John Gillman & Sons is one of Gloucester’s best-known independent electrical retailers, but there’s a lot more to this 50-year-old business than meets the eye by Nicky Godding
If you grew up within a 30-mile radius of Gloucester, the chances are that at some time over the last five decades, your family will have bought a fridge, oven or other electrical appliance from John Gillman & Sons.
This friendly, reliable company had excellent service engineers and you could buy spare parts to keep an older machine going for longer. Fifty years on (the business is celebrating its half century this year), little has changed in that respect.
However, John Gillman & Sons is now more than its successful Gloucester-based retail showroom (now at St Oswald’s Road), fundamental though that remains to the business.
The Group is also the largest domestic appliance supplier in the UK, with a £100 million plus turnover, and owns a major e-commerce business for domestic electrical appliances based in Tewkesbury. Last year Domestic Appliances Online (DAD) distributed more than 400,000 appliances across the UK, including brands such as Hoover, Miele, Zanussi, Bosch, Siemens, Beko, Hotpoint and Montpellier, the fastest growing consumer brand in the UK which is owned by the Gillman family.
The fastest-growing consumer brand in the UK
Montpellier, a separate business operating alongside DAD and John Gillman’s Electrical, was set up by the family just over five years ago. It designs and manufacturers ovens, fridges, washing machines and dishwashers, and is now a major supplier of kitchen equipment to housebuilders such as Bellway, Taylor Wimpey, Bovis, Redrow and MF Freeman.
The basic components of most domestic electrical appliances haven’t changed. For instance, the first domestic fridge was manufactured in the early 20th century. It had a compressor and an electronic sensing device. It’s how you put them together which differentiates the quality, according to the company’s Group Chairman, Adrian Gillman. “The equipment’s appearance, insulation, thickness of the metal and the finish of the interior all make a difference to the finished product. Using high quality components to make an electrical appliance will make a big difference in how it handles your food, clothing wash or the dishes.”
Montpellier manufactures its equipment in Turkey and China, and also has product made in Lithuania. A good part of the company’s business comes from housebuilders and universities, independent retailers and multiples. The Montpellier brand is also sold in Costco and Dixons.
In a market where margins are tight, the company remains competitive by setting itself apart. “We design and manufacture all the products in the Montpellier brand, and invest significantly in their research and development,” said Adrian. “We are the first to have a hang-on-the wall drier. It’s not just about designing capability and reliability into a washing machine or fridge, it’s also about colours and energy-saving.”
All the divisions are headed up by family members. Annabelle, Adrian’s sister, looks after the group’s accountancy and is Company Secretary. His brother Robert heads John Gillman’s retail showroom, with his daughter working alongside him.
Richard (Robert’s son), works in operations and John (Adrian’s son), heads up the service division. Lee (Adrian’s other son) is Managing Director of Montpellier.
As well as being Group Chairman, Adrian heads up the e-commerce and distribution arm of the DAD business.
The family also has shares in a house fittings company and uses the company’s Glasgow base as a hub when distributing products to Scotland.
Family entrepreneurs drive business growth
Adrian has always been quick to see new opportunities.
“When we were still a small shop we bought from a distributor, but their products and service were awful,” he said. “I thought we could do better, so we jumped on the bandwagon.”
The same approach launched the company’s thriving distribution business, DAD, and also drove the launch of the IceKing fridge brand in 1995, when Adrian and Robert put more than a decade of refrigeration knowledge to better use by manufacturing their own products. This paved the way for the Montpellier brand 20 years later.
“As a retailer and distributor, we were dealing with some of the UK’s most well-known brands,” explained Adrian.
“I can spot good engineering because I spent 11 years repairing faults. We had the expertise to design and manufacture kitchen appliances, so we became an original equipment manufacturer.”
IceKing has been a huge success and is still manufacturing fridges and freezers.
It’s the people that matter
Whatever the size of a business, it’s the people that matter, said Adrian. “Customer services is a massive investment for all parts of our business and it should play a big role in any company. Equipment needs servicing and appliances break down. Our service team is well trained, some of our engineers have been with us for years and know our customers well.”
Staff are also important to the business, which employs 202 people. “You are only going to get the best out of your staff if you treat them with respect and courtesy,” said Adrian. “And some of our staff have been with us for many years.”
The secret of Adrian’s business success
“I didn’t go to university or college. None of us did. The only qualification I have to my name is a City and Guilds in refrigeration. Has it stopped me progressing to where I want to be and where I see myself going? No.
“It’s taken hard work and determination from all of us for our company to be successful. And a bit of luck. No one is that clever that they can do it without a bit of luck. Even James Dyson.
“I am not an accountant or a marketeer or a solicitor. While I can read a profit and loss statement quite happily, when it comes to specific knowledge, we use experts.
“Some people underestimate the capability and importance of using professionals. A decorating company will decorate my house better than me because that’s what they do. I am a true believer in using the right people for the job.”
Adrian’s approach to business can be summed up in a short anecdote he shares at the end of our interview. “When I first got married, I hung some wallpaper in my house, but I cut it wrongly. Every night when I was watching the evening news, I could see that bit of wallpaper. It annoyed me. I hadn’t got it right, because I didn’t know how to. I never wallpapered again.
“The new owners (who are still friends of the family) redecorated, and if they made a mistake, I didn’t notice it. I learned to do what I do best and leave everything else to the professionals.”
What Adrian does best is run and grow a business. “I enjoy seeing the sales of products that have been researched, designed, developed, marketed, manufactured and sold by us and I keep track. How are we doing? Are we doing OK? What do we need to improve? How do we do that?
“I used to get a buzz from checking our lorries were all jammed full before they left our premises. It’s a different business now. You have to look at margins not volumes. Whatever the feelgood factor of a full lorry, it always comes back to margins and investment in customer service. Get those right and you’ve got a good business.”
Adrian is now looking to the future. “This will probably be my last year before I make some lifestyle changes. After working in this industry for 42 years, it’s now time to slow down or stop, whichever advice comes first. But it’s been a storm.”
A family business for 50 years
Originally a service and repair business established by John and Erika Gillman in 1969, the company expanded and diversified into national distribution, retail and domestic and commercial appliance servicing.
The company’s Group Chief Executive is Robert Gillman, who joined in 1969. He was followed by his sister Annabelle, who is now Group Company Secretary, and brother Adrian, who is now Group Chairman.
Tragedy hit the family business early. John Gillman died when his children were 25, 21 and 18 respectively.
By then all three siblings were working in the business. “I’d joined at 15, straight from school,” said Adrian. “I was learning the refrigeration side of the business and my older brother Robert worked on washing machine repairs and servicing.”
As the second generation grew in confidence, the business expanded, taking on the exclusive distribution of other brands. The business moved to larger premises, first on Bristol Road in Gloucester, then Madleaze Trading estate and Mill Place.
By 2009 it had outgrown all its sites and was looking for larger premises. “I came upon the site at Northway, Tewkesbury,” said Adrian. “It had been a Summerfield cold store depot. We discussed it as a family and bought it outright.”
On January 2, 2010, after a major redevelopment of the site, Gillman’s staff transferred from Bristol Road.
“When we moved to Northway nine years ago, we all thought the site was far too big for what we wanted. But within three years we had to build a 30,000 sq ft extension and are now working to around a 94 per cent capacity with an overflow warehouse down the road.”
Adrian’s goal is to develop the Montpellier and DAD brands. “My brother Robert is better at the retail side than me. He’s patient and enjoys meeting customers. I’m more of a business-to-business man.”