The calm of competence at Crawford’s

Neighbourhood Retailer visits our Community Store of the Year winner, and one of NI’s most innovative retailers, Jonathon Crawford

Competence often manifests as calm, not only in the individual’s aspect but often in their circumstance.

Take Jonathan Crawford (pictured above) for example. It is Christmas week and Crawford’s of Maghera is packed with customers. Its myriad departments are at full tilt; there must be orders coming from all angles, dreaded seasonal lead-times must be causing chaos. What stocks are running out? What are the sales projections? Why are the orders for this-and-that not here already? This is the most important time of year, it all hinges on these few weeks…

…the office, however, is a haven of Zen. All is relaxed and under control. Hot cups are supped, as keyboards reassuringly clatter and mouses playfully click.

“I made you tea in case you didn’t have one,” smiles one office worker to another.

The office door flings open and Jonathan strides in, just behind the trademark smile he is rarely seen without.

“Hello,” he almost shouts. “Let’s get a bacon sandwich.”

Crawford’s in Maghera

It’s not that Jonathon doesn’t have a lot on.

Crawford’s of Maghera is a huge store. Its food court alone is packed with lines and interesting, challenging offers that would test the most experienced manager. Then there is the newsagent, and the butchery, and the bakery, and the off-licence, and the post office – and that’s only the ground floor.

Floor two we have probably one of the most comprehensive toy stores in the county, and a fully-fledged cafeteria.

Oh… and the full-scale soft play area that would easily compete with any of the big-brand facilities in Belfast – more about that later.

Crawford’s bakery section

The idea of running such a diverse portfolio of departments under one roof is enough to set your mind a-spin. But that this is only one of four businesses Jonathon is simultaneously running, while dealing with the litany of issues and problems that must certainly arise, is what makes this writer’s cortisol levels soar just thinking about it.

Just a few doors up the street is Crawford’s Sports, selling everything from fishing rods to hunting rifles. In the other direction is Scott’s, a hardware and building supplies store which Jonathon has transformed from its pokey counter beginnings into a contemporary and attractive resource for the area’s tradesmen and local DIY enthusiasts alike.

The store had joined the Crawford family’s network in 1977, expanding the business which first began in the very early 1900s with Jonathan’s great-uncle Robert, a general merchants selling everything from fence posts to bacon and eggs.

Robert, it turns out, was “quite the boy” according to Jonathon.

The toy shop

“He wasn’t just involved in retail,” Jonathon said, sipping a black coffee. “He was one of the founders of the Ulster Hospital, and a fierce negotiator.”

It was Robert who had opened the Crawford’s Sports store, but it was Jonathon’s father – who inherited the business – that bought Scott’s.

His father – also a successful estate agent, because running several retail businesses wasn’t quite taxing enough – had sold groceries from Scott’s and building supplies from Crawford’s, before Jonathon realigned the stores to their more ergonomic modern formats.

And Jonathan has continued to put his stamp on the family business with the opening of Toby’s, the aforementioned soft play area on Crawford’s first floor.

The scale of the project raised eyebrows among Jonathon’s many colleagues and family, but he was convinced the idea would work.

Toby’s play area, opened in the second half of last year

“The frame was initially in a nearby community centre we bought some years ago, and we moved it all here piece by piece,” he explained, adding that it was fully refurbished and compliant with health and safety standards before opening.

It’s proved a huge hit with children and parents from the surrounding area, but Jonathon explained that the attraction had a number of added benefits, especially for Crawford’s huge Toymaster toy store.

“Toys are very difficult, and we have a great range here,” he said. “My sister does all the buying for the toy store and does a great job but the internet has had a significant impact on the market.

“But since Toby’s opened, kids come here for birthday parties giving parents and family a new opportunity to make a purchase.

Crawford’s dry-aged beef cabinet

“One of the major costs with setting up soft play areas is the kitchen. But we have about £150,000 worth of catering equipment already here. So now we have all these departments complementing each other.

“And while the internet is still affecting toy sales, people are prepared to pay for experiences. The only thing I’m disappointed about is why I hadn’t thought of it sooner!”

The addition of Toby’s has made a visit to Crawford’s into an event for the county’s families, but it’s also added another department for Jonathon to worry about.

How does he keep all these plates spinning?

“There is a really good team here and many members of the staff have been here a long time – that’s a big part of it,” Jonathon said. “But grocery is key and that’s where I focus. I try to keep the management structure throughout the store very flat, so everyone is fully involved.”

Still, it doesn’t fully explain how he is simultaneously managing the relocation of the Crawford’s Sports store into impressive new premises – the site of Maghera’s former Danske Bank which he is renovating from top to bottom.

The in-store post office

While not doing all that, he is financial director of Food Force Ireland, the buying group for some 70 Nisa stores throughout Northern Ireland.

And there’s the family-owned cattle feed business he needs to keep an eye on.

“I still shoot occasionally as a hobby,” Jonathan revealed, adding that he had been a member of the Irish shooting team and even shot at the World Championships.

“My dad competed for Ireland for 37 years,” he added. “It’s still a hobby I very much enjoy, and it really allows you to completely switch off.”

Being able to focus on distant goals clearly runs in the Crawford blood, while Jonathan’s ability to find the target has led to a number of major successes for the store.

Not least among these was winning the first ever Community Store of the Year Award at the 2016 Neighbourhood Retailer Awards.

The newest category of Northern Ireland’s highest profile retailing awards saw eight leading retailers representing each NI county (two for Belfast) go head-to-head in a public vote for the title of Northern Ireland’s best community store.

With the support of outside broadcasts by the category’s sponsor Q Radio, the award was a big hit with the stores and the public.

After over 7,000 votes were counted, Crawford’s of Maghera emerged as winners, with a huge complement of Crawford’s staff taking the stage in emphatic style.

“It was the first time I took a full table at the Neighbourhood Retailer Award, and it turned out to be a great thing to do,” he said, thinking back. “It really brought all the staff together, and was great for staff morale.

“The radio coverage was a really good aspect of being in the running for the award. Errol Doherty from Q Radio was out at the store for our outside broadcast and spent much of the afternoon here talking to staff and customers. It was brilliant.”

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