The fascinating story of McElhinneys has been revealed in full on its 50th anniversary in business.
After an unforgettable past year, the team in McElhinneys are delighted to reach the 4th of May, which officially marks 50 years since John McElhinney first opened the doors of McElhinneys in Ballybofey.
Originally from Doochary Co. Donegal, John McElhinney and his family moved to Dooish in the early 1960’s. John began his career as a drapery assistant in Frank Dunleavy’s shop on Main Street Ballybofey. When Dunleavy’s closed, John first began his entrepreneurial venture travelling and selling groceries, clothing, and household items from the back of a Dodge van. Having always dreamed of owning his own premises, John realised his dream on the 4th of May 1971, opening his first premises – a small 500 square foot store – on Glenfin Street, Ballybofey. From the beginning, McElhinneys became a household name throughout the North-West for the quality, service, and value that John gave.
“Stickability is really what I tell people, you’ve just got to stick at it and believe in yourself and believe in what you’re doing.” – John speaking about McElhinneys on Episode 1 of the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ available on Spotify and YouTube
After just 5 years in business in 1976 John, with the help of his brothers, relocated McElhinneys to a new 3,000 square foot premises on Upper Main Street, Ballybofey. Specialising in women’s, men’s and kids clothing, footwear and homeware, the new premises was ultra-modern in every aspect. McElhinneys famous Bridal Department followed soon after, opening in 1977.
The next milestone for John came just over 3 years later, when McElhinneys relocated to a new 16,000 square foot site in Lower Main Street in 1979. Erected on the site of the old Finn Garage, the new store added a new dimension to shopping in the Twin Towns, drawing customers from all over Donegal, Northern Ireland and further afield.
“…the new store proved an immediate success – success that reflected the personal attention of Mr. McElhinney, whose business acumen and flair for the commercial life could be said to be the secret of the progress made by this firm in such a short time.” – ‘Further McElhinney Enterprise Adds’ – Article on the relocation of McElhinneys to Lower Main Street in the Donegal Democrat, 1979.
On the 3rd of December 1982, McElhinneys once again makes the headlines in Donegal, opening a new extension, allowing the business to now house 9 departments within the stores now 28,800 square feet. Despite the difficult economic circumstances at the time, John felt people were still willing to travel and buy if the product was merchandised and priced competitively. And again, on the 5th of December 1986, the store once again expanded to over 60,000 square feet to become one of the most modern stores in Ireland at the time. Despite the recession at the time, John felt that Ballybofey could thrive during the time, and grow even further.
All of John’s success did not come without its trials. Massive flooding in Ballybofey and Stranorlar wreaked havoc on the town in September of 1985, with an estimated £1 million of damage in the towns, with McElhinneys losing thousands of pounds worth of stock alone. The entire ground floor of McElhinneys was flooded, which was the household department, and this loss and the damage throughout the town took time to overcome.
‘There’s been quite a few recessions, and we had Foot & Mouth, and we had different things over the years that has happened that made life difficult. There are times during that time that you think, you know, what is going to happen? But you have got to knuckle down and work that bit harder. And make sure that you can come out the other side of it. As I discovered, nothing lasts forever – the good times don’t last, but the bad times don’t last – so no matter how bad things are, it will pass. And that is my belief, that no matter how bad things are, bad things will not last forever.’ – John speaking about some of the challenges he has faced over 50 years of business on Episode 1 of the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ available on Spotify and YouTube
John faced further adversity on the 7th of February 1987 when McElhinneys, and a store in Letterkenny, were targeted in a Firebomb attack. Eyewitnesses at the time describe the scenes as ‘devastating’, with the smoke discoloured roof, clothing hangers melted to rails and cash registers now melted into blobs of tangled plastic sunk into the counters.
“That was devastating. That was probably one of the worst things that happened… On the 7th of February we had the firebomb. We just went home on Saturday night as normal and then I got a phone call at 12 o’clock that the shop is on fire… We discovered on Sunday morning that it was a firebomb. All the stock was ruined, and the smoke damage was colossal.” – John speaking about the aftermath of the fire on Episode 1 of the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ available on Spotify and YouTube
With the store completely destroyed, over 80 staff out of work, and 600 suppliers without the store, the knock-on effect of the attack was a huge blow for the entire town. Following an emergency meeting of the local Chamber of Commerce and the support of his staff, John took the decision to reopen the store. This decision came to fruition 285 days later, when the store reopened on the 19th of November 1987.
