Decathlon Ireland’s Elena Pecos: ‘This environment is our playground. We need it’

The new chief executive of the sporting goods retailer on its Irish expansion plans, democratising access to sport and moving to Ireland from Spain

The aisles of Decathlon have their own percussion: inside the Ballymun, Dublin, store you hear things happening even when the warren of high shelves means you can’t see them. Ping-pong balls pop back and forth over invisible table tennis nets. Hollow thuds intersperse with shoe squeaks to indicate the basketball court is in use.

“Sport for the many”, one of the philosophies of the French-owned sports emporium, adorns a wall in blue lettering as I follow Elena Pecos, chief executive of Decathlon Ireland, away from the buzzy midmorning shop floor to a quieter space in its upstairs offices, via a pool table that head of digital Sean McNamee says can get competitive at lunchtime.

“I remember some years ago, sport was something like an effort, a performance for everybody. To be a sporty person it was only if you were running 1km faster or lifting one weight more,” says Pecos.

“This was the past. Today, sport is different. Sport is health, sport is joy and sport can also be performance.”

It was her own love of sport, including the popular Spanish racket sport, padel, that led Pecos to Decathlon, which she first worked for as a student in her home city, fitting in weekend sales assistant shifts while she completed her degree in economics at the University of Valencia.

“For me, it was my first job. That’s the reason I am very passionate,” she says, settling in to what is also her first ever interview.

Pecos held several senior finance positions at Decathlon in Spain, France and Chile, spending five rewarding years launching and expanding the brand in the South American country before returning home to give birth last year. The company then offered her the job of leading what is still, by Decathlon’s standards, a nascent operation in Ireland.

She came to Dublin in January with her husband and now one-year-old daughter, and her take on the move here is as refreshing as the air she hails.

“The nature of Ireland is amazing, really. For me, when I arrive and you can feel the clean air and you can feel the green grass and everything is ‘wow, I want to be able to do sport here’. This environment is our playground. We need it,” she says – a speech that motivates me to go for a run in the drizzle just hours later.

Pecos describes moving to Ireland as “a personal project” as well as a professional one. “It’s an opportunity also for my daughter to learn English – she is going to speak it much better than me, I hope,” she says modestly.

Queuing for sport - Decathlon opens first outlet in Republic with boundless enthusiasm ]

She and her husband have felt welcome in Dublin: “We are not so different, the Spanish and the Irish people, I really feel that.”

This is “a moment of investment, a moment of acceleration” for Decathlon Ireland, which first began its ecommerce operation here in 2017, following it up with the mid-pandemic opening of its 4,500sq m (48,500sq ft) Ballymun store in June 2020 – a start that came three months after the shelves had been stocked in preparation for an original opening date of March 2020.

Pecos’s big focus since taking up her role has been the launch of Decathlon’s second Irish site, a 5,000sq m (54,000sq ft) store at Parkway Retail Park in Limerick. It opened during May’s gloriously sunny spell, adding a workforce of about 70 to the 200 employees – or “team-mates” – the company has based in Dublin.

“Both the stores, they are working well. The Irish people trust in our brand,” says Pecos. The aim is to have “a fine balance” between the digital development of Decathlon and its commitment to its physical presence, which leans visibly into experiential retail by including cycle tracks, fitness areas and various other ways for customers to test products and try out different activities in its “hubs” of sport.

“Our customers prefer to come to our stores, if one is accessible to them,” she says.


“Each year we have a bigger level of our digital turnover, but we continue to invest in our physical stores, and I think for the next four years it will continue like this. We will continue opening new stores in big cities, and we will continue developing the digital. Both together.”

Indeed, back in pre-pandemic 2019, Pecos’s predecessor Bastien Grandgeorge, who has since moved on to lead Decathlon in France, said he was targeting nine physical stores in Ireland, including additional sites in Dublin.

“Nine stores will be ambition, maybe, but today the main focus is to arrive in big cities with physical stores,” Pecos says.

Cork, Galway, Waterford?

“They are part of my plans. For the moment I am working on different physical projects. Once we have the agreement, I will tell you.”

The Irish expansion is not happening in isolation. Decathlon, a family-owned company founded in 1976 by Michel Leclercq and now led globally by chief executive Barbara Martin Coppola, has increased its footprint in recent years. The retailer now has more than 2,000 stores in 56 countries. In Pecos’s former stamping ground of Chile, for example, it has gone from zero to 10 stores since 2018.

Accounts for Decathlon Sports Ireland Limited hint at how the retailer’s revenues here have made Olympic-worthy leaps since its complicated Covid beginnings. In 2019, its Irish revenues, entirely from ecommerce, arrived at €17.8 million. This slipped to €16.6 million in 2020. But in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, revenues more than doubled to €37.2 million, despite the Ballymun store’s forced closure due to pandemic restrictions until mid-May of that year.

