Heroes of the High Street: We meet the family behind McKillens in Ballymena

'Footwear for all the family and excellent customer service is the core of our business... that's how it was in 1926 and as it is today'

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Thomas McKillen

Thomas McKillen

Staff member Edna Alexander helps customers Nan Scullion and Jane Thompson shop for a new pair of shoes

Staff member Edna Alexander helps customers Nan Scullion and Jane Thompson shop for a new pair of shoes

Customer Bill McCluggage with staff member Noel McClintock

Customer Bill McCluggage with staff member Noel McClintock

Thomas McKillen outside the department store that has served Ballymena and the wider Co Antrim area since the 1920s

Thomas McKillen outside the department store that has served Ballymena and the wider Co Antrim area since the 1920s

Thomas McKillen's father Matthew McKillen

Thomas McKillen's father Matthew McKillen

An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

Carol Ross and Cheryl Gordon in the cafe

Carol Ross and Cheryl Gordon in the cafe

Thomas McKillen

Thomas McKillen (56) is the third generation of his family at the helm of their Ballymena business, McKillens, which first started selling shoes in the town but has grown to become a department store offering much more. He lives with his wife Esther and they have two daughters, Rachel and Katie, and their son Johnnie, who now works alongside him as the fourth generation in the family firm.

Q: Tell me about McKillens and how and when it began?

A: It was started in July, 1926 - 94 years ago this coming July - by my grandfather Thomas McKillen, who was known as Tom McKillen and was a farmer's son. He didn't like the smell of farming and he didn't like getting his feet dirty so working on the land wasn't an option. He left school at 14 and had worked for 15 or 16 years at that stage, always in retailing, and it was that drive that made him start his own business, and I'm glad he did.

It started small - he drove to Belfast on a Wednesday to buy from wholesalers and brought it home in the boot of the car. He was very much a people person, as I would be.

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Staff member Edna Alexander helps customers Nan Scullion and Jane Thompson shop for a new pair of shoes

Staff member Edna Alexander helps customers Nan Scullion and Jane Thompson shop for a new pair of shoes

Staff member Edna Alexander helps customers Nan Scullion and Jane Thompson shop for a new pair of shoes

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

A: My father Matthew McKillen was there from 1954. He was the drive and the brains behind the thing, a visionary, and I miss that very badly as he passed away in 2018.

He would have travelled the country; he saw the concept of an in-store restaurant and thought that was a great idea and brought that back to Ballymena away back in 1982 when it was an unheard-of thing other than in the like of Harrods.

He called a part of our shop after what Harrods had called it, because he had been in London and he thought this was a great idea - he saw a restaurant in London called the Green Room so he called our restaurant the Fern Room, and that's what it's still called today.

He saw those things but he had the drive and the know-how and the knowledge to bring that to Ballymena, to a small market town in Northern Ireland, and implement that.

He moved it to another location on the same side of the street and then in 1967 - my grandfather was 71 at that point - my father moved it from where it was to its present location and it has grown exponentially since 1967. We bought properties on either side and it now travels from one street right through to the next. Our shop would take up about 24,000 feet, it's a big property.

His idea was: concentrate on your shoes, that's our bread and butter, but you could add in handbags, you could add in luggage, you could add in fashions and add in the restaurant.

We do footwear for all, ladies clothes, children's clothes, accessories, a gift department selling household items and the restaurant.

It was my father who grew that, he had the vision to look beyond by looking at other massive department stores in London and beyond, and he brought that back to Ballymena.

My grandfather was delighted to see the business prospering and he was certainly very proud to see the business developing to what it was.

My father was the only son but there was nobody like Matthew McKillen as far as my grandfather was concerned.

My grandfather loved yarning to people and I'd be like him that way, but Johnnie, my son, he would be like my father, wanting to progress things on and getting things done today.

My father had boundless energy. He'd be working in the shop all day and driving to Cookstown to preach in a mission three or four nights; his evangelical work was a big part of our life.

He had boundless energy, running to visit people in the hospital, sitting on town centre development boards, he just was a bundle of energy.

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Customer Bill McCluggage with staff member Noel McClintock

Customer Bill McCluggage with staff member Noel McClintock

Customer Bill McCluggage with staff member Noel McClintock

Q: Tell me about the present generation who are in the shop, and perhaps the next generation who might take over?

A My two daughters, Rachel and Katie, worked in it when they were younger as a part-time job but now as well as myself I have my son Johnnie.

Johnnie didn't want his life mapped out for him so he wanted to go and do teaching, which was fine. But then of his own accord he decided: "No, that's not for me, I want to be in the business". And that was very pleasing.

Each generation has brought extra value and that's the thing. You want to have the core of the business, it's footwear and excellent customer service. That's what happened in 1926 and in 2020 that's still happening and when we reach 100 years it will be the very same.

But each generation also adds another layer onto the business, because they're working in the generation that they are in and that's brilliant. I couldn't do all of those things on my own, it's too big of a store to do that.

Johnnie has a wee boy called Harry, who is 18-months-old, and another baby due in April, so hopefully there will be a few more generations to come. We'll see what happens, watch this space!

