Welsh billionaire businessman and philanthropist Albert Gubay had a knack of spotting future trends and made his fortune after founding the UK’s first “no thrills” supermarket chain, Kwik Save, the Total Fitness chain of gyms and investing heavily in real estate, most of which he intended for the Roman Catholic Church having once made a “pact with God” as a young man.
Along his path to success, Gubay gained a reputation for being abrasive, ruthless and short-tempered but he cared little for what others thought of him claiming the only opinion he really cared about was his maker’s, “I know there is a day of reckoning and I want to be prepared.”
Commenting on his reputation, Gubay remarked, “Stupid people make me lose my temper and most people are stupid, fortunately for me. It’s made it easier for me to make a living.”
With “his family taken good of,” half of his estimated £1 billion fortune will go to causes identified by the Roman Catholic Church, while the other half will go to good causes selected at the discretion of the trustees of his charity, the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation. In recognition of his generosity, in 2011, he was awarded a Papal Knighthood – the highest award a Roman Catholic layperson can receive.
Born in Ryhl, north Wales, in 1928, Albert Gubay was the son of an Irish Catholic mother from County Kildare, who was rejected by her family for “marrying out”, and an Iraqi-Jewish father, who had escaped persecution with his parents in the early 1920s. He ran an amusement arcade and claimed to have brought the first juke box to Wales.
Albert had two sisters but recalled that his father “was soft on them and hard on me.” From an early age, he helped with his father’s stall, “finishing school at 4pm and by 5pm I was working. It was seven days a week.”
After failing his school certificate, he undertook an apprenticeship as a joiner for 18 months before joining the Royal Navy towards the end of the Second World War. Demobbed in 1948, Gubay left with a suit and £80, which he used along with a loan of £100 secured against his mother’s jewellery, and started selling non-sugar sweets (while sugar was still rationed) and later Blackpool rock and other confectionery, from the back of a van and on market stalls.
In the mid-1950s, already married, he was living a “hand-to-mouth” existence and struggling to support his family. It was at this time that Gubay made his “pact” recalling, “One Saturday, I didn’t know where the next penny was coming from and I lay on my bed and I had this conversation with God. I said ‘God, help me to become a millionaire and when I die, half will go to the church.’ And that was it; I was at peace with the world.”
In May 1959, he founded Value Foods, and in July opened his first shop, in Queen Street, Rhyl. Further branches followed in Chester and Wrexham but his aggressive price cutting resulted in some manufacturers refusing to supply him so he simply bought their products under aliases.
In the early 1960s, he visited America where he discovered out of town, discount supermarkets and later visited Germany where he studied the discount stores Aldi and Lidl. It all re-affirmed his self-belief that his business model was correct – buy limited lines of stock cheaply on long payment terms, sell goods directly from their cardboard delivery boxes at rock-bottom prices, and use positive cash flow to keep the business growing; the same principle endures with low-cost retailers today.
The first Kwik Save Discount branded store opened in Prestatyn in 1965, and produced more sales than the existing Value Foods supermarkets. The second opened in Colwyn Bay, and by 1970 Kwik Save Discount had grown to 24 stores generating a turnover of £11m.
With the likes of Sainsbury and Tesco looking to expand, in 1970 Gubay floated the company on the stock market, selling off a chunk of Kwik Save shares three years later for just over £14m. By now a very wealthy man, Gubay was residing at Santon on the Isle of Man to avoid mainland tax rates.
He then left for New Zealand where he repeated the success of the low-price retail model using the 3 Guys brand, which captured a 30 per cent market share, eventually selling for £46m. Three years later, he moved to Ireland where he established another 3 Guys chain, which was sold to Tesco for almost £17m. In the US, Gubay set-up 40 outlets and was later bought out by management for £25m.
A bout of back trouble in the early 1990s and anticipating a surge in demand for personal fitness prompted him to venture into gyms: his Total Fitness chain attracted 150,000 members and was sold to the private equity arm of Legal & General for £80m in 2004.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he realised that the British had an unquenchable thirst for retail therapy and started to build shopping centres. As well as overseeing projects, he also worked alongside some of his workers, gaining the moniker “Britain’s richest navvy”. He later sold the centres for vast profit.
As a philanthropist, he paid for the building of a church on the island and for an extension to a church in Leixlip, County Kildare, in memory of his mother. He also supported breast cancer research and projects in the Catholic diocese of Liverpool. In 2010 he created the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation, based on the Isle of Man, by initially donating £470m of his personal fortune. The foundation, which receives around £20m annually from his businesses, reinvests half that income into the Roman Catholic Church to fulfil Gubay’s divine pact.
In addition to his many business interests on the mainland and overseas, he developed and owned the Mount Murray Hotel and Country Club on the island.
Gubay led a frugal life, rarely socialising, driving modest cars, making his own flask and sandwiches for work and cooking for his wife in the evenings. He hated going on holiday. “I have a holiday 50 weeks a year – working. Then I take two weeks off, and I hate it.”
Gubay married Anne in 1952, and divorced after 22 years; they had two children, Joseph and Paula. Much to his chagrin, at age 21, his son sold his shares in Kwik Save for £750,000 and has not worked since. Gubay said; “We don’t really get on. Of course I’m upset. It’s against my principles not to work.”
His daughter was a barrister before becoming a Pilates teacher. He later married Carmel, which he described as “the best thing that ever happened to me,” who survives him as do his children.