For 25 years, Kew Electrical has stood as an example of how an independent electrical wholesaler can prosper in the UK market – and without compromising its small-company ethos.
As the congratulations poured in for the silver anniversary of Kew Electrical, one message suggested that a statue should be erected in the west Brighton suburb of Southwick in honour of company founder, Geoff Kerly, proving the impact Geoff has had on so many local residents since 1996. Few companies could match the number of local career opportunities provided by Geoff, but with characteristic dry humour, Geoff’s reaction to the statue was that “the cigar would be perfect for the pigeons to sit on”.
Reflecting on the past quarter century, Geoff, now Chairman, describes how he came to form Kew Electrical on 7 February 1996: “I left school as a 16-year-old and went to work for national electrical wholesalers. I had spent about 17 years working for Newey and Eyre and Edmundsons when I thought, I’ve had enough of this, I’m going to have a go myself. I didn’t really know anything about running a business, I had no money, no supplier accounts, no customer accounts and no stock. It just seemed like a good idea.”
For the first month, Geoff worked from his back bedroom and his car. “I started calling on various customers that I’d known over the years trying to get some business out of them. In month one, I turned over £23,000 by literally buying a product from someone for £10, then if I could sell it for £13, and the bloke wanted 100 of them, I made 300 pounds.”
Geoff had no staff or premises. His £23,000 turnover grew to £40,000, £60,000 and then £80,000. At this point, he decided to take on his first premises in Portslade – around the corner from where the business has its headquarters today. He also hired two staff.
In 1998, Geoff hired a manager from Newey and Eyre and set up a second branch of Kew Electrical in Rustington, West Sussex. For a while, the better-established Portslade branch subsidised the new one and so the process began with Geoff then adding a third branch in Haywards Heath.
“At that point a chap called Trevor Oram phoned me,” says Geoff. “Trevor had been the chairman of OLC, a large independent electrical wholesaler which he had sold to a national several years previously. He had retired and was probably a bit fed up sitting around indoors. As I already knew him we arranged a meeting together with two of Trevor’s friends. The result was that they all invested in Kew, which gave us the capital to take Kew to the next stage. We then managed to get the OLC manager from Pulborough to join us, plus the chaps from Chichester and Guildford. So now we had six branches.”
At about this time, Kew joined the Fegime buying group, which, says Geoff, “then gave us supplier accounts with all the major suppliers – and rebates”.
Branches in Whitstable and Thanet followed, and another in Lymington two years later.
The takeover of Edwards & Edwards in Belfast marked Kew’s first venture far outside its home territory of the south of England. “It was slightly off the patch, yes,” says Geoff, “but it was a quite a strong business and didn’t cost a lot of money. It also gave Kew some additional volume.”
More branches followed with Poole in 2010 and Maidstone in 2012, but the biggest phase of the expansion happened in 2013 with the acquisition of seven branches of Wilts Electrical. The company had been acquired by Rexel, but the Office of Fair Trading ruled that these seven branches were too close to existing Rexel outlets and therefore could not be bought by Rexel.
Having been approved and selected as the appropriate buyer, Kew now had a presence in Rugby, Midsomer Norton, Trowbridge, Chippenham, Devizes, Weymouth and Chandlers Ford.
This acquisition was a big deal for Kew. “These branches were a real struggle to start,” concedes Geoff, “but over the years we have turned them into very good performers.”
In April 2016, the acquisition of Ship-Elec gave Kew another branch in Dartford, and a new venture in Shaftesbury followed taking its total to 22. Over the next three years, more west country branches opened in Gloucester, Bath, Cirencester, and North Bristol, plus other branches in Dover, Newbury and Tunbridge Wells.
Today, Kew Electrical has as an annual turnover approaching £100 million and is the largest member of the Fegime buying group where Geoff has been chairman twice.
The company’s seemingly inexorable expansion appeared to have slowed during the coronavirus pandemic, but this had been planned anyway. Managing Director, Nik Mulcahy says: “With so may initially loss making new branches underway, we had already decided that we’d rein it in for a bit and consolidate – just for a while.”
Geoff says April and May 2020, the first months of lockdown, were difficult for everyone. The company’s key management team instituted daily meetings covering financial and safety issues, while working with its suppliers to trade through this period of uncertainty – “everyone was absolutely fantastic” – and by July, he says, business was back to pre-Covid levels.
More than 250 of the company’s 400 staff had been furloughed in April, but by October the majority had returned. The announcement of a third lockdown in January 2021 has “taken the edge off business” says Geoff, and unfortunately a few staff have returned to furlough or part-time furlough.
Despite the woes of 2020 and the pandemic, Geoff says Kew is “probably in the strongest financial shape we have ever been in”. “These things make you look at every element of your business. We’ve saved an absolute fortune this past year just by looking at everything very closely.”
Kew has been able to weather the Covid storm in part because of its continuing small company ethos, which gives it an agility that others cannot match.
“It is a differentiator,” says Nik, “Geoff and I can make quick decisions within the business – and it happens. We might be a £100 million business, but we still have control of the whole thing.”
“There is still a ‘Kerly family firm ethos’ to Kew, he adds, “which obviously is harder to keeping going as we approach £100 million turnover and 400 staff – that’s a big family to be a part of.”
Staff retention and development has been a hallmark of the company since the start, says Geoff. “Lots of them have joined us as 16 or 18-year-olds and 5, 10 or 15 years later, they’re still there. I’m sure it’s that family ethos that they enjoy being a part of.”
Nor has the pandemic been able to disrupt Kew Electrical’s award-winning streak. The company’s bulging trophy cabinet now holds two more Electrical Wholesaler Awards – Branch of the Year for Dover and, for the first time, Best Wholesaler with 26 or more branches.
Not only that, but Kew has also just become one of 1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain, as judged by the London Stock Exchange Group, which identifies the most dynamic small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK and Europe.
Today, this dynamic company is looking forward to future opportunities. “Let’s just get this next two or three months out of the way and let things settle down,” says Geoff. “Once we can see exactly where our sector is going, we will start looking at expansion again.
“There will be opportunities. Some people may not survive going forwards and there’s also people who will want to retire. There are going to be a number of opportunities, and our priority is that we are financially strong enough to take them when they arise.”
Looking to the future, succession planning has begun at the company. Current senior Kew staff are being groomed to replace members of the original, first-generation board.
But for now, Geoff simply says: “It has been a wonderful journey, not just for me but for so many other people who have come along with me. It has definitely been life-changing for so many people.”
For more information and to find your nearest Kew Electrical branch, visit the Kew Electrical website.