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Thomas McKillen outside the department store that has served Ballymena and the wider Co Antrim area since the 1920s

Thomas McKillen outside the department store that has served Ballymena and the wider Co Antrim area since the 1920s

Thomas McKillen outside the department store that has served Ballymena and the wider Co Antrim area since the 1920s

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

A: We have more than 40 staff and many have been with us for a long time. I always say our biggest asset is our staff.

James Dunlop is 80 now and was with the shop from the age of 14, working for my father from when he left school.

Up to two or three years ago he still would have been in working the odd day and just been a presence there, working well into his 70s.

Another person who has been with us a considerable time is a lady called Arlene McCartney, who has been with us more than 40 years since the age of 17.

Q: Where do your customers come from?

A: We have customers not just from the greater Ballymena area but from all over, especially when it comes to getting school shoes. A lot of planning will go into back-to-school as we would see hundreds of customers coming for that, it's something of a tradition.

Q: How do you guarantee good performance from your staff?

A: It's that magic word, empowerment, and I'm a great believer in that. Rather than it being a pyramid where I'm sitting at a desk and banging a table and telling people what to do, it's more about identifying strengths in your employees and working with those.

For example, if you see a lady who's got a flair for merchandising, she can then develop to dress windows and that becomes her job, she takes control of that, she's able to have an input into what's done.

We have financial incentives as well for staff but I personally believe that when somebody has got pride in the job because it's their job, they will always do that job better.

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Thomas McKillen's father Matthew McKillen

Thomas McKillen's father Matthew McKillen

Thomas McKillen's father Matthew McKillen

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

A: The answer to that is really nothing. We are still selling footwear for the family that is up-to-date today. That was true last year, it was true 50 years ago, it will be true hopefully in 10 years' time.

There's nothing that really has changed about our stock. It's how you manage your stock with computer systems and then obviously social media is massive and that has an impact on how you advertise your stock.

Other than that, we have expanded our business to be other than just shoes, except that we are selling shoes that are modern for today as we did every other day.

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An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

Q: Do you think your grandfather and father would be proud of how long the business has been going and is surviving?

A: Yes they would, both of them. I think my grandfather would be amazed at the business now.

My father would probably think it's not being as well run as when he was there, but that was him!

But no, business is a big part of family life. We discussed business at the dinner table; I went to work in the shop after school when I was a boy and my brother did and my sister did. My father did it and my son did it.

I have two daughters. One's a doctor, she worked in the shop when she was training. My father was very family orientated and he was intensely proud that his grandson had decided to not go into teaching but to come into the business, he was very proud of that.

Also then, Christianity is a big part of our life and that also had a play on that pride thing, and that would have had a big impact on that as well. I think they both would be very pleased.

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An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

An old family picture of the store

Q: How have you had to change to keep up with the times?

A: Well, the big thing is obviously modern communication levels and phones and social media and websites and all of those things, that's a big part of today's world.

And my father was always very involved in the local Chamber of Commerce and we were very much encouraged to do that. That has actually developed in Ballymena into something called BID - a Business Improvement District. That was originally an English idea and it became law four or five years ago in Northern Ireland - it's an area of Ballymena which is the BID, and that happens to be the town centre.

Once that is voted on and becomes law, businesses are levied one to one-and-a-half percent of their rateable value so you get a pot of money to spend, and I sit on the board.

We look at everything from marketing to car parking to waste, looking at things that will help retailers and promote the town province-wide and further afield in a way I couldn't do as an independent retailer myself.

That brings people to the town and that BID has been very successful in maintaining Ballymena, because a lot of national high-street names have gone.

Q: What impact does it have when our town's high streets have some empty shops?

A: The high street is getting a big hit nowadays. I'm not involved in politics but sometimes government and no Stormont and all of those kinds of things don't help.

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Carol Ross and Cheryl Gordon in the cafe

Carol Ross and Cheryl Gordon in the cafe

Carol Ross and Cheryl Gordon in the cafe

Q: Ballymena itself has lost a number of large employers with the closure of some factories and business in recent years. Does that have a knock-on effect?

A: It does, it created a big hole as far as spending power was concerned but not everybody that was employed in those businesses lives in Ballymena.

But that had a major impact on the town that is ongoing and maybe not all felt yet.

There were quite a few over the last two or three years that were major hits for the town and that's unfortunate and very sad.

Q: Do generations of the same famillies come to the store?

A: Oh yes, five generations have been coming in here to get school shoes, especially children's shoes, and I will know a lot of the customers to see if not by name.

You go to funerals constantly to people who have been loyal customers over the years and you try and maintain that loyalty.

Q: What does the future hold for McKillens?

A: Hopefully, the future is to stay on Church Street and to consolidate the business, and to move the business into the 21st century of online and social media, but still to maintain the very strong ethos of customer service on the shop floor, giving people exactly the merchandise that they want.

Q: Why do you think McKillens has survived so long?

A: I don't know! I wonder that myself, because you could get smug, but ultimately I think you just need to try to keep doing what you're good at, to never rest on your laurels and come to the point that you think, 'We're it, we've arrived.'

Always look at your business, how you can improve things, and keep working hard.

Quickfire questions

Tea or coffee? Coffee

Online store or bricks and mortar store? Bricks and mortar

Netflix or BBC? BBC

Christmas or Easter? Christmas

Retail hero? My father, Matthew McKillen

Favourite type of shop? Car showroom

Favourite film? The Quiet Man

Favourite book? The Bible

Best piece of advice? Live your life for God

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