End of an era as Brian Fords closes

A CHAPTER in one of North Devon s best known businesses came to a poignant end on Friday as Brian Ford s Discount Store closed its doors for the last time. But it is hardly the end of a journey which began some 80 years ago and the Gazette met up with me

A CHAPTER in one of North Devon's best known businesses came to a poignant end on Friday as Brian Ford's Discount Store closed its doors for the last time.

But it is hardly the end of a journey which began some 80 years ago and the Gazette met up with members of the Ford family plus staff to look at the past, present and future of a company that has helped shape North Devon.

The discount store at Seven Brethren opened in 1975 and will be familiar to most local shoppers. It was ground breaking in its day, the biggest in the country and with "cash and carry" prices passed on to the customer.

Its closure on Friday marked events set in motion in 2004 when the site was sold to Tesco, with a new Tesco Extra superstore set to open next year, while jobs are being offered to all Brian Fords staff who wish to stay on.

The Ford family continues to run its popular Value Houses, now in Barnstaple, Bideford and Weymouth, with the ambition to open two or three more in the region during the coming years. It also now owns Fermoy's garden centre and farm shop in Newton Abbot.

The history of the company began far earlier, when grand father Tom Ford opened a general store in Bishops Tawton under the name Ford & Lock.

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Son Brian took it on and in 1960 opened the first ever self service supermarket in the area as Ford & Lock appeared on Boutport Street in Barnstaple. By 1974 the company had 36 shops throughout the South West and was sold to the Gateway group.

The colourful Brian Fords store is probably what will remain in more recent local memories and it began life as the premises of Deveres Kensington engineering, before landfill subsidence led to the potential for some wonky machining!

Before opening in 1975, Brian with sons Richard and Mike, plus maintenance man Pat Ward, spent the summer cleaning and decorating the new premises themselves. In 1981 the store increased hugely with a new building added alongside the former engineering premises.

"Grandfather Tom and uncle Arthur ran the store in Bishops Tawton," recalled Richard.

"Uncle Arthur with his horse and cart would collect stock from the train in Barnstaple and take back to the store. Dad (Brian) as a young boy would take orders around to local farms and houses on his bike.

"He had great foresight into what the industry needed, with more and more families owning their own cars he felt that more people would use them for their shopping needs so opened his own out of town superstore.

"The industry has changed so much in our time, from spending three solid days with representatives just to place orders for the store, which has since vastly reduced thanks to modern equipment and the introduction of barcodes and computers."

Mike said the closure of the store was a poignant moment: "We could not have competed with the biggest retailers in the country without the loyalty over the years from our customers and suppliers," he said.

"Even though it was 'just a shed' we were the biggest independent food retailer from the mid 1990s to early 2000 throughout most of the nineties. It has been unique and there hasn't been another like it in the country."

When the doors closed, Brian Fords employed around 160 staff, some 30 of whom will stay with the family in its Value House businesses.

The store really was a family business, with generations of local people making there their careers there - a good example is John and Lesley Ley, who met while working at Brian Fords, married and both their children and son-in-law worked for the company.

John joined before 1975 as a good inwards operative and worked his way up to management. He is staying with the company, but has plenty of memories of his time at Brian Fords.

In fact he recalled when the burgeoning business empire almost came to a tragic end:

"I was in Northern Ireland in the mid s 80s with Brian Ford and other managers," he said, "visiting stores to get some ideas. We were at one in Belfast which was more like a shopping centre - and five minutes after we left a bomb went off."

Other memories include the drought of '76, when stand pipes had to be erected at the bridge, not to mention the famous "North Devon hurricane," when some staff became trapped at the police station after escorting a shoplifter there. They had to stay put because insane winds were turning the gravel outside into potentially lethal shrapnel.

"It has been a good place to work for," he said, "we got to take on the big boys in the supermarket world and there were ups and downs, but more highs than lows, I think.

"Staff here did a huge amount for charity. There was a Christmas draw every year and before the days of Sunday trading we used to have a competition between the local supermarkets called 'Superstores' with everything from skittles and darts to cross country runs and trolley racing!"

Chief cashier Lesley has now chosen to pursue a new career, but does not regret the 30 plus years at Brian Fords.

"I had never thought of working for a store and did not think I would last that long there," she said, "but now looking back it's the best move I have ever made. I shall be sad to see it go."

Nigel Roberts, trainer, examiner and good inwards supervisor, is staying with the company, said the first time he met Brian Ford he was blowing a whistle at him:

"He used to referee the rugby and I was playing for Barnstaple at the time - he always said the whistle was to stop the game so I could catch up!

"I made new friends here, met old ones from school and for 19 years it's been a good job. It is a good family to work for, you can simply go up and knock on their door to speak to either Richard or Michael - and that's worth pounds, shillings and pence.

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