Colemans is a stationery, office supplies and art & craft retailer with 13 stores across the East Midlands plus an online business that serves customers throughout the UK. We spoke to Tallie Patterson-Gordon, the third generation of the family who recently joined the business that was founded in 1969 by her grandfather, John Coleman.
After starting his career as a fishmonger, John bought the local newsagents and progressed to selling stationery, office furniture and machinery. His daughter, Tallie’s mum, joined the business and has been running it for the past 35 years and as Tallie explains, “she has been the most inspiring female Managing Director too.”
Joanna has driven the business from strength to strength but has remained true to the underlying values of the business, putting her staff and customers first. The company has been built on ‘second to none’ customer service and one of John’s favourite phrases is that “the customer is always right” as they collectively strive to fulfil their vision as the ‘customer’s first choice for stationery, arts & craft’.
Fond memories growing up
Tallie joined the business in the summer of 2020, a difficult time for many businesses due to the pandemic but is already thriving in her new role. Looking back to her childhood she has fond memories of the family firm. As Tallie explains, “it’s hard to pinpoint a first memory as the business was always there as I was growing up but one thing that I do remember is that one of the major benefits as a child growing up in a family owning a stationery store is that I always had the best pencil case full of the newest smelly gel pens! School holidays were also great as I never had to play pretend shops, I got to do it behind a real counter with a real till although it was not so much fun for my Mum when a customer reported her for using child labour!”
Like many next generation family business members, Tallie appreciates that the family business was always there. As she adds, “there isn’t a situation where you simply put on the ‘out of office’ and don’t talk about it, or when you get to the airport that work isn’t mentioned until you get home. I used to be frustrated by how we always seemed ‘to talk shop’ but now that I am involved, it is all I seem to talk about!”
A career outside of the family firm first
Growing up there was never any pressure to join the family business and Tallie was able to follow her own dreams. “Joining the family business was not always in my plan. I did a lot of debating and public speaking at school and initially fancied following the law route, but as I got older I realised that it was buying and selling things that made me tick, the ability to see if we were making money or not and that retail was probably the one for me,” continues Tallie.
Retail was calling and after a few different internships Tallie gained a place on the Sainsbury’s Graduate Scheme. “I spent five years at Sainsburys and loved my time there. They’re a brilliant company to work for and give a lot of responsibility to young employees,” she continues. “They gave me a lot of broad experience from a stint in Digital and Technology Strategy to a role on the front line at the Camden Road Supermarket, the store with the second highest footfall in the company. This really was a baptism of fire for me but I absolutely loved it. I turned the store around from having a very poor ‘mystery shopper’ score to one of the highest in the company,” adds Tallie.
Her roles continued to change and provide more experience, returning to head office roles in procurement and three years buying various different meat and fish products. As Tallie explains, “I started as the charcuterie buyer which was hands down the best role ever – I got to travel to Italy, Spain and Germany eating the most amazing selection of cured meats. That led to turkey purchasing and in December 2018 I was the turkey buyer – probably one of the more stressful roles, especially when a supplier rang on December 18 to say they were 26,000 birds short for Christmas! I ended the buying role as the fish buyer in charge of £350 million annual sales, which although demanding was brilliant before some time in Business Development setting up a wholesale business division,” she concludes.
Making the leap to join the business
But the family business was on the mind and the point reached where Tallie wanted to take control of her own destiny. Politics and processes were getting in the way and Tallie began to think about a role where she could make her mark. As an only child, and having seen the success that both her Mother and Grandfather had achieved, and without any pressure from either of them to return to the family firm, timing seemed to suggest it was right to make the move.
As Tallie continues, “Mum was turning 60 in April and I was due to get married in May (delayed due to Covid-19) and it seemed like the right time to make a lifestyle change too with the plan over the next five years for Mum to slowly ramp down and me to slowly ramp up.”
2020 proved to be a strange time to join a business in the retail sector with Tallie joining when the shops were closed due to the national lockdown. This however enabled Tallie and her parents to use her digital skills to help develop and build their online presence.
