Heroes of the High Street: Menarys boss Stephen McCammon on bucking retail trend and opening new shops

'Menarys have opened three more stores in the last 12 months... that is very much against the tide in this retail climate we're in now'

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Menarys owner Stephen McCammon at his Bangor store

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon at his Bangor store

Stephen Hamilton

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon at his Bangor store

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon at his Bangor store

Stephen Hamilton

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon with sales assistant Mandie Bell

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon with sales assistant Mandie Bell

Stephen Hamilton

In earlier years, Stephen McCammon (far right) with his brothers Phillip and Peter

In earlier years, Stephen McCammon (far right) with his brothers Phillip and Peter

Stephen's dad Brian in 1991

Stephen's dad Brian in 1991

Market Square in Dungannon

Market Square in Dungannon

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon at his Bangor store

Stephen McCammon is managing director of Menarys Department Stores. The 49-year-old is married to Carol and has three daughters: Emma (22), Kira (21) and Catherine (16), and lives in Moy outside Dungannon.

Here he speaks about the store's long and proud history and the resilience shown by previous generations who kept going through a World War, the Troubles and the various challenges the retail world has had to face in recent years.

Q. Tell me about Menarys and how and when it began.

A. Menarys was started in 1923 by my great-great-uncle Joseph Alexander back in Dungannon. It was a small menswear shop. He lived upstairs, as would have been very typical back in those days.

My dad joined the business in the mid-1950s. He would have been around 14 or 15 years old when he came on board. Dad would have cycled from Cookstown to the shop in Dungannon. And gradually he had the opportunity in the 1960s to buy shareholding in the business and eventually took the business over.

At that stage it was trading as Alexanders, that was the name of the business until a few years after my great-great-uncle died.

In 1979 my dad bought an existing department store in Lisburn in Market Square, which was called Menary Brothers. A few years later in 1983 he bought a department store in Newtownards. At that stage he was running Alexanders in Dungannon and Menarys in Lisburn.

He went out and did a little poll in the street one day and asked 10 customers how many of them had heard of Alexanders of Dungannon and how many of them had heard of Menarys of Lisburn. The majority had heard of Menarys and very few of them had heard of Alexanders, so the Menarys name stuck from that day onwards.

My brothers Peter, Phillip and I all came into the business in the early 1990s and the business grew. We opened a fair few stores. By 2009 we would have had around 25 stores both in Northern Ireland and in the south. With the credit crunch and the challenges in retail in the last 10 years, that fell back to around 17 stores, but it's now up to 20 again with us opening three stores in the last 12 months, which is very much against the flow in the current climate.

Q. Is there a family member who dominates the early history of the business?

A. My great-great-uncle Joseph Alexander. Retail was all he did and he was a shopkeeper his entire life.

He lived in Dungannon and opened the shop in 1923, so we're in our 98th year because of him.

I would have known him during his late 80s and 90s. He was a fit man and died at 99 years of age. He was a very determined and focused retailer.

From the stories that I would hear from back then, the way he ran the business was very different. It was a very different world back then. It was a small men's outfitters shop and it wasn't until my dad came in that there was a ladies department created.

The two of them sparked off each other quite a bit and I think dad was given that brief pretty much to keep him out of his great-uncle's way. And as it turned out, the ladies department did really well and that's obviously where the growth of the business through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties was.

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Menarys owner Stephen McCammon with sales assistant Mandie Bell

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon with sales assistant Mandie Bell

Stephen Hamilton

Menarys owner Stephen McCammon with sales assistant Mandie Bell

Q. Tell me about the present generation in the shop.

A. We went through a period of time in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties where it was mainly dad Brian, his brother-in-law and a couple of cousins. During the Nineties at one stage there were 12 family members in the business. My mum, dad, three of us, my wife was in the business, my brother's mother-in-law, my dad's brother-in-law, two cousins and their wives.

There is now just two of us. My elder brother Peter left the business around 10 years ago to pursue other avenues. It's now myself and my younger brother Phillip in the business. Dad sadly died in September 2018.

We are very much a family concern and the backbone of our business for years has been that we are a family business and it's the thing that sets us apart from many others.

Q. Have you many long-serving members of staff?

A. We employ just over 300 people and it's something that we are very proud of - 100 of them have been with the business from between 10 and 35 years.

I think having at least 100 people who have been with us for at least 10 years is something that very few businesses could be proud of. We have several employees whose children are also now in the business.

I think the loyalty of our staff and the commitment of our team has been a huge, huge benefit to the business, it's astonishing and blows me away at times. Our people see and understand that it is a family business and they are an extension of that.

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In earlier years, Stephen McCammon (far right) with his brothers Phillip and Peter

In earlier years, Stephen McCammon (far right) with his brothers Phillip and Peter

In earlier years, Stephen McCammon (far right) with his brothers Phillip and Peter

Q. Where do your customers come from?

A. Because we trade all over the north and in some occasions in the south, our customers come from all different arts and parts.

