smaller Irish designers, partnering with the retail giant has been a happy marriage for many – including Carolyn Donnelly and Helen James in homewares, and Paul Costelloe, Lennon Courtney and most recently Joanne Hynes in fashion.

The Joanne Hynes collection launched in September with queues outside the Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street outlets.

A €900 shearling coat by the avant garde designer was a departure from the normal price bracket for Dunnes Stores, yet no consumer resistance was shown as the very limited edition pieces were snapped up. Dunnes Stores reported that the collection’s sales were divided equally between online and in store.

Adding to the high-end appeal, this year’s revamp of its Cornelscourt flagship, growing its retail space by 12% from 3,628 sq m to 4,056 sq m, sees new additions to the food offering including Alternative Bread Company, Sheridans Cheesemongers, Baxter & Greene restaurant and a James Whelan butchery. These alliances underline Dunnes Stores’ slow and steady rebranding as an aspirational shopping destination.

The new air of exclusivity around Dunnes Stores sits well with their aversion to publicity. Heffernan does not court attention. The ownership of the company is complex, with one-third of the shares owned by Heffernan’s brother Frank Dunne and his family, with about the same again owned by Heffernan and her family.

The corporate structure was streamlined earlier this year, along geographical lines, centralising ownership of the Irish stores.

This move may make it easier to separate the business along geographic lines were the family ever to sell, although for the moment Heffernan’s daughter Anne and niece Sharon McMahon seem most likely to step up to take on more responsibility in the company in the future.

If ever there were a case for a matrilineage, Heffernan’s strength of leadership and vision presents a strong argument for it.  

CV highlights

  • Her fabled introduction to the family business came aged 14, when her father handed her a broom to sweep the store.
  • Heffernan was founding director of People in Need Trust in 1989.
  • She took the reins at Dunnes Stores in 1992.
  • The CEO was awarded an honorary doctorate from the NUI in 2007.