Looking to the future for 220-year-old firm

John Riddel & Son was established in High Street, Belfast in 1803 and is one of Ulster’s oldest family firms. Originally the company traded in iron steel and tinplate before expanding into machinery hardware. This was the beginning of the Riddle brand and business which has flourished over the past 220 years.

The past is a huge source of pride for John Riddel & Son. This year the Lisburn company marks 220 years in the hardware business. Thriving through centuries of change, world wars and the Titanic era. And during it all, remaining a family firm with a distinctive culture. An achievement well worth celebrating.

Step inside the Dagger Road site and the customer visitor centre is a homage to the great Riddel family and business, with tools and historical documents spanning two centuries. A tool nerd’s dream, featuring Riddel implements that helped build the Titanic and supplied armies through two World Wars.

The Riddel legacy
John Riddel & Son was established in High Street, Belfast, initially trading in iron, steel and tin plate. After diversifying into machinery and hardware the firm needed more space to accommodate expanding demand.

In 1867, William, John’s eldest son, built the Riddel Warehouse on Ann Street, in its day a spectacular state-of-the-art distribution centre.

John died in 1870, having lived a long life by Victorian standards. He was, and still is, an extremely important figure in the history of Belfast during its heyday as an industrial powerhouse.

The founder spearheaded the growth of the firm, which continues to this day through diversification into manufacturing and retail across multiple premises serving national and international markets.

By the time of his death, John has overseen three businesses. The original firm, John Riddel & Son Wholesale, Musgrave Engineering (established in Belfast in 1843), and Riddel Ltd., the retail arm, which was founded in Belfast in 1851. Henry Musgrave, John’s nephew, was left in charge of all three. Henry travelled widely in Europe and South America, developing markets for farm equipment and heating stoves, with showrooms in Dublin, Paris, Bonn and Frankfurt.

The company’s extensive involvement in Belfast’s docks was reflected in the naming of part of the shipping lane as the Musgrave Channel.

At the 1887 and 1900 Paris International Trade Shows, the Musgrave Stove won a gold medal, outclassing international competition. This advanced design was an astonishing accomplishment. Victorian Belfast was a recognised centre of engineering and manufacturing innovation.

Colum Murphy, Director, Brian Murphy, Chairman Sanbra Group, Stephen Murphy, Director.

Change and continuity
Jump forward more than a century and John Riddel & Son Ltd. relocated to a larger, also historic, industrial building at 1 Dagger Road, Lisburn in 2007. Since moving here the former tannery has been transformed into a state-of-the-art warehouse with modern offices, enabling the firm to provide
exceptional service.

The building today still showcases its own and the Riddel heritage with pride. Notably, the personal office desk of John DeLorean, from the famed car factory just up the road in Dunmurry. In 2018 John Riddel & Son were bought by another Northern Ireland family, Brian Murphy, Chairman of the Sanbra Group and well known businessman with roots in engineering in Portadown for over 70 years.

For the Murphy family, the goal was to keep a focus on the future while maintaining the Riddel tradition for quality, service, and expertise.

Securing supply
The unpredictability of the last few years underscored the importance of managing supply chains carefully and intelligently to be ready for anything.

In particular, Covid reinforced the need to invest in securing a robust supply chain for the business, Stephen Murphy, Director explains, “Since covid, we have undergone a major transformation in our logistics and warehousing operation. We added new IT systems, additional racking and extended the warehouse to 120,000 sq. ft”. “The investment allows us to bring stability to our supply chain
and manage price fluctuations.”

Today the firm sits on an 8-acre industrial site comprising: 120,000 sq. ft. of warehousing, 10m to the eaves, and 10,000 sq. ft. of offices, meeting rooms, product showrooms and the customer visitor centre.
And uniquely, their own 5-acre ash woodland for the team’s recreational use, complete with Riddel’s beehives – yet another family inheritance.

