From humble beginnings operating from their own home to the development of their 12,000 square foot purpose-built, new premises, Topline McCrearys is a prime example of the perseverance and pride that epitomises a successful family business. Darren McCreary, fifth generation merchant and company director, spoke to The Hardware Journal about the decision to start a new chapter for the business by broadening its customer reach through investment in a new location and the expansion of its product range.
Topline McCrearys is a family business with a heritage that dates back to 1860, when it was founded by Johnston McCreary in Crossroads, Lifford, in Donegal. Johnston subsequently passed his company onto his son, Alex McCreary, who, in turn, decided to leave the legacy to his nephew, William McCreary.
“My father, Maxi, took charge of the business from his father, William, and he has done a fantastic job growing the company to this stage by himself for the most part. So without his blood, sweat and tears over the years none of this would have been possible. Now it is up to myself and my brother Brian to take the business to the next level,” Darren explains. “I have a son who is two years of age, so someday, I hope, he will take over the store and carry on the family business.”
Underlining the longevity and durability of the business, it was recently named the oldest business in Donegal on local radio. Darren comments: “Having been in business since 1860 but with a clear focus on our future, we joined the Topline Group in 2012. While this was a major decision for us, we were impressed by the Group’s vision for the future and I’m pleased to say we’re all very happy with our decision. The big changes we have made to our business over the past few years would simply not have been possible without the support of everyone in the Topline Group Head Office as well as much of the Group’s supplier base. Group management are also very aware of how our sector is changing and what the Group needs to do to support its members to profitably compete. While there are always problems and challenges in any Group, we know our Group has both the intent and the resources to invest on behalf of its members and we now have renewed confidence that we can succeed and thrive for another 156 years.”
The business, incorporating the family home, operated on Main Street in Crossroads for many years. In 1952, the family decided to extend the area of the premises by building a new extension attached to the house. In 2008, the family began to put in place a plan to establish the business on a new level by investing in a new site and building a new premises. In 2012, when the family business joined Topline, the group provided the strategic design plan for the new premises and a design team that worked on site for over three months.
“It was a huge undertaking, between the build itself and moving our stock from our previous store, which was quite small in comparison to the new premises. Suddenly, having all this space to play with allowed us to create a much more organised and customer-friendly layout. Informed and guided by Topline’s input, we developed a store that, with an efficient and cost-effective design, allowed us to provide an exciting and unique customer experience.”
The new store opened its doors to the public last year. Its customers discovered an impressive 12,000 square foot area with a third of the floor space dedicated to a highly distinctive and innovative showroom space that displays doors, floors, bathrooms and white goods to stunning effect on an eye-catching mezzanine. The design is purpose-built and highly functional but does not compromise on style or flair, with high quality finishing throughout. For example, the homeware and paint section has a distinctive, wooden-effect vinyl floor, which gives that section a clear identity of its own.
But the showroom facility is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the new store. Described as “an entirely new departure” by Darren, it is located on a spectacular mezzanine level, situated a short distance from the entrance to ensure immediate visibility. According to Darren, it is one of the most popular areas of the store. “It has helped to expand the customer demographic significantly, attracting more female customers, more families and more young couples. And it is continuing to attract the attention of new customers.”
“We want everyone to feel welcome in the showroom, so we invested in a glass elevator to ensure maximum ease of access for everyone. This means that everyone – including the elderly, wheelchair users and families with prams – can easily reach the mezzanine level and enjoy spending some time in the showroom.” Darren says that they have also worked hard to retain and expand the new customer profile which the mezzanine showroom has attracted: “We have looked to respond quickly and appropriately to the needs of our new customers by providing a seating area on the mezzanine where people can browse through brochures and product literature in comfort. We also have a children’s section where children can play while their parents explore the wide range of products on display.”
The appeal of the showroom and its effectiveness in showcasing the latest innovations in interiors is enhanced by two large south-facing windows that flood the space with natural light while a music system, by Almotech, aids in creating a bright and relaxed atmosphere for the customer.
