You need personal touch and €1.5m in stock to beat the opposition
After 65 years and two generations at the forefront of men's fashion, Paul Galvin tells Sean Gallagher the secrets of long-term success
Last week I paid a visit to William Street in Tullamore, in Co Offaly. It's a street and a town I remember well from my childhood - because it was here, just over Kilbeggan Bridge, that my mother grew up and where she and her family ran a small sweet shop and convenience store.
This time though I'm on a different mission. I've come to visit Paul Galvin, owner and manager of the acclaimed menswear store Galvin Tullamore.
Set up in 1950 by Paul's parents, John and Della Galvin, the store has become familiar to many across the country following years of their catchy advertising campaigns.
Setting up a retail business takes great courage and belief, but ensuring its success and long-term sustainability for over 65 years - well, that's something truly inspiring. And so, I have come to meet Paul and find out what he thinks has been the secret to the store's success over such a long period.
"Throughout its existence, the business has gone through many changes, moved locations and been continuously refurbished and modernised," Paul tells me. "But what I guess hasn't changed is our attitude to our customers and the level of care and attention we give to those who visit."
Paul is genuinely friendly, upbeat and engaging. It's easy to see how good he is at establishing a rapport with customers. Dressed in a beautiful blue suit, he looks the part - and is the perfect advertisement for the business. As he shows me around the store, he finds time to have a kind word for each of his 15 staff, as well as a word of welcome for the steady stream of shoppers who have popped in.
The store itself is large, bright and full of colour. While heavily stocked, everything is neatly arranged in sections to suit every age group.
"Our target market is men from the ages of 16 to a hundred and six," says Paul cheerfully.
In the young fashion area, there are contemporary brands that range from Hilfiger and Superdry to Penguin and Diesel. The casual lifestyle area, aimed at the thirty-plus age bracket, is also a Mecca for brands such as Hugo Boss, Gant, Armani, Ted Baker and Calvin Klein.
We make our way through the more formal suit area, as Paul explains that he has over 1,300 suits in stock at any one time. At a value of over €1.5m, that's a significant investment.
"To attract customers, you have to continuously keep up to date with what is happening in the market and be constantly updating your stock to ensure the widest range of brands, sizes and colours," insists Paul.
Community is important to Paul and he is quick to acknowledge the support both he and the business have received over the years from the town and surrounding areas. While most of his customers come from within a 50-mile radius, many travel from further afield to shop here.
I ask if running a menswear store is different from running a general or ladies store?
"Men are usually not as much into shopping as women are. We men tend to want to get in, get kitted up and get out," he says with a laugh. "That's why we've tried to position ourselves as a one-stop shop for men, where you can get everything from casual shirts and jeans to business suits and formal wear. You can have your garments altered on site, even find a pair of shoes to match. It has to be easy and it has to be an enjoyable experience," he insists.
Paul knows his trade well. He grew up in Tullamore. By the time he was born, his parents had already set up the business. The couple had met while "serving their time" in a local department store in the late 1940s. Ambitious and determined to make a go of it, they left their jobs and set up a men's-only store in a small 400 sq ft shop, not far from where today's store is.
"Back then serving your time meant not getting paid for the first three years. In fact, you had to pay the store owner you worked for, to train you as an apprentice," explains Paul. "So it really was a pretty courageous and visionary move to go out on their own, particularly as there was very little money in Ireland at that time," he says proudly.
In 1977, and just shy of his 17th birthday, Paul left school to join the business. "A family business can often be challenging - but in fairness to my father, he was very nurturing and gave me scope to implement new ideas," insists Paul.
When his father decided to retire, in 1989, Paul bought out the business and began his own journey at its helm.
"My sister Teresa also works in the business and I rely heavily on her prudent management of the finances and back office operations to free me up to focus more on the sales and customer side of things," explains Paul.
On taking over, Paul immediately got to work extending the store. Up to that point, customers living in the Midlands had to travel to Dublin to access most leading fashion brands. Paul then went in search of well-known international brands which he believed would help attract new customers from outside his immediate local market. And he was right.
