A friendly business culture and a free rein have made Rhys Iley’s directorship of Boots Ireland a refreshing change. He tells Charlotte Dennis-Jones what’s different on the Emerald Isle

I’ve got the best job in Boots,” enthuses Rhys Iley, director of Boots’ Irish division. And it’s easy to see why he’s so animated. Since the business arrived in the country 12 years ago, the Irish have taken to the health and beauty retailer with gusto.

The Welshman arrived to run Boots Ireland in October 2005 and although disclosing figures is off the agenda now that it is a private company, during its stock market-listed days the company was open about how the Irish business was outperforming the group average. Two years ago its Liffey Valley branch took more at Christmas than any other Boots worldwide, one of its stores on Grafton Street in Dublin’s city centre has the company’s highest return per square metre and Boots in the Dundrum Town Centre shopping mall on the outskirts of the capital has sold more units of its Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum than any other.

So why is Boots proving such a success across the Irish Sea and how does the retailing scene differ from the UK’s? One reason for its strong performance is a growing population. It stands at about 4.2 million, is in the middle of a baby boom and is constantly being fuelled by inward migration. Another reason has been the strong economy of recent years, which Iley says has meant the Irish have had more disposable income to spend on health and beauty products. Although the economy is beginning to cool, it is still forecast to grow about 3 per cent this year – twice that of the UK’s.

In complete control

Iley says one of the reasons why he enjoys his job so much is because of the autonomy he has been given. Boots Ireland is a wholly owned subsidiary of Boots UK and Iley has full profit and loss accountability for what happens within the business.

He believes that using Boots’ UK retailing model in Ireland would never work and having the necessary freedom to adapt to the local market is particularly rewarding. While there are plenty of similarities, most obviously the language, the dynamics make it very different. “It has the euro and it’s a very European country that also looks to the US,” he says. “Some people assume it’s similar to the UK, but it’s a very different country. Ireland is much more closely aligned to Europe and European legislation and there is a different customer base with different needs. One of the key challenges is taking the best of the Boots brand and applying that to our local market.”

The business sources more than 1,000 product ranges direct from Ireland. One of them seems particularly appropriate, given the country’s reputation for enjoying a drink. Lifeline – which claims it can stop users getting a hangover – is popular in Ireland, but not widely available in the UK. “There are lots of healthcare lines that are important to the Irish market, so one of the ways we grow the business is by ranging the right product – we have to have that mix. Every year there are more Irish products going onto our shelves,” says Iley.

And there are other ways in which Boots needs to ensure it caters for the local market. Ireland also has the largest number of redheads in western Europe, so Boots staff have to think about how to plan store displays to maximise sales, for instance. “You’ve got to think of the best things about the global brand and apply it locally,” he says.

Straight talk

One aspect of retailing in Ireland that pleasantly surprised Iley was the different business culture. “It’s definitely much more about relationships. There’s no hierarchy, so people don’t care what position you hold. They’re much more interested in you as an individual,” he explains. “They don’t care that the big boss is coming to visit. It’s a really refreshing place to do business. It makes my job easier because I get told what the real issues are. There’s no game playing or shadow boxing. If something’s right, people will tell me and if something’s wrong, they’ll tell me that too.”

Because Ireland is far more closely linked to European legislation, many government initiatives are adopted by Ireland long before they arrive in the UK. The government’s WEEE regulations – for the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment – and its ban on plastic bags are just two examples. Boots Ireland launched its own bag-for-life, which sold out in a couple of days. “The UK business is learning from our business and that’s another great thing about retailing in Ireland. Traditionally, people would put learnings from a parent company into the market, whereas now, a lot is going back the other way. The UK Boots business is learning from us as well,” he says.

He adds that it’s particularly important to develop a close relationship with the government in Ireland. “Because the brand is still so new, we have to do a lot more to explain to the regulatory authorities about what we stand for and what we do. Things work by building trust but this takes time and effort.”

The pharmacy market is a specific focus for Boots Ireland. Deregulation means it is dominated by smaller independents – completely at odds to the UK – and Boots wants to capitalise on those differences, as well as maximise its share of the market. The smaller independents have enjoyed years of loyal support but, because lots of new housing estates are being built, towns are growing and new local customers are arriving all the time, meaning there is plenty of opportunity for Boots to make its mark.

Aside from working with the government to develop a pharmacy agenda, Iley says Boots is working hard to “develop our reputation as a key healthcare and pharmacy provider”, and ensure the whole workforce looks at pharmacy as central to its business. It has also tried to ensure its pharmacists are meeting the needs of ethnic minorities. Historically, the largest single ethnic minority group in Ireland has been Chinese but now it’s Eastern Europeans, so in areas where those populations are prevalent it recruits pharmaceutical and healthcare advisers who can speak those languages.

Because there has been such an emphasis on the independent pharmacists and health retailers in Ireland, Iley admits that there “is a reluctance among some people to go over to a big chain”. But, he adds: “That just means we’re really focused on delivering what our customers want. The only way we will continue to win is if we continue to offer outstanding service, put our customers first in everything we do and don’t ever get complacent.” Such healthy competition can only be a good thing, he says. “People are having to raise their game and ultimately those who win are the customers.”

Heart of the community

Iley stresses, however, that being a big brand in Ireland doesn’t mean that Boots has forgotten about the importance of working with local communities. “We take that very seriously,” he says. Aside from benefiting people with various fund-raising initiatives, previous activities such as painting a school hall have also doubled up as valuable team-building opportunities.

In fact, significant time and energy is being spent on ensuring Boots Ireland is seen as a good place to work. This year it applied to The Irish Independent’s Best 50 Companies To Work For In Ireland and secured its place immediately. “We’ve been working on developing a sound people platform. The level of investment into store managers and area managers has been very significant because unless they’re the best, we’re not going to win on anything else.”

Boots Ireland may be a new brand, but it is growing apace. About 10 of its 50 stores have opened since Iley assumed his role. “As a percentage that’s quite significant,” he says, adding that the business is “continuing to trade above expectations and we will continue to look at opportunities to grow it”.

Nevertheless, the economy is no longer enjoying the glory years of the Celtic Tiger that transformed one of Europe’s poorer countries into one of its wealthiest. “Because we’ve enjoyed such strong economic growth, a slight cooling off can feel like a recession. To some people it [the economic environment] will feel quite difficult,” he points out.

Nor is the Irish economy immune to cost inflationary pressures such as rising oil and wheat prices that are hitting the UK. The credit crunch is being reflected in the housing market too – only about half the number of new homes were sold this year. But, says Iley: “Is that filtering down to the Irish retail market? We’re not seeing that have an impact at the moment, but we can’t be complacent. Focusing on value and customer service has never been so important.”

In a little over two decades, the face of Irish retail has changed beyond recognition and Boots Ireland has capitalised on the good times. The effects of the wider economic climate may well start to take their toll, but the business appears to be filling a void in terms of consumer demand. And Iley and his team will be doing all they can to ensure it stays that way.