Douglas Adams would approve
- it's got 42 pieces!
Looking back at your life is rather like looking at a big painting, then suddenly realising that it is actually a jigsaw puzzle – the closer you look, the more you see the pieces and the way they all fit together. From a commercial standpoint, the final ‘picture’ for me is a successful retail business, but it is made up of pieces that first started coming together over half a century ago.
I was born in 1958. South Pacific was playing at the box office, Ricky Nelson was topping the charts and I was screaming the place down just around the corner from Frank Skinner’s house. I somehow survived a childhood that brought me into overly-close contact with fire (homemade fireworks), water (washing machines do look like cement mixers) and electricity (unfortunate incident in a public phone-box) before making my first all-important step
towards a career in home entertainment. This was, in a sense, jigsaw piece number one
and occurred when a repair-man was called to our Dudley home to fix the tiny black and white TV we then owned. He discovered that the malfunction was due to a metal knife, which had been pushed through the grille on the back of the set, along with a considerable quantity of fruitcake. Under questioning, I cracked and confessed that I had indeed done this – “To feed the little people inside the TV”
Jigsaw piece number two.
From Dudley, we made the huge cultural leap to Wolverhampton, a place Frank Skinner describes as “One of the few towns I can walk around
and still feel fashionable”. But in the 1970s, Wolverhampton was
very fashionable, thanks to the phenomenal rise of a pop group known as Slade. Up to
that point, the charts had been dominated by a succession of slickly-presented mega groups, such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Stones – but in 1971, four Midland skinheads re-wrote the history books. Managed by Chas Chandler (of Animals fame), they combined gravel-gargling vocals, with mis-spelt lyrics and foot stomping rhythm, to produce an irresistible package. Their achievements are now legendary – they were the first ever band to have two successive singles go straight in at number one, they put out no fewer than six No 1 hits in just 2 years and their 1973 offering “(So Here it Is) Merry Christmas” knocked John Lennon’s “Merry Christmas (War Is Over)” off the top of the charts and went on to establish itself as one of the most played Christmas anthems of all time. Suddenly, the Midlands was thrown into the spotlight and my home-town, in particular, became the centre of attention. It’s great to be able to say “I was there”. It was actually possible for me to hear Slade rehearsing, because their bass guitarist, Jimmy Lea,
lived next door to one of my mates. So the band we crowded round the telly to watch as the top billing on Top Of The Pops on a Thursday night, was back playing in a semi just down the road from my house only hours later! This was the stuff of dreams for a young lad. As a result, I bought my first LP - the start of a lifelong interest in music.
Jigsaw piece number three.
At the same time, Staffordshire County Council decided to place several large skips at the back of our local shopping centre. Known as ‘the dump’, this quickly became my daily hunting ground for old valve gramophones and speakers. With a little help from a schoolmate, plus a lot of brute force and ignorance, I was able to take a discarded mono gramophone and replace its headshell with a (bought) stereo pick-up. It was then possible to output one of the stereo channels to the internal mono amp of a valve radio and the other to a mono amp we had built into a separate speaker cabinet. Voila – high quality stereo! Now I had something to play my growing collection of LPs on - my very first Hi-Fi.
Jigsaw piece number four.
Other useful things often turned up at ‘the dump’ too. A fair quantity of, shall we say, ‘artistic magazines’ regularly made an appearance, plus (would you believe it) money and, on one glorious occasion, a gold sovereign! In addition, numerous racing bikes, in various states of repair could often be salvaged from the skips, if you were quick off the mark. It soon became apparent to me that if you pooled the resources of the bikes (a frame from one, a set of gears from the other) you could actually produce one good (often very good) unit. Buy in a few nice accessories, give it a slick paint job and hey presto, you had a saleable commodity. At a time when the average racing bike sold for around £80, I was able to sell my ‘re-cycled’ machines for around £40. Not bad for a kid – my first step into retail.
During the late Seventies, these ‘jigsaw pieces’ were joined by many others, including ventures into buying / selling motorbikes and my first ever concert (Thin Lizzy at Wolverhampton Civic – massive orange explosions, a sea of denim, deafening volumes, plus Phill Lynott’s awesome mirror-faced guitar). Then, during the long hot summer of ’76, a cycling holiday into North Wales was organised with two close friends. First stop was a sleepy little town I’d never been to before, right on the Welsh border. I remember standing at the foot of a steep hill with my bike, thinking “Blimey, I'll never get up that" (or words to that effect!). The town was Shrewsbury and the hill in question was none other than Wyle Cop, a stone’s throw from where the Creative Audio shop now stands.
