Eighty-two-year-old James McNeill began his Broughshane retail empire as a young lad of just 14, navigating the country roads of Co Antrim in a grocery van, selling tea and sugar to rural residents. From the foundations of those humble beginnings, James, his wife of 59 years, Margaret, and their four children - Alistair, Pauline, Anne and John - have built the thriving James McNeill stores on Broughshane's Main Street.
Q. Tell me about how James McNeill stores began
A. When I was 14 years old I got a job in a grocery shop in Ballymena. During my time there, the boss's brother had a grocery van out around the country. He had to go into hospital and no one would take on his van run so I volunteered. I did it for a while then went back into the shop. After a time a van came on the market and my father bought it for me. That was February 6, 1955, and I was on the van for 18 years.
Then a shop came on the market in Broughshane in 1956. The current owners were getting old and wanted to sell. We bought the store and my wife Margaret and her aunt painted and decorated it and we opened. When we were opened about six weeks we had a breadman who did deliveries and there was always £18 left up on top of a bin for him to collect in the evening. But one day the bin was lifted and the contents burned, including the £18, so a wise person in Broughshane said that the last shop was closing because they had no money and that James McNeill was only open a week or two and he had money to burn already!
I kept the van on for another couple of years because we didn't know how the shop would do. Over the years we got more stock in and the shop was doing well and we stopped the van runs.
We were there four or five years whenever a shop two doors down came on the market and we bought it for the hardware business, which has turned out a huge success. Then 24 years ago the property between the two stores came on the market and we bought it to build a new supermarket. And that's where James McNeill Grocery and Hardware is operating from today.
James McNeill, owner of McNeill’s Hardware store and the Vivo extra store in Broughshane
Q. You are the family member who dominates the early history of the store. How does it feel to span decades of proud McNeill history?
A. I just took it one step at a time. I started work at 14-years-old in the Ballymena shop and on the van. And I made a success of that job and that motivated my father James to buy me my own van and encourage me. We always had the intention of buying a shop. When we were open a year we opened a Post Office, and after the postmistress took ill, my wife stepped in and she ran that for around 35 years. These days I open the hardware store first thing in the morning and I am here to 6pm four days a week. My role is attending at the counter in hardware, going to the grocery department to ensure the queues are not too long, keeping staff organised there and making sure the baskets are sitting ready for people.
An old family photo of James McNeill (on right) with his delivery van for the grocery store
Whenever I started my shop in the Fifties I was out in the van one day and one of the customers asked a girl in the shop "who is that boy McNeill?" and she said "he is just an ordinary country boy, the same as ourselves". I was reared on a farm and am on the same level as other people. I know that if it wasn't for the customers and for the staff, you don't get anywhere. So I don't take any credit myself. You can give a lead, but you have to put priority to those who are putting you there.
Q. And what of the present generation driving the business forward?
A. Our two sons Alistair and John work in the shop now. Alistair runs the grocery store and John runs hardware. Alistair is 56-years-old and has an office upstairs and runs the grocery side of things. He is busy with the administration and he also has another property down the street. John is 45 and runs the hardware store and handles buying. Both of them are great and have very good and competent staff, including the girls in the office, who help things run so smoothly.
A. We have 44 staff in total. We had a staff member called Mollie Colwell who came to us from the Co Op in Ballymena when I was starting off with the van. Mollie came to us as a young woman, worked here her whole life, and went directly from McNeill's to the old people's home. We have another lady who has been with us 40 years. We have three other ladies who have been with us 23, 24 and 25 years.
One of the big things about staff is keeping them at the same level as yourself. Our staff know that they are very well thought of and treated decently and we get the same service from them.
Q. And you would have several generations of customers also?
A. We had families who would shop with us when we first started. And unfortunately some of their family members are no longer with us. We have one gentleman who is 93-years-old who comes to shop with us and another customer who is 92-years-old. We have an older generation who have been loyal customers to us over the decades but also a completely new rising generation too.
