By BEN WOODS, Business writer
Friday, December 28, 2012
For decades, it was the command centre for one of the region’s most prolific family businesses.
With piles of old salary books, intricate trinkets and its heavy-set desk, the office of the late Graham Sturrock provides a gateway into the history of Palmers – and the life of its former chairman.
But now this workplace of yesteryear is to be transformed into plush new offices, as the department stores continues its new life under the guiding hand of managing director David Howard.
The move, which will see Mr Howard and his team occupy the renovated offices in Great Yarmouth in the new year, follows the death of Graham Sturrock who reigned over the retail business for more than three decades.
Although his tenure in charge of Palmers officially ended in 1993, he had always kept the office as a “cubby hole” where he could be found up until his death in November last year – even if it was just to keep out of his wife’s hair.
For Graham’s son Bruce Sturrock, the current chairman of Palmers, the experience of clearing out his father’s office will be a “difficult” experience laced with emotion and memory.
But he believes it has come at the right time, as the business looks ahead to a challenging year.
“It was certainly the right time to do it,” Bruce Sturrock said. “It has stayed like that a long time. It was a little cubby hole for him – a place where he could go so he didn’t annoy my mother too much.
“We will now have the new offices where the new managing director of retail and his team will be position-ing them-selves up there.
“But my daughter and I will still be working within the business. She runs the website and that has been a great success. We have doubled our online sales on last year, and although things are tough, we are looking to the future.
“When you look at the high street, plenty of the big boys have gone. This has been one of the most difficult retail environments in my working life, and it is not just family businesses that are facing the challenges; it is all retail businesses that have a struggle on their hands.
“There has been sea change over the last 25 years. We went through a big expansion in the early 90s and the 15-year period when we had the expansion of our stores across East Anglia – that was our golden period.
“Then about five years ago the recession started biting and it has got more and more difficult. Where we can expand our online sales, we will do, and we will get ourselves prepared for when the recession eventually stops.”
Despite Palmers reporting a dismal economic environment, it has not stopped the firm from brightening the shop floor. Earlier this year, the company invested £100,000 in improving the interior of its Yarmouth store.
But Mr Howard is not pencilling in any “radical” changes in the new year. He is forecasting an unchanged turnover figure of £14m for its five stores, which includes shops in Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Dereham and Bury St Edmunds.
“We need to get out of this economic climate that we are in. All we can really do at the moment is focus on the customer service and make sure that we get more products online,“ Mr Howard said.
“We have seen a big rise in our sales online, but the retail market is challenging. Unlike other businesses, we don’t want to put out sales signs day in day out. We want to have offers, but not bombard our customers every time they come into the store.
My passions are cookware and I am very keen on men’s fashion.”
However, when it comes to making sure Palmers, which employs 300 staff, continues to evolve with the modern world, he is adamant the customers will be kept abreast of their vision.
“I am always in direct conversation with our customers in our coffee room,” he said. “They will ask us why we have changed things.”
“I am just a merchant at heart,” he added. “I just love buying and selling.”