Ronayne Hire & Hardware is a familiar landmark on the Dublin road into Thurles where the Ronayne name has been synonymous with hardware since the 1980s. Michael Ronayne talks to The Hardware Journal about growing the business, dealing with the downturn and managing the recovery.
When Michael Ronayne left school in the mid-1970s, his father John, a successful building contractor, gave him a start offering him access to some equipment that the building business wasn’t using. Based on that initial stock of equipment, which included two air compressors and a builders’ dumper, Michael set up a hire business that has since gone from strength to strength and continues to trade successfully to this day.
The success of the hire business encouraged Michael to expand into hardware and in 1986 he opened for business as an Arro branded store which is the retail brand part of the National Hardware Ltd group. Michael has remained a member for the subsequent 30 years through the development of his own business and the evolution of National Hardware Ltd (via a joint venture with Associated Hardware Ltd) into United Hardware. Today, his store prominently carries the signage of the Arro Group. Michael is currently on the United Hardware board and strongly believes in the advantages of being part of a large group. “I’m a member because I believe it’s important for my business, both for the group’s buying expertise and the depth of its commitment to helping members make a success of their businesses.
“The group’s support for the standalone shop, not just in terms of buying, but in terms of merchandising, marketing and information, is of great benefit, as are the opportunities to go to meetings and talk to like-minded people and exchange views. I’ll often find that the problems I’m dealing with are very similar to those confronting merchants in other parts of the country.”
Ronayne Hire and Hardware is also a member of Euronics, the electronics and home appliances group which it joined in 2008. Michael notes: “The electrical business is very brand-focused and access to the brands, both in white goods and brown goods, is vital to be successful. Euronics helps us not only to get the right brands, but also to get them at the right price”.
Michael brought the strong service ethos he developed in the hire sector into his hardware and builders merchants business. He comments: “The staff here include many individuals who have been with the business for a long time. They have a depth of knowledge and experience that’s hard to beat and we all place a priority on providing the customer with the best possible service.”
Building a hardware business
Ronayne Hire and Hardware has grown through the development of an effective management team and a mix of products and services that responds to the changing needs of his customers and, indeed, the changes in the customer base itself. “As the business grew, I realised the importance of being able to delegate responsibility to a trusted and reliable team. I have a strong management team in place including a sales manager and a hire manager at a strategic level and, in addition to them, in more specific departments, there is a manager for our electrical section, our tool section and our light hardware section. Almost all the responsibility for buying and selling rests with those members of staff.”
Delegation is an essential element in managing a premises of the scale of Ronayne Hire and Hardware. The site occupies an overall area of four acres with the store having an area of 40,000 square feet, an expansion of 25,000 sq. ft on the area of the original premises that opened in 1986.
Heady years and hard lessons
“The bulk of that expansion took place in the heady years from 2000 to 2006. When the downturn hit, and particularly in the years 2010 to 2012, I did a lot of re-learning, primarily about the importance of watching every cost and avoiding any wastage. Coping with the change in the marketplace involved a lot of reorganisation and re-focusing on my own part and on the part of staff as well. It was an extremely difficult time. But everyone on the team bought into what was needed, which was total cost-efficiency and careful management of every aspect of the business.”
The business has recovered strongly in the last few years and now employs 26 people: “I was particularly pleased to be able to reemploy some people I had to let go during the downturn. The store is performing well and, while I don’t believe we’ll ever see the level of business that took place in the early 2000s, there is solid potential for sustainable growth in the industry over the next few years.”
Michael’s optimism is tempered with a degree of caution, however: “The local economy around Thurles is recovering but it is an economy that is essentially agriculture-based and every newspaper I read, every radio or tv programme I listen to or watch, is speculating about Brexit and about what its possible outcomes may be, none of which seems very clear-cut. What is clear is that it’s creating a lot of uncertainty which could have serious implications for my customers and therefore serious implications for our business. So, looking ahead, I would be relatively cautious about the foreseeable future.”
The evolving customer
Focusing on the store itself, it has developed over time into two distinct retail spaces. When customers walk in the front door, they immediately find themselves in a welcoming DIY and home improvement section, surrounded by homeware and electrical products. It’s a big space but laid out to showcase a wide range of products from doors and floors to fridges and TVs, as well as paint and household items.
Describing his mix of customers, Michael says there is an approximately 50-50 balance between trade customers and home improvement/DIY/consumer-orientated business.
He explains that 1% of the population of the country lives within 15 miles of Thurles: “That’s the target area for the bulk of my business. We would have customers in localities all around Thurles like Killenaule, Templemore and Borrisoleigh.
“As we gradually emerge from the downturn, it’s noticeable to me that the home improvement/consumer segment is growing at a faster pace than the trade sector. The female customer is driving that growth in categories like electrical, doors and floors and houseware. We invested significantly in the entire electrical and homeware section in 2014 in response to this growing female customer footfall. We realised the importance of presenting products in an appealing and effective way to these customers and implemented the redesign in close consultation with Arro and Euronics. That redesign has led to a further improvement in turnover in that part of the store since 2014 and we continue to focus a lot of attention in ensuring that this is an attractive and well-presented area.”
Playing to your strengths
Moving through the homeware space brings you to the dedicated trade area of the store where the customer finds a full range of building materials and products, a long-established hire service and a specialist tool department with an extensive range of woodworking machinery and power tools for both the DIY enthusiast and professional markets.
“Our team has a wealth of expertise in carpentry and woodworking and in terms of our business focus, we play to those strengths. Doors, floors and kitchens are areas where the team can offer unrivalled service.
” Another major strength of the business is its tool sales business, Michael believes: “We’ve developed a strong reputation for the quality and range of tools we provide, including power tools, hand tools, engineering tools and all types of woodworking tools and machinery. It’s a strong department within our business and we’re confident that it is as good as any tool sales business in the country.” In addition to its own site, Ronayne Hire and Hardware has developed a website, mytools.ie, that showcases its tool range specifically.
Looking back over a career that has encompassed five different decades, what does Michael see as the most significant changes he’s witnessed? “Without a doubt, the two biggest changes are the development of the internet and the completion of the motorway network. Each represents both an opportunity and a threat. With the internet, anyone can buy anything, anywhere and anytime. That presents us with an opportunity to sell to a wider catchment but it also opens us up to more competition than ever before.”
The motorway network provides a similar dual potential: “The motorway means my customers are now only an hour from Limerick, an hour and a half from Liffey Valley or Blanchardstown in Dublin or an hour and fifteen minutes from Mahon Point in Cork. But it also means more customers can travel to me. And it can help create transport efficiencies for the business’s own fleet. These two factors, together with Brexit, will probably have the most meaningful influence on the development of the business in the next few years.” Looking to the next 12 months specifically, he concludes by warning that it’s vital the Government is given a strong message by the industry and HAI in relation to the prohibitive cost challenges that builders merchants face: “The Government needs to be made aware of the high costs of doing business, whether it is labour costs and associated overheads or the general cost of running a business with rates, taxes and bureaucratic red tape.
As Ronayne Hire and Hardware adapts and changes to meet future challenges, there’s also a reassuring continuity at the family business. In the past two years, Michael’s son David has taken on the responsibility of managing the plant and tool hire business. Michael admits: “I’m delighted that another generation has entered the business. While there are many challenges to face in the sector, hardware is a great business to be part of.”