Q. Where would your customers come from?
A. Our catchment area is from around the countryside. But there have been about 10 housing developments in and around Broughshane. We knew of the plans for all these houses so 24 years ago we built a store in between the two shops. The shop we had was not capable of dealing with all the people, so very sensibly we built the new place which has worked very well. We open at 5am and a lot of people come to get their breakfast and we are steady busy all day.
James aged 14 when he first began his trade in Broughshane
Q. How has your stock changed over the years?
A. My first stock in the van, in 1955, came to a total of £60. I paid it off at £10 a week for six weeks.
We always had a big trade back then in bread, and that hasn't changed much over the years.
These days I can't comprehend the amount of food that goes out from refrigeration, because back at the beginning there was no such thing as fridges. When I first started in Ballymena all those years ago, there was no electric in the till. You turned a spring loaded handle to open it.
In those times with the van the tea, sugar, peas, barley and lentil would have been loose and everything had to be weighed up. There was an awful lot of work involved back then. The tea came in big wooden chests, the sugar came in big bags. Nowadays the wholesaler delivers the stock and you take it directly to the shelves.
The big thing nowadays is centred around the sell-by date, in order not to have a lot of waste. With regards hardware, these days we cover so much. You name it, we do it. A customer came in to the shop one day looking for something and said "you probably don't have this" and I said "if we don't have it, you don't need it".
Q. Are you happy with the long survival of the company?
A. I am very proud. We started right at the bottom. We have worked very hard over the years. And the relationship we have with the customers is very special.
We have customers of a certain age for whom we get their shopping, get them into a car and take them home.
We also do deliveries of coal, gardening equipment and groceries among other things. That doesn't happen in bigger places.
We have a very close relationship with a lot of our customers. In one or two cases, I have even had to go and help people to make their wills.
Q. How have you had to change to keep up with the times?
A. The best change that we did when I was in charge was building the new shop. John and Alistair thought a food counter would really work, and I didn't think it was wise. I was utterly and completely wrong. They got that going and it is a huge success. You have to listen to the young people, they know what's needed.
In hardware, we modernised and changed things around and it has been really a great job. I would never have thought about that. It's a matter of keeping up to date.
Q. What are plans for the future?
A. I'm coming 83-years-old now and our two boys still have a good few years in them yet. The renovation of the shop 24 years ago we did it right and we did it big and I don't think we need to change anything, just maintain what we have. Whatever is thrown at us in the future we will face it and get on with it.
Q. Why do you think the business has survived for so long?
A. The day I started in the van my father told me three things. I was two months shy of my 18th birthday. He told me that one clean pound will always be better than 100 dirty ones. He told me that if I can't pay, don't buy. He told me to treat other people the way that you would want to be treated yourself. And finally he said that if I get into any bother let him and my mother be the first to know, not the last. I stuck to those principles the whole way through my career and it has stood to me in my business.
Q. Do you think the return of the Stormont Executive will have a big impact on the economy and retail industry?
A. I think there are a lot of people in positions of authority that had they had a bit of business experience before they went there they could have handled things better. But the way it is here is that we take it from day to day. We do what's right and we keep it under control. We are financially strong and that is the way we are keeping it.
Tea or coffee? I like both
Online store, or bricks and mortar store? Bricks and mortar, because you have personal contact with the customer
Netflix or BBC? BBC
Christmas or Easter? Christmas every time
Retail hero/heroine? The late Mollie Colwell, who worked with us for 50 years. She worked in our grocery department and was fantastic
Favourite type of shop? A general purpose place where you can buy a loaf or bread or a handsaw
Favourite television show? Last of the Summer Wine
Favourite book? The Rev Earnest Porter wrote a book. I can't remember the name of it, but it is very good for advice
Favourite singer? Any type of church music or country and western music
Best piece of advice? That was definitely the man who advised me not to buy another grocery van, but buy a shop instead