In this new series, we get to know businesses owners across Wensleydale a little better and get their take on the key issues affecting businesses in the area. To kick us off we speak to Keith Garrard, Managing Director of Milners of Leyburn, who took over the family business with his wife Leonie from his father-in-law 12 years ago, making them the 5thgeneration to run the business.
How important are independent retail businesses like yours to the Dales?
Independent shops are massively important as they give a totally different experience to customers than high street shops in larger towns. If you include a traditional market town with a busy atmosphere then you have a powerful offer. People like Leyburn because of its friendly community and traditional values, which they quite find reassuring in a fast moving world.
Small businesses in the Dales help keep the community together as people still like to deal with real people. Ultimately business has to be driven by what consumers want which is quality goods at competitive prices, high customer service and experience that leaves a strong impression so they will come back.
We have to be on this every day as we have a very vast range of customers including traditional Dales people; incomers; second home owners; and visitors that have come from cities and want to kick back and relax.
Milners has changed massively since we took over and is firmly back on track. A lot of local people are using us as they find us helpful, competitive on cost and we offer a strong, reliable service.
However, the face of retail is changing quickly and we don’t fully understand the impact it will have on places like Leyburn in the long term. There is a millennial generation that want convenience, experiences and not material wealth, and who aren’t scared to challenge the status quo. We will have to adapt our businesses to suit these needs.
Do you think there will be a time when you will have to sell online, or do you think that what you’ve got is strong enough to keep going without online sales?
We have changed our business completely and become a destination store offering a great customer service and experience and we currently use social media to engage with potential customers to drive them to the shop.
I think the future for us is to find a way to retain our traditional values and offer a convenient service as our business is all about people and forming relationships. The internet offers a different service that is growing in demand and we need to use it to complement our current offer.
What’s make me angry is when a potential customer uses our goods, books and services and then buys online from an anonymous company, as it goes against our business and personal values. It doesn’t happen much, but is on the increase and is mostly by people from outside the area.
The time is coming when people will say, “we’re not sure about this anonymous online selling, we actually feel there’s a middle ground”, as I think there is a basic human need for interaction with other people. I think there’s a place for physical stores coupled with technology, high quality service and experience and that’s where we want to be. I think there’ll always be a place for face-to-face service, however, if we think we can just sit here and do nothing we would be foolish.
How important is customer service as a differentiator?
A million per cent. It’s what we are, it’s our USP.
How do you go about retaining staff in this area?
We have a very low turnover of team members because we look after them, and make sure we recruit well. For example, if I have an apprenticeship opening, then I will take them to Penley’s and have an informal chat before an interview, as I did with my current apprentice Alice. I want to see if the person’s got the right personality for the business, as it’s not just the role I’m thinking about, it’s the person. Could I put this person in front of my customers? Would this person represent the business in the way I want them to? And can I help them grow? Do they want to grow? What is it they want? These questions are important so that we can help them, as well as them help us. Alice was very hungry to succeed, but didn’t want to go to university, she had a very good attitude and a lovely persona which fitted completely with the business.
My team have a lot of autonomy to develop their roles within the business and are constantly seeking ways to improve the way the business runs, and the success of the business is primarily due to them. They know that they have my support and that if they have any personal emergencies then this always takes priority. They also have a degree of flexibility so that they can fit in family commitments.
Would you say that having a strong team is helped by the fact that you have a business that works 12 months of the year, rather than in seasons?
Yes, to a certain extent but business patterns are totally unpredictable at present.
How do you think can business influence education?
By being realistic and letting young people know it’s OK not to be academic and to go university if they feel it’s not right for them. We have some fantastic business leaders in the community and we need to develop them into the future generation of business leaders.
Unfortunately, I think the present school system is geared around getting everyone into higher education and some teachers have not experienced life outside of the education system themselves and so can’t offer real life advice. Business can fill this gap and encourage young people to focus on what they are good at and bring out their best.
How do you retain young people in this area?
Ultimately the area needs to be attractive to them to give them a reason to stay. This could be many things such as sports, leisure, career opportunity, family, friends.
People like me want to find them, snap them up and give them the opportunity to make something of themselves. There should be places for people in finance, hospitality, every walk of life, degree-qualified, or no qualifications, it doesn’t matter. They should be encouraged to seek out the opportunities for themselves and develop them.
Also, we’ve got to look at the young people as individuals. My daughter is doing her A-levels and has started a T-shirt business. She’s printing her T-shirts and set up her own website and getting orders, she said, “Dad, what happens if this takes off?” And I said, “Go for it!”
What are your plans for business over the next 12 months?
What’s been your biggest struggle over the last 12 months?
The biggest problem is that the business rates doubled in Leyburn in 2016 and online businesses do not pay anything like the rates the high street does, so it’s not a level playing field. I’ve been lobbying hard to try and get a better understanding, but have come up against a brick wall with the government, it’s been awful. Also, the weather gave us a big hit in March when people didn’t want to come out and we were flooded out in the thaw.
What do you think about the work that the Lower Wensleydale Business Network is doing with young people?
I think the work that the network does is great but needs to be more visual so businesses can see what they are doing, I think the work done on encouraging apprentices with the school is vital, but it all needs to be more joined up. It needs to have more people in the community, in business and the school pulling it together. I think it would be great if we could somehow get back to having a monthly business meeting locally where we can get some really good people sitting round the table sharing ideas, and really get some enthusiasm going again.
And finally, what could the network be doing to help local businesses?
Looking to the future, collaborating and helping people to share best practice. And I think the Facebook group is great, you should keep going with that.