It’s a long way from the Travelling Shop — but in some sense, the values that drove that are what drive on Joe O’Toole as he approaches his 85th birthday and the fiftieth anniversary of his Tuam store.
Back in the 1960s, the Travelling Shop was the equivalent of the online shopping. It was allowing customers to pick and chose what they wanted and needed for their week, right from the comfort of their own home. It was novel in the time and now such personalised shopping is what is back in vogue, a half century later.
Next week, Joe O’Toole SuperValu in Tuam celebrates its 50th birthday, at the climax of five decades of growth to serve the needs of the people of North Galway. It’s a store that has grown from being just 900 sq feet in 1967 to now forming 8.5 acres in the centre of Tuam.
I met Joe this week and he told me that he is as excited about going to work every day as he was on that first day back in 1967. It’s the same buzz that drives him. “I never played golf. I never had the time for it. I get up and go to work every day because that is what I like doing most. I like seeing the satisfied customer in the shop,” he said.
The 23,000sq feet premises which now makes up O’Tooles SuperValu in Tuam is a long way from Joe O Toole’s humble beginnings helping his father with his travelling shop in Headford. He fondly recalls the egg exporting business where he’d bring the eggs to the port in Galway or if they missed that boat, they’d have to make the journey to Dublin Port. He also recalls filling out the ration books that were in use during The Emergency, when bread, sugar and tea were in short supply.
He branched out on his own to begin trading from a small shop in Bishop Street in Tuam in 1967.
In 1981 he bought a former bakery in Shop St which afforded the space to built a large new supermarket under the SuperValu brand. The store was extended to facilitate a growing population in 1992 and again in 1998, and now stands as the towering, landmark retail premises in Tuam. In what is a truly great entrepreneurial story, Mr O’Toole bought a total of 23 lots in the area to facilitate the expansion.
He is now one of the biggest employers in Tuam, with some 170 staff working on a full and part-time basis in his three businesses which encompass the large SuperValu store, Palace Restaurant, which can be accessed via SuperValu, and an adjoining Department/Homeware store.
O’Toole’s prides itself on being actively involved in sponsoring various events and supporting local GAA clubs and schools. He is a firm believer in re-investing the profits of the company in the locality. He is a past pupil of St Jarlath’s college in Tuam and recently donated €50,000 to upgrade the school’s GAA pitches.
He also donated a significant amount of money and ground to build a link road between Shop St and Bishop St in Tuam, to help alleviate traffic problems in the town. He was also heavily involved in the construction of the new mosaic at Knock Shrine, depicting the apparition. The mosaic is made predominantly from Venetian glass smalti and there are approximately 1.5 million individual pieces of mosaic in the complete work.
To mark O’Toole’s 50th birthday on Feb 17, the store will hold a day of celebration with a marquee erected in the car park to host music, singing, dancing and food tasting from local food producers, highlighting the range of produce that is available from around the region and in the store.
He says he is blessed with an excellent team led by CEO Mary Lardner. Some of the 170 people he employs have been with him for four decades or more, and it is that continuity that has allowed O’Tooles SuperValu to become the institution it is in Tuam.
Always one to embrace new technology and to give staff encouragement to progress the company, Joe O’Toole says that he is particularly delighted with the growth in online shopping from his store, which has jumped 100 per cent since it was introduced just over a year ago. He was also one of the first stores to introduce self-scanning and his till machines are among the most technologically advanced in the industry.
And when the 50 years are clocked up next week, Joe will be back at his desk the next day, planning the next stage of a remarkable success story. “We have more plans. You always need to have more plans, to keep doing new things,” he said with a wry smile.
Here’s to the next 50 years at O’Toole’s SuperValu.