“The following Saturday I was coming in to town… I thought ‘I can’t go on; I can’t live like this’ and for some reason I said ‘this is the end of this… I am going to move on and get over it’… From that moment I said, I am not looking back, I am looking forward.” – John speaking about his decision to reopen the store after the fire on Episode 1 of the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ available on Spotify and YouTube
“We have always tried to move with the times and the big extension last year we thought we had actually taken a step ahead. But with the fire we were taken back to square one – it was heart breaking. But there was no point in giving up after this time, so we all buckled down, got the place cleaned up and began work on the re-building programme.” – John McElhinney talking about the Firebomb Attack in the Donegal Democrat, 1987
The store has seen fantastic success since the reopening in 1987, winning multiple awards over the years, including:
- 2011 Retail Store of the Year, awarded by Retail Excellence Ireland
- 2012 Irish Retail Store of the Year awarded by Retail Excellence Ireland
- 2012 Best Superstore awarded by Retail Excellence Ireland
- 2013 Mother of the Bride Designer of the Year, awarded by the Wedding Journal
- 2014 Best Independent Department Store of the Year Ireland & UK, awarded by Drapers
- 2014 Bridal Retailer of The Year, awarded by the Wedding Journal
- 2015 Best Search Marketing Campaign, awarded by The Drum Search Awards
- 2015 Best eCommerce Website of the Year, awarded by Retail Excellence
- 2015 Mother of the Bride Retailer Designer of the Year, awarded by the Wedding Journal
- 2016 Bridal Supplier of the Year, awarded by Weddings Online
- 2016 Best Bridal Retailer, awarded by Xposé Frock Advisor Awards
- 2016 Mother of the Bride Supplier of the Year, awarded by the Wedding Journal
- 2016 Best Overall Search Engine Management Initiative, awarded by the Landy Awards
- 2016 Best Search Marketing Campaign, awarded by Digital Media Awards
- 2016 Best Independent Department Store, awarded by Stars Underlines
- 2017 Mother of the Bride/Designer Retailer of the Year, awarded by the Wedding Journal
- 2017 Borders Wedding Boutique of the Year, awarded by The Irish Wedding Awards
- 2018 Mother of the Bride Retailer of the Year, awarded by the Wedding Journal
- 2019 Independents Christmas Windows, awarded by Drapers
- 2020 Inspiring independents UK & Ireland, awarded by Drapers
- 2021 Digital Media Campaign of the Year, awards by Digital Business Ireland
In November 2012 McElhinneys took its next leap forward launching their online store. The business expanded with the growth of the online store, and 2016 the store opened a new warehouse, storage, and online department extension which has brought the building to over 100,000 square foot. The foundation of McElhinneys was built and continues to grow around John’s passion for retail and desire to be relevant in the ever-changing retail environment, and this has allowed McElhinneys to become a global brand. The online store now ships to 100’s of countries worldwide, and the online store has been growing year on year.
‘Giving up was never an option. Failure was not an option. There is always that fear of failure, and that was always there and is there today… it never leaves you. But at the same time, you cannot give up. You cannot give up, no matter how bad things get. You’ve just got to keep going.’ – John speaking about his business philosophies on Episode 1 of the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ available on Spotify and YouTube
As one of the few remaining independent, family-run department stores in Ireland, and indeed Europe, the consistent factor of McElhinneys success throughout the years has been the drive, ambition, and initiative of John McElhinney. Despite the hardships over the years, John has created a destination store in the heart of North West of Ireland, Donegal, the coolest place on the planet.
‘No matter what things are, or how good people think it, there is always room for improvement. And I think that is what it’s all about – trying all the time to make it better. That would be my thinking on the matter.’ – John speaking about his desire to always be better and keep moving forward on Episode 1 of the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ available on Spotify and YouTube
From fires to floods John talks us through the moments that have shaped the past and defined the future and legacy of McElhinneys. Listen to the McElhinneys Podcast ‘From Fires to Floods’ on Spotify here > https://open.spotify.com/episode/2RISCHYQjnYKeFA9zWqK7G?si=PLuZoLC_RZmlfn2xHnMqmg
Join McElhinneys in celebrating their Birthday Bash all this weekend exclusively online. Enjoy 25% off all clothing and footwear, and 10% off home, gift, jewellery, luxury bags and kids footwear from the 1st to the 5th of May – must end midnight Wednesday. Enjoy these offers and more exclusively online at www.mcelhinneys.com.
McElhinneys wishes to thank everyone for their continued support and friendship over the past 50 years in business, and can not wait to reopen and welcome you all in store again soon.Tags: