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Column: My rollercoaster ride to save the family business

Six weeks ago, Ben Peat thought his 70-year-old family electronics business was going under – but public support helped save his company from becoming another footnote in the story of the recession.

Ben Peat, left, and his nephew Ken Peat, who is sales director of Peats Electronics, outside the Parnell Street branch when it reopened on 28 April.
Ben Peat, left, and his nephew Ken Peat, who is sales director of Peats Electronics, outside the Parnell Street branch when it reopened on 28 April.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

IT’S BEEN OVER six weeks since we took the difficult decision to close down Peat’s World of Electronics and yet, rather than spending that time clearing the decks and preparing for a premature retirement, I’ve spent the last month back working behind my desk, busier than ever.

In all my 40 years in business I can honestly say I have never experienced a rollercoaster ride like I have these last weeks, from the heartbreak of losing a business to the euphoria of being able to save it.

Being a family enterprise, there is obviously more emotional investment than most people have in their business, but I would defy anyone not to be moved by the response we have had to our closing and subsequent re-opening.

For those that don’t know the history let me recap. Coming into the summer, a traditionally lean time for electronics retailers, we had to face the fact that we could no longer sustain our business. Sales volumes were 50 per cent down from their 2007 peak, while rents remained at a Celtic Tiger high. We had to admit that we couldn’t allow our situation to get any worse for the sake of our staff and suppliers, who would become our creditors.

The business had been in my family for over 70 years, so to say that we made the decision with a heavy heart is an understatement. But we had to admit that liquidation was our only option. We made the announcement in early April and closed the doors the next day. It was a terrible day for our family, for me personally and for all our staff, who I had come to see as extended family.

But what came next was nothing short of incredible. We expected to just be another footnote in the story of Ireland’s recession: after all, stores are closing every week. When the media calls started to come though, it was clear that the reaction was far from what we had expected. Tom Dunne wanted to talk to us as he bought his first record player in Parnell Street; RTE and TV3 talk shows wanted us to take part as customers were phoning and texting in their memories.

“It was lovely to see how fondly people thought of us… but just made it all the more frustrating we’d not been able to survive”

I think it was online that really started to show the depth of feeling from customers. The Journal, Twitter, Broadsheet, Facebook, all had provided a forum for the public to remember their Peat’s experiences, nearly without exception they were positive and many sympathised with our plight. Reading those comments was a mixed blessing, it was lovely to see how fondly people thought of us and the see the support we had, but just made it all the more frustrating we’d not been able to survive.

The kind words and support of these customers were a major factor in giving us confidence and belief that the core values that we hold dear still matter to consumers. The response from our suppliers and other creditors was the key factor in turning this goodwill into a practical solution to our problems.

Their flexibility allowed us to re-evaluate our decision and find another way to go. The chance to reopen our Parnell Street store became a reality as soon as we had our suppliers backing us; we owned the building so we were able to move quickly.

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Of course, we were still nervous, as much as we’d seen and heard that people were sorry to see us go, we weren’t sure that would translate into a sustainable business. I’m pleased to say we had no reason to worry. Parnell St was packed on the day of our reopening and is still pulling in the customers, both familiar faces and new ones.

Reopening our Parnell Street store and Rathmines now too, is a second chance, but there is much still to do. We have to remodel the Peat’s business as a leaner operation with a lower cost base, one that can survive in this new economic climate, one that can get back to profitability.

What we mustn’t do is compromise on the values that produced that reaction from our customers. My family and I are determined to keep the Peat’s ’World of Electronics’ name on the high street in Dublin and prove that there is still a place in consumer’s hearts and minds for a retailer that puts personal customer service first.

Ben Peat is chairman of Peat’s Electronics which has been trading as a family business in Dublin since 1934.

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About the author:

Ben Peat

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