When Lawson Easthope went into partnership with Keith Boxley to buy a butcher's shop in the Midlands, little did he realise what an upheaval to his life it would turn out to be. Today, their shop in Wollaston near Stourbridge is a thriving new retail asset for the Staffordshire town. Nine months ago, it was a heap of rubble.
Identifying the 100-year-old butcher's shop as a good business opportunity, they bought it last summer. Originally, they planned to paint the front door, have a general tidy-up and open for trade. Then Keith said: "Let's knock it down."
Lawson, a manager for Walter Smith's shops for 20 years, who had ambitions to run his own business, says: "When he suggested knocking it down, I was gutted - and pretty soon afterwards, so was the shop. I was speechless, but Keith explained that if you want to move forward, you have to do the job properly."
Keith takes up the story of how things unfolded. "Things snowballed," he says, with a certain amount of understatement. "I never intended to get involved - I was just going to support Lawson and give him a bit of help. I'd got involved with him and the shop as a retirement investment, but one thing led to another.
"The floor was rotten, which we didn't realise when we bought the place. The cellar needed refurbishing, the drains were in the wrong place for what we wanted to do and the toilets were in the wrong place too."
So the decision was taken to almost flatten the building and start again, rebuilding all the different sections, including the shop itself, the cooked meat and fresh meat preparation areas, and a further storage and preparation area at the rear of the building."
One of the biggest problems was the narrowness of the building. Entry is via a side-entrance as display counters run from wall to wall across the width of the shop. About three quarters of the length of the preparation area is only six feet wide, due to the location of the chillers. This meant choosing equipment and machinery - such as the sausage filler, mixer, scales, mincer, vacuum-packer and over-wrapper - that was among the smallest available. Small tables were sourced, too and some items were mounted on wheels for ease of movement. "It makes the working space more versatile," says Keith. The rebuilt building covers some 1,300ft2 of space with a 500ft2 sales area.
In total, about £100,000 was spent on fitting out and equipping the new building, although Keith is coy about the cost of purchasing the shop freehold and rebuilding the premises, revealing only that he had sufficient funds not to have to rely on banks. "Lawson was lucky in having someone prepared to throw the cheque book at it," says Keith. "My wife and I were going to buy a couple of little houses as an investment, but we put the money into this instead. When she saw it, she said 'That'll do'."
The whole issue of how shop managers progress to owning and running their own businesses, a tricky enough undertaking at the best of times, has taken on an added and complex - some would say impossible - dimension in the current, recession-hit environment. "Where does a shop manager go?" asks Keith. "This is a problem for the whole trade. It's a shame. The banks would not have been very supportive last year. It would be impossible to do it [rebuild the shop with the help of a bank loan] today, they'd be hostile. As the bank base rate has come down, charges over base rate for loans have gone up." He views his own outlay as a long-term return on investment.
It is not the first time that Keith has helped fellow butchers out. Two years ago, he sold his shop in Wombourne to his staff. At the time, he said, he could not bear the idea of the shop not continuing as a butcher's. For any butchers lucky enough to be in a position to look for new premises, Keith says the criteria used to be to look out for somewhere near a Post Office. Unfortunately, quite a large number of Post Offices have now shut. The location of the new Easthope-Boxley shop is probably as good an indicator as any of a location that works for a small retail trader: it is on a reasonably busy road with free parking outside; there are a range of other shops either side and opposite, including a baker and a general store; and there is ample access and parking at the rear of the premises. "With other traders in the same area, you can join in with activities," says Keith.
Turnover has trebled at the new shop. "The customers have been overwhelmed," says Lawson. "We are serving a much younger clientele - probably because they appreciate our modern image." Part of the reason, according to Keith, is that the shop sells a variety of products, including samosas, bhajis, pies and cakes, as well as fresh meat.
The recession may have made it more difficult for people to get bank loans, but ironically, it has made life easier when it comes to recruiting staff. More butchers are coming on to the market and ex-butchers are coming back into butchery, because they are losing jobs in factories, says Keith. Furthermore, the changing nature of butchery, with so many other food products and added-value preparations being made, means that some staff do not necessarily have to be skilled cutters of meat to be worthwhile employees. "There are so many other jobs they can do these days - for example preparing pie fillings and ingredients. They have to be willing to learn and you have to be willing to teach, but as long as people are sensible, they can do the job."