Ali Tyrer celebrates 125 years of her family’s department store
- Credit: Archant
The woman running one of Lancashire’s top stores talks frankly to Roger Borrell about tough times on our High Streets
In an age when the hard-boiled alpha male roams many a boardroom looking for someone to shout at, Ali Tyrer is a breath of fresh air. Her eyes sparkle as she talks about her family, the church, Winston Churchill, her much-missed dad, her colleagues and even Father Christmas.
Yes, her firm wish is for a grotto with a proper Santa. The one she saw a couple of years back was far too skinny. ‘I’m fanatical about traditional family values,’ she says. ‘We have our own grotto and we supply our Father Christmas with a fat suit!’
Ali is vivacious, passionate and prone to the occasional fit of the giggles. ‘I’m really a very jolly person,’ she confides. That’s a shame because these aren’t the jolliest of times for her business. In fact, it is haemorrhaging money.
Today she has a particular reason for wanting to talk about the festive season. Her business is Tyrers department store in St Helens, a famous Lancashire brand once known as the ‘Harrods of the north west’.
It has been providing everything from designer clothing to cosmetics, lingerie and posh hair-dos for many of the 125 years since Ali’s great-grandfather William Tyrer bought a box of boots with a £50 loan. Since then the company has been handed down, father to son, until Ali took over from her dad.
But times are hard in this predominantly working class area and you know she is not exaggerating when she says: ‘This is the most important quarter for the business in our 125 year history.’ It feels like make or break time for Tyrers.
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Proud mother-of-three Ali has been MD for 11 years. She is one of four daughters, including her identical twin. She took over the reins when her father, John Tyrer, suffered a fatal heart attack. ‘My dad was an amazing, intelligent man who knew he would die early. Sadly, the Tyrers don’t have great tickers.
‘But he never suggested for a moment that any of us should follow him into the business. My twin sister did a degree in graphic design and got a job straight away. I did fashion and textiles and came home to think about what to do.’
A family meeting about the future of the business led to Ali going to The Ship at Burscough with her dad. ‘I didn’t feel London was for me and St Helens has always been good to our family,’ says Ali, who is 41. ‘I bought him a pint and told him I wanted to give it a go in the family business. He was over the moon. The alternative would have eventually meant selling or shutting.’
She spent eight years learning the ropes with him before he died. ‘I got up the next morning, gathered the staff around – my first concern was for them and the business. Strange as it might seem, I’ve never missed or mourned dad because as long as this place is alive, I feel he is too.’ That is what drives Ali.
‘I have never regretted for a moment staying here. I have three amazing children, Hannah, who is 14, Edward, 12 and Ella, who is eight. They put up with me and they keep me going and my husband Clint is brilliant, a real pal. I met him on a blind date - he was more terrified than me!’
Ali took the bold step of investing heavily in a refurbishment, turning the 10,000 square feet Bridge Street base into what she calls a boutique department store. ‘It took some courage – we have never been particularly profitable. But St Helens has been good to my family. When the people who worked for Beechams and in the mines and at Pilkingtons needed hats and best coats they came to us.’
Many of those business have disappeared taking the jobs with them. ‘My dad went through recessions but this is the hardest it has been in 125 years. In this business, there is a fine line between doing well and doing badly and our current losses are substantial.’
But Tyrers doesn’t look like a business in decline. The 75 staff seem upbeat, the highly-rated restaurant is buzzing and the sales floors are modern and bright. As Ali says: ‘You won’t find dusty corners here.’
This young woman, who hops gazelle-like up the store staircase two steps at a time, makes sure of that. ‘I’m the MD but I’m ready to mop floors. We had new backwashes installed in the hairdressing saloon and I came in on Sunday because I knew the place where the old ones had been would need cleaning.
‘That’s what I did. I like to lead by example, I never shout and I never ask people to do things I wouldn’t do. I don’t feel like the boss. Dad used to send me on management development courses and I was always marked out as a team player. That’s fine. I do feel like part of a team.’
Ali, who comes to work each day with her dachshund, Olive, speaks in the highest terms of her ‘right hand and left hand’ store manager Mike Duff and accounts boss Lynn McKenna and people like Graham Stirrup, from menswear, who spent 50 years with Tyrers.
It’s with obvious anguish that she recalls the day when she called the staff together and told them all their jobs were at risk. ‘As I was speaking I saw dad’s portrait on the wall. It was a terrible feeling.
‘But they seemed more concerned for me than for themselves. They told me not to worry and one or two gave me a hug. It was very humbling experience. As well as some redundancies, we’ve had to leave post unfilled and reduce hours.
‘People might say that I was the only candidate for this job and I had no business experience but I’ve been determined to fight to the bitter end. It has been very hard and I’ve had to find a lot of mettle.’
The strategy of store refurbishment has been combined with a host of high profile events surrounding the store’s birthday. But that can also have a negative effect.
‘One of our biggest problems is the fact we are 125 years old,’ says Ali. ‘It’s difficult to change people’s perceptions. It’s the sort of department store that would not be out of place in any big city but it’s difficult to get that across. We have the wow factor and we need to spread the word.’
Who does she talk to when times are tough? ‘I phone my twin sister – she’s a great support, as is my mum. She’s a wonderful homemaker who saw what my dad went through when times were hard and she hates seeing the same things happening to me.’
Ali has also started to make the occasion visit to church. ‘It is somewhere I can speak to my dad. I was moved when the reading was from the Gospel about Jesus in a boat with the disciples during a storm and how he had guided them through rough waters. I felt that might be a lesson for us.
‘I also went on a visit Blenheim Palace and there was that quote from Churchill about “Never give in. Never, never, never, never.” I thought: “You’re right, Winston.”
‘I am determined that after 125 years I will not be the person who puts the full stop at the end of the Tyrer story.’