One other significant Seventies milestone was a visit to the Wolverhampton Odeon to witness a spectacle that in turn gave birth to the whole industry we now call ‘Home Cinema’. The year was 1977 and the film in question was, of course, George Lucas’ ground-breaking “Star Wars”, which showcased Dolby’s new surround sound system and changed the face of cinema forever. Little did I know that nearly 30 years on from watching that first Star Wars film, I'd be sitting in a house in Shrewsbury, being blown away by Episode Three, thanks to a full Home Cinema rig, supplied by my very own Hi-Fi shop!
1977 also marked my entrance into Higher Education and a chance meeting with a lad from Somerset, who was later to become my business partner. We laughed, drank, attempted to womanise and occasionally studied our way through three wonderful years at Exeter University, before leaving with an Honours degree apiece. Despite settling in different parts of the country, we kept in touch and even joked that one day we'd make our fortunes together. He went directly from University into teaching, whilst I made full use of my degree (!) by becoming a store-man at the local Hi-Fi shop. At first, my job was simply a means of getting money and staying in Exeter, but soon my past interests in electronics, music and buying/selling re-surfaced and I found myself seriously considering whether to make audio retail my chosen career.
The jigsaw pieces had started to come together.
Eight years later, having served an 'audio apprenticeship' with some of the best Hi-Fi retailers and manufacturers in the UK, an opportunity arose to turn the dream of having my own business into reality. In the greatest comeback since Lazarus, I got together with my university mate and Creative Audio was born. We both sold our homes, sedated our wives and pooled every penny we owned (plus quite a few we didn't) to create a Hi-Fi shop that would be totally different - a shop that would make all the others look like a pile of pants.
As the saying goes, “You can take the boy out of the Midlands, but you can’t take the Midlands out of the boy” and so it was that I decided to ‘return home’ to site the new shop. Shrewsbury was the ideal location, being at the ‘Medieval cross-roads’ of the country, with good road / rail links to most areas. It was also situated between the heavily populated Midlands and North West industrial conurbations, as well as having the huge untapped potential of North Wales on its doorstep. After countless visits to the town, we chose an old Welsh Tabernacle church for our building, gutted it and put together the shop layout that (pretty much) is still in use today. Even before we opened, interest in the shop was high – we counted over 200 people visiting our premises, while we still had the builders in! Finally, in July 1988, everything was ready and Creative Audio opened its doors and began trading for the very first time.
From then on, it was plain sailing, as all the major Hi-Fi manufacturers broke with convention and agreed to supply their full product ranges without the usual ‘political shenanigans’. This unprecedented access to the best equipment, combined with the shop's high media profile, proved to be a formula for instant success, and we experienced several years of explosive growth. Turnover virtually doubled every other year and it soon became obvious that we were outgrowing our simple ground-floor premises. As a result, in early 1997 we acquired the middle floor of our building and carried out a £60,000 refit, which effectively doubled the size of the shop. Central to the restructuring was the provision of state-of-the-art workshop facilities, plus 1000 sq ft of new storage space. Both have proved to be invaluable, giving us the scope to carry out repairs in-house (highly unusual these days) plus the capacity to expand our famous 'special purchase' Hot Deal bulk buys. Results were immediate - we enjoyed several more years of strong growth, until we inevitably entered the ‘plateau stage’ most economists would predict for a business of our age and size.
But the plateau didn’t last long, because something was happening that was about to change everything and send us into another (completely unexpected) growth explosion.
The dawn of the internet.
