News Eoghan Harris

Saturday 23 August 2014

The secret elixir of success cannot be copied cheaply

Eoghan Harris

Published 04/08/2013 | 05:00

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Last week I spent a lot of time with a local hero. Brecht says every hero becomes a bore at last. But I was never bored by the still boyish John Field who, for over 40 years, has run the famous Field's of Skibbereen.

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Field's is famous for four things: its Supervalu store, which keeps winning Checkout awards; its coffee shop, delicatessen and bakery; the pride its long- serving staff take in their local store; and the loyalty of its long-time customers.

John Field is a legend in the retail sector. This is the second toughest business in town – only marginally less competitive than the newspaper trade, currently under pressure from the internet. Both sectors have seen three revolutions in 30 years.

Retail had to respond to the cash-and-carry revolution of the Sixties, to group purchasing in the Eighties, to the arrival of big British and German discounters in the past decade.

Newspapers had to respond to the change from hot metal to computers in the Eighties, the arrival of big British titles in the Nineties, and are now dealing with the digital challenge.

But neither the newspaper business nor the grocery business can be learnt from college lectures. Running a newspaper, or a big grocery store, requires a longish hands-on apprenticeship with a master.

John Field served a tough six years with his uncle Jack, who had begun the business in the Thirties. "One of his first lessons was the need to tie a parcel properly, because the woman carrying it might have to go by road from Skibbereen to Baltimore, then by ferry to Cape Clear or Sherkin."

Field's father died when he was 10. From then on he never stopped working. In UCC, he worked in the restaurant and sold textbooks in the first term. Even so, he must have been daunted when he took over Field's in 1972, when he was 26.

Field found himself in the middle of the group-purchasing revolution. Contrary to consultant-spoof, most people hate change. He had to figure out how to modernise the Field brand without making waves that would alienate staff and frighten off conservative customers.

John Field does not believe in brutal clear-outs. "The bigger the change, the more you need continuity, especially in small things. When I took over, the rest of the trade was tearing down counters to make way for checkouts. But I still keep two small counters for customers who want to stand and chat.

He also resisted pressure to change the beautiful Fifties art nouveau-style sign for "JJ Fields" with its flowing calligraphy. ("Today it's a heritage totem.") Above all, he refused to alter Field's deceptively modest facade.

Accordingly, no garish supermarket front disfigures the attractive main street of the town. You see two smallish storefronts with beautiful windows: Field's Coffee Shop and JJ Field's Grocery and Bakery. Behind both demure facades is one of the most modern supermarkets in Ireland.

Inside, John Field has worked more magic. Although the store is 20,000 square feet, it is cunningly divided into attractive areas of contact. It starts with a small counter inside the door where a cheery staffer greets customers.

Immediately to the left there is a cosy coffee shop, presided over by Patti Kiely, who is totally on top of local births, marriages and deaths. Refreshed, you roll out to the main store, first stopping at a whole wall of West Cork notices, where you catch up with what's going on in West Cork.

And when you are finally ready to shop you are not faced by a gloomy square grid. Gently curving aisles lead in a leisurely fashion to the fish, meat and deli counters at the end of the store, the preserve of the dynamic Christy Dempsey.

Like recently retired master baker Denis McSweeney, Christy has worked in Field's for over 40 years. In fact, no fewer than 20 of Field's senior staff – people such as Paddy Toomey, Mary McArthy and Margaret O'Driscoll – have been with him for more than 20 years. This long experience leads to standards of service that no British or German chains can match.

Field's staff never point when you ask for something. They walk you to the item. Or go and get it. Junior staff are not allowed to assume an item is out of stock. So the familiar Dublin dead-beat response "we're probably out of that" is never heard.

Some of this superb training is done by John Field's managers. But mostly it's done by himself. Not at seminars, but by personal example. Like the late Aengus Fanning, he is loath to sit in an office, directing the battle by delegation.

John Field is almost always to be found on the floor. Last Thursday on one of my forays, I found him bent low in the centre of the store, stocking a shelf. He told me this was a regular routine.

"Thursday I take three metres of shelf. I check that everything that should be on that shelf is on it, I send for everything that should be there, I stock it up myself." Yes, but why?

"Because while I am working at that shelf, every member of staff sees me doing it. Every customer sees me doing it too. And some of them will stop to tell me about stuff they need."

Listening to customers like this has led to Field's huge health food section. "In 1966, we had one coeliac. But our sense of service meant we still baked one loaf for that one coeliac. Today we bake gluten-free bread for 200 people."

John Field also pioneered the employment of intellectually or physically challenged young people. "They are hugely popular with the customers. They boost the morale of the staff who love to look after these kids. They reflect real life and they add to the family feeling."

Today, Field's faces another ferocious challenge. Aldi will soon become the seventh supermarket in Skibbereen. The council talks about 14 new jobs. They don't tell us whether that's worth putting Field's 150 jobs in danger.

John Field is sceptical about the benefits of another addition to a crowded market. RGDATA reports show that €100 spent in a family store injects €250 into the local economy as against €140 from a large multiple. "Do we need another German discounter – and if another comes along after Aldi do we invite them in too?"

John Field may be sceptical but shows no sourness, merely a mordant cynicism about "cui bono?", who benefits. But in feisty middle age, with a lifetime of hard lessons learnt, he will be a formidable foe, for Aldi or anyone else.

Like the Sunday Independent, Field's of Skibbereen is an icon of middle Ireland, successfully walking the tightrope between a popular product and a quality product. Both have competitors who think that there is some secret elixir of success than can be copied cheaply.

But John Field's story, like that of the Sunday Independent, shows the elixir is more elusive. You need a superb staff, with a strong sense of ownership, closely in touch with their country, who believe they are not just selling a newspaper or a can of beans, but creating a loyal constituency. Copy that if you can.

Sunday Independent

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