Independent Electrical Store in the Shetlands
Less than a quarter of the Shetlands are inhabited, but over 23,000 call them home – among them are the staff of George Robertson. This shop was founded by electrician Geordie Robertson in the 1940s, and since then has been passed on to two generations of staff. It remains independent, in the hands of those that have made it succeed, and continues to be a lifesaver for islanders.
However, it goes without saying that island life poses some unique challenges for this Lerwick-based electrical store. We had the opportunity to talk to MD Lewis Moncrieff about these challenges, and how this great independent store has overcome them.
Building the Business
Previously, the company was run by Alan Rosie and John Hunter. In 2006, they looked to somebody they could trust to take George Robertson forwards. We asked Lewis more:
“One day, Alan and I came back to the shop from a job. He asked me if I’d like to take on the business, as he felt it was time for him and John to retire. I knew I’d need partners to help, so I spoke to three close friends – Anna Moar, Andrew Simpson and Andrew Grant, who’d all worked at George Robertson before.”
Clearly, the pair left the business in good hands. In the 11 years since then, this dream team has taken the store from strength to strength.
As the business got bigger, the store expanded into the house next door. Despite being joined onto the building, the expansion was anything but simple.
“The business grew quickly, and we needed more space. We purchased the property next door which needed a complete refurb, stripping it right back to the bare stone walls. The building is listed by Historic Scotland, so it was a challenge staying within their requirements.”
It was clear that the refurb would need a lot of work. With such a big task on their hands, it was important for Lewis and co. to get the very best people to make their expansion dreams a reality:
“I took on the project management. We employed two joiners, an architect and used our own skilled tradesmen to carry out all the building works. It was a challenging time, but really enjoyable. We also had to replace the whole roof after a bad storm put an end to the 130-year old Welsh slate roof!”
Shipping and Handling
Being in the Shetlands brought its own issues to the expansion process. Specific materials had to be used, but sourcing them had its complications:
“Sometimes, companies wouldn’t deliver to the Shetlands. So, we had to arrange for the goods to be delivered to an Aberdeen shipping depot, which would forward the goods on to us. Time scales would be increased for the delivery of materials, so you’d have to plan 2-3 weeks ahead for each stage.”
And, it isn’t just getting specialist materials that poses a problem. Even day-to-day stock faces delays that have to be planned around. Add a touch of wild weather, and you can see what Lewis and his team have to face!
“Supplier deliveries take around five days longer to reach us. Everything has to go via Aberdeen shipping depot. Winter can also bring cancelled boats due to weather.
Winters are very windy here. Just trying to deliver a fridge freezer to a customer’s home without getting blown over can be challenging!”
That said, Lewis appreciates the benefits of the shop’s remote location:
“We carry out all our own service as manufacturers don’t have any engineers on the island. In fact, having a good repair service is a massive asset for the island. Most customers buy what they know can be serviced here in Shetland.”
Even without the winter winds, deliveries are no easy feat when your customers live across a string of islands. Often, George Robertson deliveries require a boat or two to complete.
“Shetland has a good few inhabited outer islands. We often go to the Island of Unst, which requires a 40 min drive to the first ferry, 15 min ferry journey to the Island of Yell, another 20 min drive through Yell to the second ferry, then another 10 min ferry journey to the Island of Unst. Then repeat the journey back after the delivery or repair.”
An Island Community
Deliveries are no easy feat, but Lewis and his team push on with enthusiasm. In doing so, they provide a trade to the Shetland people and guarantee customers receive the skilled services they deserve.
As the leading electrical contractors for the Shetlands, you can tell that the George Robertson team care about their community:
“We do feel a real sense of responsibility in the Islands. Customers look to our business to be ahead of the game and keep all things electrical serviced and maintained. Even those that haven’t purchased from us would like us to be responsible for servicing their product – after all, we’re the only business on the Island where they can get advice! We like to try and help to keep everybody happy.”
It sounds like George Robertson’s sense of responsibility goes further than just providing great service. Over the years, they’ve also given back to Shetland communities:
“We love to support local charities, raising thousands of pounds for the Local Hospital charity and local care homes. We’ve donated a lot of raffle prizes to local groups and fundraising events, and we raised over £2000 for Red Nose Day 2015.”
