Early in January, Albert Gubay died, aged 87. His is not a name that will necessarily be familiar to many people, but he was a true original in the field of retailing and more generally. Not many people amass a £1bn fortune; fewer still give it away and over half to the Catholic Church. If you can get beyond The Times’ paywall, an obituary is here.
In retail terms, Albert Gubay was a pioneer. He developed Kwik Save, a ‘soft’ discounter in the 1960s in the UK before floating it on the Stock Market and selling his stake. He followed that by establishing discount retail enterprises under the name of Three Guys in New Zealand, Ireland and the USA, each time seeming to exit the company both at the right time and with a lot of money. At one point he was in the top 25 richest people in the UK list.
After leaving retailing, he settled on the Isle of Man and used his fortune to develop property sites (including shopping centres and other retail operations) and build a chain of fitness clubs across the UK and Ireland, continuing to amass a fortune.
My interest in Albert Gubay began in the early 1980s when I was in discussion with an American academic visitor to Stirling, Dennis Lord. Dennis knew of Gubay from his North Carolina retail shops in Charlotte. As we swapped stories of Kwik Save and Three Guys, so we tried to fill in the pieces of his retail history. Roping in Tony Parker, the pre-eminent retail geographer in Ireland was easy. New Zealand was a challenge until John Dawson came up with the idea of Warren Moran, an academic who had once been an All Black. After an exchange of customary rugby insults over dubious or not so dubious refereeing decisions in 1905 (it’s a Welsh-Kiwi mating ritual), Warren was up for examining Gubay’s retailing in NZ.
The result of this combined effort was published as ‘Retailing on Three Continents: the Discount Store Operations of Albert Gubay’ and can be downloaded here. I wonder if we’d be allowed the time and space to tackle such a project now? It was great fun to do; interesting and challenging in pre-email, almost pre-computer and certainly pre-internet source digitisation days. John Dawson, my then boss as Stirling, funded me to go to the Isle of Man in 1987 to interview Gubay as part of this work. It was fascinating. My memory has a very kind and amiable man collecting me in a pick-up truck loaded with hay bales and spending a good few hours chatting and discussing discount retailing, the birth of Kwik Save and his career. Better and more experienced people had tried to get him to part with his money; my desire to charm my way to academic funding stood no chance, especially when he told me about his plans for the Catholic Church to be his main beneficiary.
In classic ‘rags to riches’ fashion, Gubay built up his businesses from shady beginnings, via market stalls to a discount powerhouse. At heart he was an entrepreneur and hankered to get out to start again. He also wanted control and he took few prisoners. Kwik Save was a good business for many years but lost its distinctiveness and position in the 1990s. (My academic article on the fuller story of Kwik Save can be downloaded here).
As an aside, one of the partners in the Kwik Save story was also the founder of Shoprite on the Isle of Man; a retailer which tried to pre-empt Aldi and Lidl in the UK, but did not succeed. That story is told here, for anyone interested.
Albert Gubay was a retail pioneer, and occasionally a controversial and confrontational character. The word that has been used often in the obituaries and in the follow up stories, as in Remembered Lives in The Times is “abrasive”. He was someone who changed retailing and lives across several countries and enjoyed the challenge of developing and expanding his businesses. A retail internationalist, his personal legacy will live on.
In my collection I have several 35mm slides of early Kwik Save stores – Graeme Seabrook obtained them for me I recall. I reproduce them below; they could be read in conjunction with the UK part of the Gubay story. And whilst they are not the best copies, being scanned versions of 35mm slides, some of the darkness in the stores is an accurate reflection of the lighting levels of those stores.
I also have some other slides from their stores, concessions etc of the 1970s and attach them here as well.