Harrisons at 100: Wholesale success

From humble beginnings in a tiny front room in Accrington to a multi-million pound national ecommerce operation, Harrisons has delivered a century of wholesale excellence.

Throughout its history the business has been at the cutting-edge, adopting innovative ideas and breaking into new markets, thanks largely to the online division it launched in 2006.

Rooted in East Lancashire, the company has a fascinating history. It is named after Albert Harrison, who joined the business in unusual circumstances.

In the 1920s Albert was involved in a motorbike-and-sidecar accident which left founder Hilda Coupe’s father badly injured. He stepped in to help the business, she later married him and he took over the operation.

The family still owns the company, though the day-to-day running of the business is carried out by a highly-focused and motivated management team who are overseen by Albert’s grandson and current chairman Graham Harrison.

Harrison’s has a distinguished client list. It has worked with Welcome Break, a familiar name to all motorists, for over 45 years.

Others include RoadChef, Moto, Haven, Butlins, Warner Village Hotels, Center Parcs, hotels, leisure centres, prisons and a host of independent retailers.

Growth in demand for the wholesaler’s 8,000-strong product line led to a move out of Accrington to Padiham in 2018. Today its home is a purpose built, fullydigitalised 28,000 sq ft warehouse and office facility at Shuttleworth Mead Business Park.

This is very much a team business. From the warehouse staff, all the way through each department, we all continue to strive for excellence.

The history of the company is chronicled by the black and white photos on the office walls. Staff loyalty is another of its strengths, with an average service length of more than 15 years.

In addition to a carefully crafted working environment, which encourages a relaxed and informal approach, staff are also encouraged to get involved with local community projects.

The business is a regular donor to East Lancashire Hospice, Derian House, Pendle Dogs Home and North West Air Ambulance, as well as the Barnardo’s children’s charity.

The Red Rose Awards winner has a 40-strong workforce and turnover that stands at £7m – a third of which comes from its online sales. harrisonsdirect.co.uk is a big hit with customers too, earning a top ranking on major review sites. The site has earned a Feefo Trusted Merchant Award for four consecutive years – a prestigious accolade only given to businesses with a rating of 95 per cent or higher.

Managing director Paul Sanderson says: “Our excellent web reviews reflect exactly what the business is about.

"We have created a web presence that is unique in our industry, which has helped us become a one-stop-shop with a reputation for providing the very best in customer service.

“It is fair to say we have undergone an impressive level of growth. The relocation of our business to Shuttleworth Mead Business Park is the culmination of that. It is also a statement of intent and of our confidence in the future.”

He adds: “This is very much a team business. From the warehouse staff, all the way through each department, we all continue to strive for excellence.”

Harrisons development also mirrors its sector. It once had 17 sales reps on its books. Today, with ecommerce increasingly driving the business forward, it saw its last of those retire earlier this year.

Paul says: “We’ve seen continued digitalisation of the business, particularly in the warehouse, which is allowing us to achieve greater efficiency and to streamline our operation.”

The online venture has also allowed Harrisons to expand its client base – from independent corner shops to top hotel chains. “It’s given us a much more diverse range of customers,” Paul explains.

He sees that online presence continuing to grow. And that means continually working to adapt to the fast pace of change that is at the heart of ecommerce. The business has plans to update its website and online platform later this year.

Paul says: “It is a fast-moving world for us. We are continually looking for new outlets, new ways to sell. Service is vital to what we do.”

Timeline

1919 Hilda Coupe, 18, begins trading as ‘M Coupe’ and deals in smallwares from her parents tiny front room at 64 Manchester Road, Accrington

1921 First commercial premises are secured at No 2 Manchester Road, Accrington – later known as the Police Station

1925 Hilda meets Albert Harrison and he is invited to join the business.

1926 Albert acquires the business outright from Hilda and his brother Richard joins the business.

1929 The business moves to larger premises at 19 Warner Street, Accrington

1940 The business is incorporated as Albert Harrison & Co Ltd

1945 Albert and Hilda’s son, Cyril, along with son-in-law Alan Cookson, join the business

The business extends its range to begin selling chemist sundries, toiletries, hosiery, stationery and toys

1949 The business requires larger premises and relocates to Union Street, Accrington

1954 Richard’s son, Gerald, joins the business as a sales representative. The number of ‘reps peaks at 17

1963 The company begins trading with the first service station on the M6 motorway at Charnock Richard, now operated by Welcome Break, a customer to this day. Through Gerald’s efforts the company turns its attention to servicing nationwide accounts

1965 The business purchases 20,000 sq ft premises at Queen Mill, Queens Road, Accrington – its home for next 53 years

1969 The company celebrates its 50th year of trading with dinner in the Savoy Hotel at Blackpool followed by a trip to the theatre to see ‘The Cilla Black Show’

1978 With 15 fellow wholesalers, Harrison’s creates the ‘Fanfare Buying Group’ to strengthen its offering of stationery and toys

1986 Elaine Hardy, Cyril’s daughter, joins the business

1995 A new bespoke computer system is installed allowing for EDI facilities

2002 Cyril Harrison retires from the day-to-day running of the business and is made chairman. A management team of Alan Sanderson, Elaine Hardy and Frank Burrows is formed.

2006 www.harrisonsdirect.co.uk is launched online

2011 A new management team of Paul Sanderson and Cara McKenna, overseen by chairman, Graham Harrison, is implemented. This team is extended over the next four years

2015 Turnover exceeds £5m, with online contributing over £1m.

Feefo ‘Gold Trusted Merchant’ status achieved and has been awarded annually since

2017 Turnover exceeds £6m with online sales of £2m-plus

2018 The business relocates from Accrington to Padiham – a purpose built, fully-digitalised 28,000 sq ft warehouse and office facility

Red Rose Awards Winner – Ecommerce Business Award

2019 Harrison’s celebrates its centenary

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