‘It’s a shame how big supermarkets have forced many independents out of the retail trade’
The Big Interview: Keith Irvine
Keith Irvine, the man at the helm of one of Northern Ireland's most vibrant independent stores, says family retailing is in his blood.
Warden Bros in Newtownards is fresh from a big win as Retailer of the Year in the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank.
Keith, general manager of Warden Bros in Newtownards, is passionate about the sector and independents like Wardens, and has spent his entire career running such stores. He's worked through challenges for the sector ranging from the march of the big multiples to online shopping.
After studying a business diploma, the Fermanagh man knew retailing is where he wanted to apply his skills.
"I did a business diploma in Enniskillen and from a very early age I knew I wanted to be in retail," he says.
"I did well on the course and from then until now I've only had three jobs and they've all been in family-run showrooms. It's an environment that I enjoy working in. It's always been family-related."
Keith moved to Warden Bros, a homeware store which has been operating for over 140 years, just five years ago.
The lure, he says, was the connection such stores have with their customers - a relationship he believes is often lacking in larger chains.
"I think it's down to having more in common with customers," he says.
"The customer means more to you. You must listen to their needs and respect those needs and make sure that comes across confidently and you get that more so in a family-related business rather than those stores that are commission orientated."
Warden Bros has long been part of the retail fabric of Newtownards.
It's operated in the town since 1877 and is the trusted home furnishing specialist in the area.
With seven departments spread over two floors, Warden employs over 50 staff. Many of them have been there since they left school and some of those are nearing retirement age - an endorsement of the much-loved environment that has kept Keith in the sector.
Warden also offers a wedding gift list service, as well as an interior design service, and regularly hosts in-store demonstrations.
A community department store, charitable fundraisers ensure that Warden Bros continues its role as a store with a conscience in the locale.
It also has a buying power that allows it to ensure exclusivity with specialist product ranges within a specific radius.
It draws in shoppers from beyond its environs too and is continually seeking ways to compete with the larger chain names and the online market.
"Traditionally Ards is an area where people come to retire and enjoy coastal views so our customers tend to be 50-plus, but we also have a very good wedding service, so we are seeing lots of young brides and grooms to sow that seed early," adds Keith, who has introduced a baby section into the store.
"That is to keep the family nature of the store alive. We want our customers to come in from an early age and keep them right through to retirement."
And so far, it's working. They're travelling from all corners of Co Down, greater Belfast and that also come from as far away as Portstewart and Dungannon to avail of the unique ranges all under one roof.
"We try our best when we're buying. We get products that are a bit different from what is being offered elsewhere in the area and that exclusivity means our customers are not going to Bangor, or somewhere else, and seeing the same thing," says Keith.
Warden Bros was founded by James Warden, a farmer who initially set up the store to trade in ironmongery and hardware.
The range has expanded over the years, but the same family values of offering a service unlike its competitors has remained.
After James died his sons Robert and George took control, before Robert's son James eventually took over the reins.
Surprisingly it is now only in its fourth generation of ownership, with the fifth generation beginning to make its mark.
Current chairwoman and owner is Helen Campbell, daughter of the third generation James.
"Helen is very much in control and owns the business today. She lives in Omagh. Helen's daughter, Jane Campbell, recently came into the company to look after marketing," says Keith.
"In my five years, I've tried to update it... we've replaced floors, added new furniture settings and Helen has been very good at supporting the changes I've made in the showroom."
It's a hard task for a relatively new recruit to take hold of the reins in a business where staff retention is low and loyalty high.
"I was accepted very quickly," Keith says. "Within months I felt like I'd been there years. I mean some of the staff who are with us now were there in the 1970s and 1980s when we had over 60 staff."
Today there is a team of around 50 people. And despite being a relatively new at Warden, Keith has confidently made his mark.
He has been instrumental in attracting awards for the store, most recently the first ever Retailer of the Year award at the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards.
Warden Bros was shortlisted alongside some of NI's best-known symbol group operators.
"What I want to do is try and remain competitive and grasp and hold on to custom that we have in the area. We are aware of the competition we have from the high street names and the online market so we have to be at the top of our game," says Keith.
Like all successful businesses, the experience is key to maintaining custom at Warden Bros.
Again, Keith says, it boils down to the relationship he and his team has with the customers; "going that extra mile that you wouldn't get elsewhere".
"I think there are very few companies that give the customer service we have over the years. We offer the choice of a free delivery, daily, whether that's an ironing board or an item of clothing because we don't know if they'll come back next week and that attention to detail could secure that return visit when they could spend £1,000," he explains.
Over his 38 years in independent retailing, Keith has fought many challenges, namely "the influx of the multinationals".
"It's an awful shame that they have pushed out a lot of family businesses but our other big challenge is coping with our friend the internet. And we have to join that so we try to sell online to the best of our ability," he says.
The online store is pretty diverse for a single-store independent.
Everything from Denby's celebrated Halo range to Vera Wang's stylish Castillon line of crockery, luxe Christy bedding and the top names in electrical appliances make the offering diverse and both upmarket and affordable.
Keith, a father of two, says if he wasn't in retailing he would have joined the NHS as a GP.
"I believe I was born to be in retail but if I was to rewind back the clock and gone to university and not done that business course I may have become a GP. I think I've got the personality and tone," he says.
A family man with home at the heart. Keith currently lives on the shores of Lough Neagh with a move to Belfast imminent.
Much of his free time at the moment is spent packing for that move. A keen gardener, Keith also enjoys racquet sports and regularly cycles.
His children are now in their 20s which means he has exchanged the yearly camping trips to Dordogne for the sunny luxurious resorts of Tuscany and Lake Garda. The shift in lifestyle however doesn't imply that Keith is taking things down a gear elsewhere. He says there are big plans for Warden Bros.
"I will always be tweaking what we offer and we will continue to face the challenges that are ever present in the industry and there are lots of those; from Brexit to the lack of local government," he says.
"We need that back in place to give people confidence to go out and spend money and right now we are so thankful that we have such a loyal customer base and I hope that continues."