The company also acts as the supply centre for the group’s European activities, as a result of which total revenues at Decathlon Sports Ireland reached €6.6 billion in 2021, up from €5.5 billion the year before, while profit swelled more than 40 per cent to €65.7 million.

“Now we are in an expansion moment, of course, our performance and our figures are growing at the same time,” says Pecos of Decathlon Ireland’s revenue trajectory since 2021.

Decathlon’s Ballymun shop one of best performers among group’s 1,750 outlets ]

A prominent “we’re hiring!” sign on the exterior of the Ballymun store underlines its intention to gain further inroads in the market, and Pecos is keen to stress that people can develop their careers at the retailer both at home and overseas, as she did, if they wish.

“Here in Ireland, there are more than 27 nationalities working together. So you find from the beginning this kind of international feeling when you are working here.”

Juan Carlos Izquierdo Andrés, the store director, gives me a quick tour of the store layout, starting with the seasonal display of inflatable tents: camping equipment, together with water sports goods, perform particularly well in the Irish market.

A Decathlon in continental Europe will more typically have a large central aisle, he says – no need to go to the back of the store if you find what you want at the front. In the Ballymun store, not unlike the design favoured by neighbouring Ikea, consumers are encouraged to move around a full loop to reach the tills. This promotes discovery – retail-speak for you come for one thing, you leave with several others.

This is the sort of big-box retailer I wish had existed in Ireland when I was a child and not just because there’s both a cafe and a swingball set standing right there invitingly, waiting to be attacked. The summer holiday stream of customers is constant, and their choices are as eclectic as the stock: at one till, a young boy proudly puts a bow-and-arrow set into the self-checkout box as his parent taps to pay.

Instead of letting the handful of sports with mass take-up rates dominate proceedings, Decathlon’s product range is intentionally comprehensive, covering a dazzling breadth of activities – more than 70, it says, prompting it to be dubbed the “Ikea for sports”. Children’s ballet costumes are on sale not far from a large bicycle department and repair centre. Signage veers from archery to fishing, from kayaking to yoga, from horse riding to Pecos’s beloved padel.

“Padel, for example, is a sport that at the moment is not so big in Ireland, but it is expanding. They are investing in new padel courts and it is a sport that you can learn easily and is fun,” says Pecos.

Gaelic sports being specific to this market, it has partnered with the company Karakal for supplies of GAA equipment, clothing and accessories. Almost all of its products, however, are private label that it creates itself: backpacks branded Quechua or swimwear branded Nabaiji, for instance, are signs that someone has recently been to Decathlon.

Pecos says the company is in the process of reviewing the number of brands it sells, “to make it easier for customers to understand the proposal”. But there is no doubt that the private-label approach has given the retailer the advantage of retaining firmer control over its pricing, helping its efforts to target the more price-conscious end of the consumer market.

“I can’t say that inflation doesn’t impact on our activity, because inflation is impacting our competitors, our partners, it is impacting everybody,” says Pecos.

“But you know what I would say at the same time is that we have a very wide offer. Democratising sport is one of our main purposes and to continue doing that is our role.”

Cost-of-living concerns, meanwhile, have dovetailed with sustainability ones to expedite the need for circular economy initiatives. Used products are already sold under a scheme called Second Life, while a buyback facility is on its way and rental services will be launched as early as 2024, she says.

Pecos gives the example of young children fast outgrowing their bikes, making a succession of brand new purchases unsustainable in more ways than one.

“We need to complement our traditional business, which is selling new products, with a business more related to the use of the product. It is something that I really want to reinforce. We need to create a different kind of value for our customers and our planet.”

The shared interest in bringing “the wonders of sport” to customers, as Decathlon’s recruitment materials put it, is in evidence among its Dublin staff. One employee, to the delight of Pecos, has taken to organising community “Deca Hikes” in Wicklow every month. McNamee, who launched back in 2017, has played rugby all his life and still goes back to his hometown of Naas to play.

For Pecos, it is now harder to find time for padel. Squeezing in a run or a CrossFit workout is more typical.

“I am also learning how to be a mother, and this is reality. With my team, I think I am an open book, and they know that sometimes to be mother of a one-year-old daughter and to be CEO is not easy, so I tend to do sport when I have one hour. Normally I do it when my daughter is sleeping.”

But the passion that first led her to pursue her career at Decathlon remains within her.

“I am not running marathons or anything like this, it’s only jogging, but I love it and I really need it. I feel happy when I am doing sport.”


Name: Elena Pecos

Age: 36

Position: Chief executive, Decathlon Ireland.

Family and background: From Valencia in Spain, she has worked for Decathlon since 2006. She now lives in Dublin with her husband Ivan and their baby daughter.

Something you might expect: Some years ago, the corporate language of Decathlon was usually French. Now, as the company has expanded, its executives around the world “tend to speak English” to one another.

Something that might surprise: Sales at Decathlon Ireland don’t tend to be weather-dependent, says Pecos. Irish people are used to carrying on through rainy weather conditions and “they don’t stop”.



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