In tandem, and for the first time, he began advertising in the national newspapers, on national radio and on TV. It was a significant investment at the time - but his intuition proved correct and before long Galvin's of Tullamore had become recognised as a go-to place for men's retail.
From his many years in the business, Paul understood that repeat customers would be vital to the ongoing success of the store, so he focused on building an approach to customer service that was both professional yet friendly.
"Many men like to meet the same sales staff when they come in. They like when you know them by name and can recall what they like or don't like," explains Paul. "I take great pride when a customer comes back and asks for someone in particular - it means that they trust that person, and have built up a relationship with them.
"That's key - after all, it's our staff that make that happen," he insists.
Paul is keen to credit key staff members who have been with the business for a long time. He is proud too that he even has a number of customers who began shopping in his parents' store when it first opened. Two such men, John Joe Coyne and Jim Flattery, now both in their 90s, turned up to help cut the ribbon last year when the most recent refurbishments were unveiled
But like any owner of a retail business in recent years, Paul too has had his fair share of challenging times. While 2007 was a bumper year with record sales figures for that Christmas season, everything was about to change. Within weeks, he had begun to notice the slowdown. The next four years proved difficult with revenues in the store falling by as much as 40pc.
"While we might have expected some fall-off at the time, I don't think any of us were really ready for the drastic nature of the drop," admits Paul.
He immediately began examining every aspect of the business to see what he needed to do to survive. Cutting back on all spending, he suspended his national advertising and focused instead on the local market. He negotiated hard with his suppliers and brands to come up with special offers and promotions which offered his hard-pressed customers increased value.
He says his biggest challenge was not being able to predict when things would bottom out and when to start re-investing. He was always aware that his staff and their families also depended on him and the store for their livelihoods. It was a responsibility he took seriously, so much so that he refused to lay off staff or reduce salaries during that time. It was a form of loyalty that staff would repay with their renewed commitment to the success of the business.
"We are happy today that business is once again on the up, with growth every month for the past year. In fact, we've seen turnover grow by 25pc over the first four months of 2015 compared with the same period last year," explains Paul.
Today, Paul continues to attend trade shows around the world, constantly on the lookout for new brands and labels to offer his customers.
"Retail is a dynamic sector - and fashion in particular is constantly changing, with new brands coming on to the market all the time," explains Paul. "Every six months you have to draw a line under the last season's stock and start all over again."
He is also embracing the trend towards online and recently hired a full-time staff member to look after the company's social media and launch their online site over the coming months.
Excited as he is by the prospect, business for Paul will always be about people and about creating that personal customer experience. And that's something he doesn't see changing anytime soon.
Paul is a natural people person with a positive and uplifting personality. He is also a lover of all things fashion related. Above all, he is a born retailer. He grew up in the business, understands it at every level and simply thrives on creating a positive customer experience.
An experienced businessman, he understands the need to constantly re-invest in his store and in new brands and ranges that will ensure the business remains attractive to customers.
In addition, he has nurtured a strong team spirit among his staff and together they have created a genuinely warm and welcoming environment. While so many other stores closed during the recent downturn, it is this very combination that has helped Galvin Tullamore to survive.
Thinking back to Paul's comments about the average Irish male not wanting to spend much time in a menswear store, I admit I fall neatly into that definition. However, for once, I find myself in no great hurry to leave Paul's company or the team at Galvin Tullamore. That says it all.
For further information: Galvin Tullamore, William Street, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Tel: (057) 93 21164. www.galvintullamore.ie
Paul's advice for other businesses
1 Constantly embrace change
"Change is inevitable - in business and in life - and to be successful you have to embrace it. Products change, customers' needs change and market conditions change. Those who succeed in the long term are those who can stay ahead of the curve."
2 Stick to your core values
"Try to determine what your own and your business's core values are. These are what you will build your own brand and long-term reputation on. Whether it's good customer service, innovation, quality or value for money, knowing what you stand for is important."
3 Retain profits for re-investment
"While it is fine to have other commercial interests outside your core business, you should avoid a situation where profits are diverted to these at the expense of your core. You will continually be required to re-invest to upgrade and modernise."
Sunday Indo Business