Home » Cáit Caden: Ben Dunne had a major impact on Irish life, less so in the business world

Cáit Caden: Ben Dunne had a major impact on Irish life, less so in the business world

More than a decade ago, Cork-born businessman Ben Dunne read a poem — ‘The Indispensable Man’ by Saxon White Kessinger — on a Friday night at the end of his appearance on The Late Late Show.

Sometime when you feel that your going, Would leave an unfillable hole, Just follow these simple instructions, And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water, Put your hand in it up to the wrist, Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining, Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.

The moral of the poem is that there is no such thing as the “indispensable man” and that life will go on as it did before any individual so you may as well do “the best you can”, he said.

While nobody may be indispensable, Dunne is likely to be remembered for the larger-than-life personality that engulfed him in scandals, including cocaine and secret payments to politicians, but not as much for his lasting influence on Irish business and the economy, which has changed substantially since the height of his notoriety.

Ben Dunne Jnr was a scion of the business empire established by his fater, Ben Dunne Snr, when the former Roches Stores worker opened Dunnes Stores on St Patrick Street, Cork, in 1944. Irish Examiner Archive

Dunne was the youngest of six children and worked in the family retail business Dunnes Stores until the company bought his shares for IR£100m in 1992.

His sister Margaret Heffernan is largely credited for the success of Dunnes Stores after she took charge in the early 1990s.

Dunne did help grow the chain until he was ousted, but he may be remembered more for his controversial attitude towards Dunnes Stores workers who boycotted the handling of goods from South Africa during the apartheid regime.

For Dunne, who was still at the top of Dunnes at the time, the boycott was an affront to his power. He said he would not allow the workers to have a say in “what goods we sell and what not to sell”. 

In 2008, he apologised on RTÉ to the strikers for how he handled the whole affair.

In an interview with now-defunct business publication Fora in 2019, Dunne said losing his job in Dunnes was a turning point in his life.

“I had to re-group. I was running one of the largest companies in Ireland and due to my own weaknesses I went from the top to, relatively speaking, very near the bottom,” he said.

After his departure from Dunnes, in 1997 he founded Ben Dunne Gyms, known as the “no-frills gym facilities”, which he ran with his son Mark at the helm.

The successful company managed to return to profit after the pandemic despite losing more than a year in business and an increasing number of health and fitness facilities entering the market. However, it came at a cost of shuttering half of his 12 gyms due to rent increases.

In an interview at the time, Dunne said “paying rent is a mug’s game”.

In addition to Ben Dunne Gyms, Dunne wanted to get a slice of the online marketplace.

However, having operated in physical retail and gym space for decades, this proved challenging for the entrepreneur.

In 2009, he established an online marketplace, BenDunne.com, with the intention of being a rival to DoneDeal. It was riddled with glitches and was eventually taken offline for good in 2010.

“The internet is one of my failures. I can’t work it out,” he said in an interview with the Irish Independent. It was a rare instance of Dunne failing to adapt to change.

Entrepreneurial, mercurial, and always memorable — Ben Dunne’s impact on Irish life is unquestionable.