Staff plays key role
There are currently 17 staff employed at Topline McCrearys, four of whom were brought on board last November when the store first opened. Many of the staff have been working for McCrearys for over 20 years, the longest-serving employee being Mary McMenamin who has been with the company for 40 years. Darren explains: “We are privileged to have such loyal and talented staff who have stayed with us through the many cycles that the industry has gone through. Without them, the business could not have made this transition to our new store as painlessly as we have.Ultimately, we couldn’t have done what we’ve done without the help, support and dedication of our fantastic staff.
“The team maintains a strong rapport with customers based on a high level of product knowledge and a depth of experience combined with a genuine friendliness and willingness to go the extra mile for the customer. This is something we really value and encourage, and we count ourselves lucky to have a low turnaround of staff.” The company is currently looking to arrange management courses and staff training days to help staff transition to the expanding scale of operations in the new store and the broader product range. Darren adds: “As a family business, we remain a close-knit team and tend to see eye-to-eye on most things. Staff are key in relation to gathering and assessing customer feedback and in terms of keeping track of trends and popular products. Through interaction with the customers, staff help determine what products need to be re-stocked.”
The Topline McCrearys staff have an eye for detail, Darren notes. For example, they work hard to ensure that presentation and price display remains consistent. This is vital to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding and to keep customers informed of special offers. It also allows customers the freedom to wander around the store at their leisure, before seeking advice from staff members, if that’s what they prefer.
Extending the brand offering
When asked about trends in the builders merchants sector, Darren reflects on the importance of stocking extensive ranges of brands and product lines: “Many hardware stores have historically had a fairly traditional approach with a predominantly trade-based and DIY clientele, with product ranges that do not have strong appeal to the female customer. Increasingly, when I look at builders merchants and hardware stores around the country, I have seen what can be achieved by a more extensive product offering and a larger layout. That’s precisely why we decided to expand and develop this new space.
“Of course, now that we’ve tapped into this new customer base, the challenge is to keep them interested. To do that, we have to be constantly improving, listening to our customers and responding to what they’re looking for. It is an ongoing challenge, but it’s part of what I enjoy about the business. That’s what we’re here for – to satisfy customer needs and strengthen our business in the process.” He adds: “In the end, people buy from people, so obviously customer service is critical and product knowledge is a very important and powerful selling tool. By working on and enhancing these two key elements, our business can only go from strength to strength.”
When talk turns to the national recovery, Darren points to the lack of an economic uplift in Donegal. He has discussed the topic with other local businesses and all agree that the local economy is slow to recover, with many citing the relative remoteness of the county as a key factor. “The ripple effect of the Celtic Tiger was slow to reach us, just as. the collapse and aftermath is even slower to leave us, simply due to our location. Not to mention the lack of decent roads leading to Donegal,” he says.
And, of course, Brexit is a factor that adds to uncertainty about the economic outlook in the region. “With the sea on one side, the last thing we want is the return of a ‘hard’ border on the other.” Darren and his business peers in Donegal will be closely watching as the reality of what Brexit actually means gradually becomes apparent. The concern about Brexit and its consequences is a very real worry for Topline McCrearys. “We have a strong customer contingent from Northern Ireland as we are situated just ten minutes from the border. We greatly value their business and we certainly want to retain it in the future.”
Darren remains positive about the future and much of his confidence rests on the new premises, the strong customer appeal it has already demonstrated and the opportunities it offers as a large and adaptable space. “It’s a competitive business so you’re always fighting to stay successful. We now have a store that is distinctive, offers an exciting and enjoyable customer experience and provides a real one-stop shop for the trade buyer, the DIY enthusiast and anyone looking for a home decor or homeware solution. With our highly experienced staff, shrewd advice and help from Topline and our family heritage, we’re well-positioned to meet the challenges ahead and grow the business to the next level.”