Going for the gold standard: In Conversation with Patrick Goldrick

An exceptional work ethic and commitment to excellence took Mayo-man Patrick Goldrick to the top of the Hardware business in the UK and South Africa. On two continents over five decades, Goldrick was instrumental in transforming the sector. Jim Copeland sat down (virtually!) with now-retired Patrick Goldrick, who described from his home in South Africa a career so extraordinary, that THJ has dedicated two special features to do it justice.

Part One: From the West of Ireland to Wickes UK

How the mentoring and skills gained in his first jobs in Ballina laid the groundwork for a stellar career.

How did you get started in the hardware sector?

I grew up on a small farm in Moyne Abbey near Killala in County Mayo, walking to school and cycling to work. I never had secondary level or college education.

I learned by reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and once I started working, by talking to people and acquiring knowledge from reading the labels on various products. My career in this industry began in 1962 when I left school at age 13. Back then, there wasn’t much to do in the west of Ireland. You could be a postman or join the police and I didn’t fancy either!

I got a job at the local wholesalers, Joseph Murphy, (Ballina), Ltd. and was there for four years, working with Peter Laing and Gerry Connor.

John Hackett, the Managing Director, was a man with a great business sense demanding high standards. He did not tolerate sloppy work and led by example, ensuring each task was completed correctly and on time. I learned a lot from his commitment, pace, and drive towards excellence.

Peter Laing introduced me to doing everyday tasks exceptionally well. This included sweeping the warehouse floor, and it was a big floor! Also, accurately checking many crates of aluminium saucepans, frying pans, kettles, and teapots in the stockroom.

I have spoken about, utilised, and remembered those basic tasks and standards on many occasions throughout my career. Gerry Connor introduced me to stocktaking, which included checking consignments arriving at the Ballina Railway Freight Station. Murphy’s had access to a rail siding located behind the warehouses, and many wagons arrived daily, mostly with cement and corrugated iron sheets of various lengths and gauges.

All wagons and their stock had to be counted and recorded each day before 10am; a task not relished, especially on a winter’s morning, but critical to ensure goods were received both on time and accurately. The physical stock on hand had to match the stock ledgers.

These skills served me well in South Africa decades later. The same tasks were carried out in many Cashbuild Stores throughout Southern Africa, where sunshine replaced the frost! When I finished my apprenticeship with Murphy’s, I went to Thomas Archer’s Ballina for a year, working with Dennis Michael and Billy Ryan. I soon realised there was a vast difference between a wholesaling business like Murphy’s and a busy retailer like Archer’s.

Archers sold a similar range of hardware and building materials, but also stocked timber, sheet materials, plumbing, sanitaryware, doors, and windows. But that was not the only difference.

The customer base was massive; from all walks of life, including farmers and contractors for different trades. I enjoyed my time in Archer’s where the learning curve was steep. Efficiency and customer service were important and good product knowledge was vital. Identifying each customer’s needs, supplying the correct product, and explaining how to use the product were paramount.

And then you moved to the UK?

I went looking for the money! I left Ireland in 1966 intending to spend two years in England, then go to Australia. I was going to work with Gerry Connor’s brother in the car industry, but when I arrived, England was in chaos. There was a strike on in the Cowley car works, so I couldn’t get a job there. They were shedding jobs rather than hiring.

I got labouring work as a stoker, and during the summer of 1966, worked as a fitter’s mate carrying tools around. While he was doing all the technical stuff, I just handed him the spanner!

The following year, I joined Cooper’s, an offshoot of Selfridges in Oxford. During my few years there, I worked my way up from the stockroom to become a Sales Manager.

That was fantastic, getting to do purchasing, sales and running departments; at last using all my knowledge of products I’d gained at Murphy’s and Archer’s.

The customer service and good housekeeping standards stayed with me from my time in Ballina. It was about making sure that whatever you said you would do, you did, in a timely fashion and to the right standard. That was the work ethic that was bred into me and never left to this day.

It was important to get it right first time because I was in a strange land; 18-19 years of age and needing to pay for digs and save for train fare home. So, I had to make sure I kept my job and focus on it.

This applied to everyone like me: by all means go ahead and enjoy yourself, but you must be there for work when you’re expected.

Oxford was a wonderful city, with students and professors from all over the world. During the evenings I worked as a part time barman (extra money for a good social life!) in pubs frequented by university folks and locals.

Before leaving to work in London, I met Rosalind. We married two years later and went on to have four children and five grandchildren.

My first job in London was with a hardware and ironmonger’s business, J W Carpenter Ltd. They had a chain of stores across England, and I managed a few of them, including their flagship store in London.

These were interesting years in the UK; lots of political unrest, miners versus government leading to coal shortages. Electricity blackouts several times a day. Eventually I was only able to work three days per week.

I never saw those times as particularly tough. If people wanted candles, you supplied them; same if people wanted gas lamps. It was all about keeping essentials in stock and getting on with it.

I was surprised by how I was allowed to get on with my job. I was given responsibility, allowed to create margins, buy the quantities I wanted, set up new suppliers and import based on certain criteria.

Store managers had independence, provided we acted professionally and honestly. When meeting sales representatives, I could go have lunch with them (obviously no alcohol!), then return to the store to complete transactions and follow through with orders.

Some products were purchased two years in advance in anticipation of the January or July sales, often imported from two different agents. It was up to me to ensure I tracked everything through the processes and made the sale happen. Once I had completed a task a few times, I was free to work away. If you delivered, you were given responsibility and the acknowledgement that you’d done a good job.

If I didn’t do a good job, I’d soon know all about it anyway! We used to call that ‘the DCM, Don’t come Monday’.

Tell me about your time in Wickes.

I joined Wickes and was there for 18 years until 1993. I started out as Assistant Store Manager of one of their big branches in Harrow.

I worked my way up to Store Manager to Division Manager to Operations Manager to Operations Director and MD of distribution.

I really enjoyed my time there and opened over 100 new Wickes stores, helping grow that business. That was where I cut my teeth in management throughout England. Wickes was a great experience and still is a great business.

When I joined Wickes, it had a very limited range, but a good focus, and every store was identical. In this way Wickes was ahead of its time.

The business was based on very high volume, modest margins, massive turnover, low costs and 99% cash. After initial major capital outlay in setting up stores, shelving, racking, etc., operational costs were low as a percentage of turnover because of the high volumes.

What prompted you to move on?

Things began to change. I left Wickes when it took over several other organisations. I didn’t agree with everything that was going on and I was unhappy. So, we came to an agreement that I would leave.

After some time off, I got involved in other projects that didn’t work out the way I wanted. I started up a company called UBUILD, which didn’t succeed.

However, this was a valuable experience, because I learned there are limits and that you need to have a plan A, B, C and D. I believe it’s okay, when you’re a big organisation, to have just a plan A and B, but when you’re running your own business and the manager doesn’t turn up, who’s going to run the store? What plans are in place for cashflow? And anything else that might come up? I learned how exposed you can be running your own business.

By not getting it right, it hurt me a lot, because I had let the staff down.

Then a South African company came calling?

Part Two continues Patrick’s story in the July/August issue.