King of the industry in the heart of the country

Ganly’s of Athlone was recently crowned winner in both the National and Connacht/Ulster (Large Business) category awards in the Octabuild Builders Merchant Awards 2017. Managing Director Michael Ganly spoke to The Hardware Journal about the journey that sculpted the company into multi-award-winners, the rocky road through the recession, and the importance of good customer service.

More than a quarter of a century is a long time in any industry, and hardware is no exception. Back in 1989, Michael Ganly embarked on a career in the industry, based out of an old disused garage on the Magazine Road in Athlone, manned by no more than a staff of four. In the subsequent twenty-eight years, Ganly’s has grown to employ a staff of 106, becoming the largest independent Builder Providers in the region. The company now operates out of three stores; its recently renovated flagship location on a nine-acre site in Athlone, another store resting on a three-acre site Longford since 2007, and finally a third store in Mountbellew, acquired in 2011. Add to this an unprecedented fourth overall prize in the Octabuild Builders Merchants Awards and Ganly’s distinguishes itself as among the very best stores in the country.

The store carries products across a wide range of categories, from garden and outdoor supplies, to painting and decorating, heating, homeware, and tiles and bathroom products. However, it’s on the trade end of the spectrum that Ganly’s forge the main bulk of their business. “Our cash cow here is really trade, at the end of the day,” explains Michael. “That’s where the money is generated, that’s where the activity is, and that’s where the volumes come from.”

Presentation is key

Building supplies and farming materials are amongst the store’s chief offerings, and Michael considers the Octabuild win to have been born primarily from this trade-focussed approach and subsequent recognition. Likened, by Michael, to a town preparing for the tidy towns contest, or a family home preparing for the stations at Lent, Ganly’s strives to achieve the same level of presentation year-round – not just in the build up to the Octabuild judging.

“I think that – more than anything – it’s based on that first impression you get walking into a place,” says Michael, reflecting on the key factors that contributed to the winning of the award. “The first impression you get when you walk through the door of any store – hardware, grocery, or butchers – is very important, and I’d be confident that our front-door presentation is up there with the best in the country.”

One of the first things that strikes you as you enter Ganly’s is the sheer, simple organisation of the store: products well labelled and optimally positioned. This owes primarily to a gradual process of “decluttering”, according to Michael – itself a consequence of downsizing over the recent, recession-hit years. Simple yet effective tactics such as reducing shelf height to avoid blank, product-less spaces were employed, with the downsizing born out of a need to survive. However, as Michael explains: “There was certainly a need to survive, but there was also a need to constantly send out the right message.”

This downsizing was momentarily combined with the temporary inclusion of some more unorthodox products such as counterside snacks; an inclusion since discontinued, as Michael confirms with some relief, having feared it might portray a message of uncertainty. That said, the store still operates occasional product divergences today, such as the recent Christmas shop during the festive season, as well as the popular “Hannah Grace” line of products, with such diverse inclusions as new baby gifts and kitchenware, to ornaments and home brewing kits.

Solid Staff through thick and thin

Staff loyalty during that bleak period of the recession was key to the business’ survival. Loss-making Sundays were offset by some employees offering to work for free on those days, with a handful having stayed with the company continuously, right the way through from its inception to present day. “They never lost the will to live during the recession,” affirms Michael. “Things were tough, but they kept going and put in a lot of time and effort to keep us going.”

New staff would typically begin on the shop floor, and their responsibilities might begin with stacking shelves or pricing product, but more importantly than all that is learning to look after customers – something they indoctrinate in all staff from the very beginning in Ganly’s.

“Staff are hard to retain, but we’ve been lucky in being able to retain the vast majority of them,” explains Michael. Those tough, lean years will stay etched in Michael’s mind for a long time, but it was in 2015 that the decision was taken to kickstart the store’s own revitalisation, before business picked up to the point of being too busy to allow any time for focussing on the broader goals of Ganly’s as a whole. The gondolas that had previously been reduced in height were now taken back in preparation for the oncoming period of growth.

Expanding for Customers and Community

Work to expand the flagship Athlone site began in earnest, with the yard renovation a key aspect of this vital redevelopment. Now swollen to an impressive nine acres in size, Ganly’s of Athlone has grown to be a monumental focal point of the locality. Add to this the incorporation of an Expert Electrical franchise on to the site too, and the drive to grow the business out of the recession induced stagnation had gained perpetual momentum.

Michael’s daughter Michelle Ganly-Keyes manages the Expert Electrical store, while his son Brian runs the Ganly’s Longford branch. Michael himself describes it as “a family business, a personable business”, with the company heavily involved in local community initiatives too. The local Garrycastle GAA club sport the family name on their jerseys, with a club All-Ireland final appearance back in 2012 providing “great mileage” for the store, as Michael puts it. The store also co-sponsors Athlone Buccaneers RFC, but it’s the welcoming attitude they take to the more random requests for sponsorship that cement Ganly’s at the heart of the community. As well as donating to the local Simon Community and Westmeath hospice Ganly’s also contribute to fundraisers undertaken by all the main national and secondary schools in the Athlone area, to various parades and town events. Michael and his staff are frequently bombarded with more obscure proposals too, but nevertheless strive to support every request that comes through the door.

“If anything moves down around here, we’re called in for sponsorship. If there were a Darts competition, we’d be asked to contribute,” chuckles Michael. “It’s amazing, some of the requests we receive in here on a day-to-day basis, looking for sponsorship,” he continues, “but if someone comes in the door looking for a bit of help, and it’s even remotely within reason, we’ll always give them something.”

New Year, New Targets

The Athlone redevelopment was only the start of a wider plan to improve and expand operations. Currently in the planning stages, the company’s Longford branch is scheduled for a complete overhaul in or around Easter 2018. This has affected the budgetary planning also, with plans slowly taking shape to both bring some new products on stream while simultaneously either diluting or completely phasing out older ones.

Michael foresees insulation and heating as being notable trends this year, together with various product ranges within those categories. For Ganly’s specifically, the company plan to introduce new ranges of products that will most likely be centred around insulation, with households requiring increasing focus on durable yet cost-effective insulation solutions. Air-tightness will continue to be a key area of focus too, along with air-to-water heat pumps.

“That whole area must be developed within the hardware merchants sector if we’re going to survive, because if we don’t do it, someone else is going to do it,” declares Michael. He goes on to explain how balancing the evolution of household heating to incorporate reduced CO2 emissions is on an unstoppable upward trajectory, and that “the industry has to be prepared for that.”

Servicing the Midlands and Beyond

Ganly’s open 7 days a week, from 8am in the morning until 6pm in the evening. With their own fleet of trucks and wider transport system, the company manages to service their customers satisfactorily. Plans to integrate tracking capabilities throughout their transport fleet are also underway, affording customers the ability to follow their orders from store to site. This, explains Michael, is very important, as site managers are continually paying rising wage levels, and therefore can’t be left waiting on product.

However, the hangover from the recession is still being keenly felt in the region, according to Michael, with any increase in activity heading almost exclusively for the Eastern seaboard, and Dublin in particular.

“In both Longford and Athlone, the lorries are all heading to Mullingar and then onward to Dublin,” he laments. Michael describes the branch in Mountbellew as “ticking over just fine”, but that the store there doesn’t see nearly the same volumes in its Western location as elsewhere in the country. “Prices are still where they were during the recession and competition is still very tough out there.”

Nevertheless, Michael remains adamant that service will always distinguish the better from the best in any industry. And who can argue with a four-time Octabuild Award winner.