Philip Ranken, Area Sales Representative Northern Ireland , John Riddel & Son, and Robert Sheridan, Dowlers Ltd. Fermanagh.

Brand building
As Northern Ireland’s original and oldest hardware distributor, experience and reliable service have been core business values from day one, together with quality products. The current offer encompasses over 52,200 hardware, agricultural and garden products available to trade merchants in Northern Ireland and beyond.

The brand line-up includes Workman Tools, Core, Herdguard, Hozelock, Hotline, Plasson, and Estate Wire, amongst many more leading names.

Riddel’s R&D and purchasing team spend much time working on the design, engineering and quality control of these brands. Care that is recognised and appreciated by today’s more discerning buyers and their customers.

“Developing a great range of brands is an important strategy as it allows us to design, engineer and create brands for our customers. We support these brands in the market through a comprehensive programme of sales and marketing supports including in-store point-of-sale,” notes Stephen.

Team spirit
Riddels is most fortunate to have a very experienced team with knowledge across all key operations, together with technical expertise, to provide a best-in-class service to customers.

19 staff look after sales, marketing, logistics and supply chain management under the leadership of Colum and Stephen Murphy, Brian Murphy’s sons.

Extensive warehousing.

The company takes pride in its loyal and dedicated employees. Indeed, its people are at the heart of Riddel’s ethos and success, Stephen asserts. “Our staff have a great work ethic and commitment to our customers. While it’s true that the customer is king, we believe our people are our most important asset, and must be valued. We place a huge emphasis on developing our family culture and values so that people want to work with us and stay. Get this right and it translates to providing the right product range and excellent customer service.”

What’s more, several employees have been with the firm for nearly three decades, for example Liz McMullan, whose experience is greatly relied upon. But the prize goes to Sam Nelson who only recently retired after 49 years, one year longer than his brother Ivan worked for the company.

Investment in people
According to Stephen, “We are strong believers in teamwork across all areas and empowering people to do their jobs. We realise how important it is to invest and train our staff.” Riddels conduct monthly in-house product training to make sure everyone is up to speed with the products. This approach is embedded in the business, Stephen says “we are constantly striving to make improvements so that the next generation wants to work with us and in turn, we can meet the needs of our customers of the future in the hardware industry”.

Centuries of customer loyalty
It’s the rare business that can claim having plenty of customers who have been trading with them for over 200 years. Loyal and newer Riddel customers represent a diverse base. As a leading supplier to retailers, the market includes Hardware Stores, Agricultural stores, Co-ops, Garden Centres and Homeware shops.
While some customer names may stay the same, the industry is changing at an exciting pace, and businesses must adapt to new demands, observes Stephen, especially in e-Commerce.

People now want to research and buy products at the click of a button.

Alan Ferguson, Area Sales Representative Northern Ireland, John Riddel & Son, with Shelley Teggart, Teggart & Sons, Downpatrick

“We are working hard to be agile and keep up with the pace, to provide excellent technical product and aftersales support.” Riddel’s website is easily accessible to all customers: www.riddel.co.uk. In addition to product information, it’s a fast and easy way for customers to get information on products.

Sustainability too has become a key factor in day-to-day operations. Because it covers all aspects of business, the firm is currently appointing Sustainability Leaders. Initiatives already rolled out include 100% cardboard recycling and electric company vehicles and chargers.

But many more changes are underway as the company continues to grow on its sustainability journey. As in everything Riddels do, the commitment to continuous improvement applies here also.

Well-placed for 2053
The Murphy sons feel upbeat about the outlook for John Riddel & Son, thanks to smart futureproofing investments. Since its transformation, the premises now has the capacity to serve as Distribution Centre for the wider Sanbra Group.

As Stephen Murphy sums up, “220 years on, we are proud of the history that got Riddel & Sons here and believe we are well-positioned to continue to grow with the help of our team and support of our customers.”

John Riddel & Son celebration of their 220 years in business, Customer Appreciation Day in September 2023.