Ninety year of Hughes Electrical - tuning into the benefits of long service

Every picture tells a story and when Hughes Electrical was voted business of the year in the 2011 EDP Business Awards the reaction of managing director Robert Hughes, caught on camera, spoke for itself.

But other pictures tell the remarkable story of a business set up in 1921 by Mr Hughes' grandfather Frank Hughes to sell radios in Lowestoft. Now the Hughes Electrical group employs hundreds of staff and as these pictures show, has also added the Bennetts name to its brand after stepping in to take on six of the stores, including the flagship Hall Road branch in Norwich, when the stricken retailer went into administration earlier this year.

But on November 23, managing director Robert Hughes was helping to keep customers in the picture in a different way, joining Hughes staff from across the region to help re-tune televisions as part of the digital switchover.

'It's been such a huge year for us,' he said. 'We've been waiting for what seems like an eternity for the digital switchover. I've been involved with the government on it and I've seen the roadmap for the last decade.

'We know the role Hughes has to play and the responsibility it gives us for all our customers to resolve their problems. We have known about this for the last 10 years and we've been waiting so long that I can't actually believe it when it actually arrives.

'The next switch-over is so large, there's almost no choice,' he said. 'There's far much more work on the second switch-over because all the channels are turned off. Hughes' motto is 'inspiring customer loyalty through quality service' and it is not difficult to see why.

'I've already been out on the other switch-offs,' he said. 'That's part of the culture – you lead by example. People have to make sacrifices – they are out until 10pm and early in the morning. They need to see that other people, such as the directors are doing that.

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'When we enter a house, we won't necessarily be re-tuning the main telly we've supplied,' he added. 'We will also re-tune the recording equipment and the tellies in other rooms, and turn the telly off and on before we leave and make sure the customer is happy.

'This is where you make your reputation. People remember who solved their problem.'

The addition of Bennetts will also see those values incorporated into the new venture, but he said the aim was not simply to create another Hughes.

'It's a different business to Hughes,' he said. 'It has large out-of-town stores, and was stronger in white goods and the computer side, and it's a different customer, from one based on value to one based on 'see it, take it'. But there's a clear market for that. We've seen it with the growth of the supermarkets.

'We were never prepared to go head-to-head with Bennetts. We've always known Bennetts was financially weak – it went through a management buy-out, and like a lot of people who went through a management buy-out in 2007/08, it's been very difficult for them.

'Not every store will struggle, but if you have more losers than winners, then you are going to go down as a group. We identified six out of the 17 stores that were clearly worthwhile and we re-opened. Of the other 11, only one was commercially viable, but it traded next to a Hughes store, so it would have really confused things.

'It was very easy for us to come in. We didn't have to change very much – it just needed investment. Cashflow had dried up and there was too little stock.'

One of the biggest aspects of the deal was sorting out the issues around each of the 1,500 Bennetts customers who had been left potentially out of pocket after the retailer's demise.

'We weren't legally obliged to, but we felt a moral obligation and it's part of our culture to put customers first,' Mr Hughes said. 'It sends the wrong message to staff and customers if we put our own profit before customers' welfare.

'We invested a lot in the (Hall Road) building. It just looks more appealing, but the biggest investment is in stock. We've probably doubled the value of stock in this building. Now customers can actually see the product and take the one they want from the shelves. They didn't have that luxury previously.

'We have also invested heavily in the whole aspect of staff training,' he added. 'There is a stronger focus on service, whereas before there was a stronger focus on hitting sales figures. It's a stronger after sales service now, but we are not getting away from the reason people came to Bennetts – it's because they are looking for a deal. We won't change that.

'We haven't opened Bennetts to say we will turn it into Hughes. Overall we're happy where we are with Bennetts, but it's still very early days. Retail expansion in this environment is still very difficult.'

Yet as other retailers such as Comet and Currys struggle, Hughes appears to be bucking the trend as a successful �100m a year business, the fourth largest specialist retailer and second biggest rental provider of home entertainment systems and kitchen appliances.

The company has also recently opened a new larger branch in Dereham, while Hughes Electrical also won the Domestic and General Internet Retailer of the year award.

'It's an exciting moment, we've had the Bennetts Hi-tech show, and we've invested heavily in our Trade Electrical Direct (TED) brand with the mergers of the Hughes and Bennetts trading divisions. It would have been illogical to set up two teams against each other and confuse the market place. It has significant scale and will do more than �10m of business this year and will be based in this site on Hall Road.'

And he said the company was proud of its values and its success, which caught the eye of the EDP Business Award judges.

'We know what makes Hughes successful,' he said. 'It's always been built on that loyalty, and of being strong on service. We've always known if you provide the same service, the customers will stay loyal.

'We are an East Anglian business, we've been here for 90 years. It's a highly contested award, people want to win. You don't get it for one good year. It's been 90 years focused on service.'

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