I think we as a business have changed in the last 10 years. We used to be very fashion focused. It used to be 80% of our turnover would have come from ladies fashions. We now cover a much, much wider remit of products. Homewares is now a very significant part of the business. We now sell cosmetics, and we have Bob and Berts restaurants operating in four stores. We have got into footwear, furnishings and interiors in a number of stores, so we have a much, much wider range of product and our customers are becoming much wider with that in terms of age and product that they are looking for.

Customers are always, quite rightly, looking for good value. There are things that have changed from Uncle Joe's day until now. Our buyers go out to China. We would bring in a lot of containers in order to get the best value and I think he would marvel at the thought of us having people heading out to China to source product.

Q. How do you guarantee good performance from staff?

A. You can never guarantee it. But you can do a lot of training, you can do a lot of development. I also think culture shapes performance, and I think we have a culture within the business that encourages teams to do their best and to put their best foot forward.

A lot of multiples will rigidly train their staff on how things should be done. Our belief is that the best people to make a decision are the people on the ground, who are in that particular store. So, for example, we would say to our managers: "Manage that store as if it is your own." We give them great freedom to make the decisions that are right for their store.

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Stephen's dad Brian in 1991

Stephen's dad Brian in 1991

Stephen's dad Brian in 1991

Q. What has changed over the years about the stock you sell?

A. We started off as a menswear business. We are now a full department store retailer. I think very little is still the same. I think retail is a very rapidly changing industry. The difference between the 1920s and now is chalk and cheese. You are looking for much faster stock turns constantly. There's a performance culture there where we want stock to come in, to sell, and then we move on to the next new thing.

Customers are always looking for newness. The last thing your customer wants to do is to come into your shop week after week and find that you're selling the exact same thing.

They want to see variety and change and our challenge is that we are constantly bringing new and fresh product into the stores.

Q. Do you think Joseph would be proud of its long survival?

A. I think he would probably be amazed at the pace of it. I think he would be delighted that we are still here, because he would look around and see that a vast majority of his contemporaries and indeed my dad's probably are not here any longer.

The last 10 years has been a very, very difficult time for independent retail. I think he'd be surprised to some extent but in other ways he wouldn't be.

He would probably have the belief that if you put your staff and your customer service at the centre of the business, you will see your way through many things.

When the credit crunch hit in 2009, we said to our people, this business has been through a World War, the Troubles, all sorts of economic cycles and we will come through this. And so we have. And I think sometimes it takes us to look back to our roots, to how resilient our business has been over many, many decades.

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Market Square in Dungannon

Market Square in Dungannon

Market Square in Dungannon

Q. How did the Troubles impact on the business?

A. I was born in 1970 and I lived in Dungannon, which was badly affected by the Troubles. We had a number of stores, particularly in the Seventies and Eighties that were badly affected.

When I first came into the business and in my early 20s, running bomb damage sales was something that we had a regular habit of having to do. I look back at my dad and his contemporaries and I have to say I hugely admire their resilience that when a shop was hit by a bomb, and a number of times we had stores which were completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt, they just got on with it. They got back up and rebuilt every time. And I think this current generation, not just in Menarys but in many businesses, owe their current circumstances to resilient people who kept standing up and rebuilding.

Q. What is the future for Menarys?

A. We are excited about the future. We opened three new stores in the last 12 months, the most recent of those was within a garden centre in Templepatrick. That has been really exciting for us, going into a new market. We are in a position where we would like to grow and open more stores. Even though we have a young management team, many people have been with the business from 10, 20 and 30 years, so they have a huge amount of experience despite their young years. We are confident we have a team of people who want to see the business continue to thrive in a fairly depressed retail market.

Q. Why has Menarys survived?

A. I think people and innovation are the key, and by innovation I mean being prepared to change product. My Uncle Joe had an expression 'Many a retailer has gone bust watching another man's shop window'. I think that is something we have been very determined not to do.

You have to be aware of your competition and what they are doing, but you have got to be focused on what is happening inside your business. I think if we had kept doing what we always did we will get stuck. I think because of our people continuing to strive for more in terms of customer service and in terms of business strategy, widening our range, constantly bringing in new and fresh product, and better value product, I think that has allowed us to remain.

Q. Do you hope the return of the Executive will boost the economy?

A. The way that I anticipate that playing out is that people have just been utterly fed up with the void and uncertainty surrounding the Executive and Brexit. I think having the Assembly back and having Brexit stepped forward will give people some degree of certainty.

Whether the Assembly or indeed the Westminster Government do much for the retail industry, I doubt. They have never done in the past and I don't see that happening a huge amount in the future. Rates is probably the big issue for retailers today. There is a lot of talk about helping the high street, but none of it is really coming through.

Seven quickfire questions

Tea or coffee? Coffee.

Online store or bricks and mortar store? Bricks and mortar.

Netflix or BBC? BBC.

Best for sales, Christmas or Easter? Christmas.

Retail hero/heroine who has inspired you? My dad Brian. He is the reason I am in retail.

Favourite type of shop? Department store. I love them. Wherever I am in the world I seek them out.

Favourite film, book and band? Schindler's List. Anything by Ken Follett. Snow Patrol.

Best piece of advice you've received? From dad: Be prepared to change.

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