As Tallie adds, “We have built a brilliant new website which contains over 5,000 products and my role has been focused on improving the ecommerce and social media side of the business. We are already seeing the benefits and are getting some amazing reviews on the site and it has been a great project to help further develop a broader understanding of the family business too.”
More than just a family business
For Tallie, although it is often stated by other family businesses, Colemans is “not just a business run by a family. Care and respect for each other is our number one value and last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary and special recognition was given to our longest serving members of the team who have worked for us for over 20, 30 and 40 years! We have a lot of people who have worked for us since they left school and if you cut them in half they would say that they have ‘Colemans’ through the middle! I have grown up with these wonderful people in my life and even have a Godmother who is our Group Operations Manager!”
Heritage is important too
For Colemans, the story is everything and the heritage hugely important. As Tallie explains, “The business is still grounded by the same values as when it was founded. At 87, my Grandfather still comes to work most days and has set up a fantastic photo framing business in one of the outhouses of our Oundle store. He is a hugely respected man, both in the business and in the local community. We are so proud to be a 51 year old family business that is still trading and I think/hope that everyone is excited that it is going to carry on into the third generation.”
The next generation challenge
Although 2020 has not been the year that anyone expected, Tallie has used the time to start defining her role and the opportunities that lie ahead. As with everything, one of the biggest challenges she faces is time. “Coming from a large business where everyone has a clearly defined role to a business where everything is on you, time is a big challenge,” admits Tallie.
“Prioritisation is so important and something that I don’t think that I have quite mastered yet but I’m getting there. I still get frustrated that some things on the ‘to do list’ just have to wait but I will get more used to it as I settle in. Obviously, there is a big challenge for smaller, independent retail companies like ours to continue to cut through the increasingly Amazon dominated, digital world and to remain viable and profitable too and for me personally, the adjustment to working in the family firm. Although I have grown up with this business, you don’t quite realise how different it is working for your family than a non-family business until you are in it!”
“There is no ‘off switch’ and the laptop doesn’t close on a Friday night and come out again on Monday morning because you never stop thinking about it. The highs are so much higher and the lows are so much lower because there is so much more at stake.”
Looking to the future
Tallie remains optimistic about the future and the opportunities that are open to them. “The opportunities are endless. In a family business, the world is your oyster and there is no one stopping you which is the best thing and the worst thing at the same time as you always feel that you could be doing more,” she continues.
“I am excited about the opportunity to build on the great grounding the business has but also to continue to evolve the business, to modernise and future proof it. For our business, there is a massive opportunity to just make more of what we already do. We don’t shout about things enough so I am excited to get the word out and about the brilliant services that we offer. It really is an easy win for us – for example we have our own printshop and printing press but the details of this are currently in a display folder behind the counter and customers only really find out about it when they ask – we could be challenging companies like Papier with our printing offer!”
Tallie has already embraced the business, the family business model and is beginning to make her mark, making a difference and helping to achieve the business mission to be the number one choice for stationery, art and craft in their local area and has a desire to expand more across the country.
“I want to continue to operate bricks and mortar shops in towns where it is viable to do so supported by an all singing, all dancing online offering that delights customers both nationally and internationally,” she adds. “I am also passionate about the role and need for the success of local, independent businesses and to develop even more convenient delivery and collection points to enhance the customer experience and provide the convenience that shoppers really want.”
Tallie is the third generation of the family to take a step into the family firm and is going in with her eyes wide open. “I am well aware of the ‘rags to rags in three generations’ phrase but have no concern about the future of our family firm. There are so many amazing family businesses that continue to thrive and prosper well after the third generation have taken over and we are planning to do the same, although the retail landscape is extremely daunting and posing some challenges at the moment – all I can do is focus firmly on the future and as I keep telling myself, all I can do is my best!”
The future looks bright and the longer term aim for Tallie is simple – “to be running a successful retail family firm with a small management team of bright, ambitious people that have the drive to keep pushing the boundaries and coming up with new ideas that keep pace with the ever changing retail environment too.”
We look forward to the continuing evolution of Colemans as it moves into the third generation and beyond.