December 2, 2008
The executive chairman of Australian retail giant Harvey Norman has defended his remarks in which he compared Ireland’s economic downturn to the potato famine, saying he believed the Irish had a better sense of humour than to take offence.
At last week’s annual general meeting in Sydney, Gerry Harvey (pictured) described the performance of his 13 Irish stores as “catastrophic” and said he regretted expanding into the Irish market.
“Ireland is a real worry,” he said. “Phew, just imagine you opened in Ireland, you’d want to go and cut your throat. The potato famine, someone said, the return of the potato famine in Ireland.”
Speaking to the Irish Echo about his remarks, Harvey said he believes it is about time someone started talking frankly about the state of the Irish economy and he was surprised that his remarks might have caused offence.
“I would have thought that the Irish sense of humour would be well able for that,’’ he said. “…It doesn’t say much about a people when they can’t take something like that on the chin and get on with it. The Irish situation right now is very, very bad. Something is going to blow over there.”
Harvey Norman sales in Ireland are down as much as 40 per cent on last year, and the company has suffered a 32 per cent drop in profits in the three months since September.
Opening the two newest stores in Northern Ireland were “a bad mistake,” Harvey said.
“Take me back and let me hindsight them,” he said. However, he insisted that Harvey Norman’s investment in Ireland is too big to pull out of now.
Harvey Norman operates 200 stores around the world and first opened in Ireland in 2003. Harvey said that while sales in most of their other countries, including Slovenia, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia are holding up quite well, Ireland has taken “a real smashing.”
“It’s a small part of our business but it does affect us badly,” he told the Echo. “…We have gone through bad times over the years, but I have never seen sales drop so much in any recession as I have seen in Ireland. If sales dropped that much in Australia, I don’t know what we would do.”