George Robertson has also sponsored a few sporting teams over the last ten years:
“We were Lerwick Celtic FC’s main sponsor for the last five years, sponsored the local indoor hockey league, Shetland ladies’ darts team kit and Crusaders’ hockey team kit. Recently, we’ve also taken on sponsorship for Whitedale FC junior football teams, for under 7s to under 18s. We feel it’s really important to give back to the community.”
George Robertson also supports youth employment. This helps young people find a trade – and ensures that the store’s future staff will also offer a high standard of customer service:
“We have always given young people opportunities. Employment ranges from staffing the retail shop, being part of a delivery team, admin in the office, Saturday work for older school children, and full Electrical apprenticeships.
Our staff have been a key success to the business over the years. Four of our current young staff have worked in the retail shop or deliveries for a while – we’ve seen their potential and moved them onto a full electrical apprenticeship. This system has worked really well for us, as we get to know the individual and their capabilities.”
And, while this independent business is on the lookout for new talent, they also have plenty to offer their existing staff. In fact, an apprenticeship at George Robertson can be the start of a long career. We asked Lewis which members of staff have been there the longest:
“Our foreman delivery driver, John Jamieson, is the longest serving employee. He worked for the previous directors and stayed with the business when we took over. John had his 25 years’ service to the company back in October 2016.
My 25 years’ service will be next year in May 2018. I started when I was 15 years old, leaving school to become an apprentice electrician and stayed loyal to the company to end up becoming a director!
As current directors, we hope we can give the same opportunities we received to existing staff members, to take George Robertson into the next generation.”
As a company that pride themselves on being one step ahead, how is this done in the ever-changing world of retail? Online selling is an aspect that many companies have struggled with over the years. But, as with many other things, George Robertson has worked hard and succeeded:
“Online is a sector we try to develop continuously, and we have a great retail platform. But, it’s amazing how many customers go to the website to view the products, and still want to come in to buy. Most customers like to visit us in store.”
While things may change in the world of retail, a happy working environment in will always pay off. The staff work hard, but know how to play hard too – as this filmed April Fool’s Prank shows!
Lewis tells us more:
“We have a fun bunch of staff members here. Of course, I was the one who got pranked, but looking back it was quite funny. Team bonding is important to us – we’ve held a bowls afternoon, staff barbeques, work nights out, and have a 5-a-side football team. And of course our Red Nose Day event, when I wore a red dress all day to raise money for charity.”
Staying Alive and Thriving
It’s clear that staff at George Robertson have all the personality you’d expect from an independent business. As large companies and online sellers eat into market shares, there’s no shortage of challenges, but with over 70 years of experience and expertise, this shop won’t be disappearing any time soon! We asked Lewis what being an independent seller means to him:
“It’s definitely becoming more challenging. When we took over this business, there were five other independent electrical retailers on the Island. Now it’s just us. This shows you how much the internet and multiples have grown. Fortunately though, we too have managed to pick up a large section of this market.
As an independent, you have to offer something different that people won’t receive elsewhere. We find having our own service and engineers, being up to date with products, offering great customer service and having the best possible price all give us a fantastic chance.”
George Robertson benefits from being a member of the euronics group. This lets the business enjoy some larger seller perks, while still keeping its independence. Lewis tells us about the benefits it gives his store:
“There are a number of benefits – improved buying prices, marketing and supplier rebates against our annual purchasing, access to our own website platform – that has been a massive success. The website links back to euronics stock too, so saves many man hours setting up products and changing prices on our web site.
We also have the opportunity to network with other independents. As a group we can try to find the best way forwards to survive against the opposition.”
Final Thoughts and the Future
While life as an independent island seller has its benefits, George Robertson has faced some notable challenges over the years. Whether importing stock or delivering products to customers, complications are waiting at every turn. From location to refurbishment, Lewis and the team have worked hard to make their store a success, no matter what.
Along the way, they’ve become an integral part of the Shetland community, ferry-hopping to keep people across all the islands serviced. The team at George Robertson have proved they’re more than a match for any challenge.
George Robertson Ltd. go the extra mile for their customers, whether that’s by road or sea! They’re a key part of the Shetlands, offering a great range of appliances and electricals. Find where to visit them here, or if you prefer to shop from your own home, check out our huge range of products online!