My brother, who is younger than me and annoyingly wise, was spending a lot of time in the States, where the ‘world wide web’ was already having a profound affect on retail businesses. He predicted that within a couple of years, most people would be buying all their consumer products ‘on-line’. He invited me to visit him at his house and take a look, via his brand new computer. I’d just bought a PC myself, so I was obviously interested, however, when I viewed ‘the web’, I found it to be very ‘in your face’ and I made the memorable prediction that it would never have any impact on our business. My brother had other ideas and rather forced the issue by buying me a modem (remember those?!) for my next birthday! I soon realised that once you’d come to terms with the ‘road traffic accident’ look of the web, it had a huge number of benefits. Grudgingly, I concluded that Creative Audio needed a web site, so during the course of the next year I gathered my thoughts together, in the form of a series of hand-written pieces, placed in ten A4 manila envelopes – one for each web department on the proposed site. I handed over the fruits of my labour to a design agency, and waited to see how they would translate my year's worth of scribble and hundreds of cut-out magazine pictures into reality. Our site went live in August 2001 and the rest, as they say, is history! Enquiries flooded in from all over the globe and in the next two years, we doubled our turnover (as well as our staff!). Now over 80% of our business comes via the internet - I guess I owe my brother a drink!
However, it soon became apparent that the computer was to play a much bigger role in the development of our organisation, than just providing the advertising medium of the internet. The birth of the iPod and the subsequent consumer move into accessing music via audio files, stored on computers, has revolutionised our industry. We recognised the importance of this move from an early stage and began planning for a major refurbishment of our 150 year old building, to give it the technological capabilities that are now required. The refurbishment, which was completed in November 2009, was the most ambitious project we had ever undertaken, including major structural reworking of the building, the development of a 'floating' sycamore-clad shelving system and the re-wiring of the shop, to provide a new heating and lighting system, as well as full telephone and PC networking. Our 10-computer network can now stream music or video files either wired or wirelessly throughout the building, giving us total command over this exciting new medium. In order to further maximise this potential, one of the briefs of the refurbishment was to create a new state-of-the-art demonstration room, which you will see pictured. This stunning new facility, features full ethernet access, invisible wiring, a 5.1 in-wall speaker system, mood lighting and a recessed, 95 inch motorised projection screen. Our new room is clad in the same gorgeous sycamore veneers as the show room and is widely recognised as one of the most up-to-date demonstration facilities in the UK.
At the same time as we carried out the major refurbishment of the shop, we also embarked upon a major overhaul of our internet capabilities, with the goal of developing a brand new site, with fully secure click-to-buy' capability. This mammoth task was completed in April 2011 and www.audio-express.co.uk was born. The new site exists in its own independent right, but also links to the site you are currently browsing (www.creative-audio.co.uk) to instantly give it full e-commerce capability. Central to this capability is the provision to accept most major credit cards, plus PayPal and also payment via the exciting new 'Amazon Checkout' facility. This new development allows anyone who already has an Amazon account to use it to pay for goods bought from Creative Audio or Audio Express - a simple, quick, easy procedure that has proved to be highly popular. At the time of writing it is early days for Audio Express, but the initial signs are highly encouraging and we can clearly see the huge potential the new site now gives us.
So, 25 years on from its birth, Creative Audio has grown from being a precocious new-comer into a highly successful, mature, established business. We now pack enough muscle to take on and beat the big boys price-wise, yet still have the expertise to deliver the best customer service you'll find anywhere. We have an active, thriving business, with 30,000 customers world-wide, and a product line-up that reads like a Who's Who of Hi-Fi. Our two websites are amongst the biggest audio sites in Europe, with over 900 live pages and 8 million ‘hits’ per year. We run a huge Amazon store, with over 100 listed deals and 5 star, 99% positive feedback from customers. The highly regarded independent auditor Trustpilot also rates us as 5 star 'Excellent', with 99% positive feedback. We receive over 10,000 e-mails a year (that's not including the ones for Viagra!) and we answer them up to midnight every night. We work six days a week (including Bank Holiday Mondays) and carry out around 30 uploads to our website each day. We have customers in just about every major UK town, not to mention most countries of the world - they include members of the Royal Family, Members of Parliament, actors, rock stars, classical musicians, TV stars, famous footballers and...... a Match Of The Day presenter!
We've come a long way in two decades, but with another excellent year's trading under our belt, plus the opening of our massive new Audio Express site, Creative Audio's expansion is far from over - in fact, as those lads from my home town would say in their most famous song '(so here it is) Merry Christmas'...
"it's only just beguuuuun!"
As we steer our business into the 21st century, it's important to touch base with the ‘jigsaw pieces’ of the past. Before us lies a bright new millennium, with countless opportunities for growth. By applying the long-standing values of the past, to the exciting new world of e-commerce, we begin here to write the next chapter of the success story that is....