Keal overhaul: anniversary and third generation for family firm

The three generations of Keals: marketing director Irene, MD Martyn, founder Derek and electrical engineer Ben.

The ‘family’ part of ‘family business’ Sylvester Keal just got a little larger, as MD Martyn Keal and marketing director Irene Keal’s son Ben has joined as an electrical engineer. This marks a third generation in the Grimsby-based distributor which was founded by Martyn’s father Derek in 1987, and so the company is celebrating 30 years in business this year.

Originally a microwave repair company which Derek began following a spell in Kuwait as an electrical engineer, Martyn soon joined to sell ancillary catering equipment supplies, having had the entrepreneurial bug right from his school days. Over the next 5 years he drove a move into selling a wider range of equipment to add to the repair offering, and then subsequently into kitchen design and construction as well as laundry equipment sales and servicing. Martyn then stepped up as MD when Derek retired 5 years ago.

Now is certainly is a busy time to come onboard the Sylvester Keal business, as over the last few years the full project offering has stepped up a gear. “We are doing more larger project work now, including recently converting Bransby horse sanctuary in Lincoln and outfitting a new care home in Scarborough,” detailed Irene, underlining: “We still deal with smaller clients as well because we can be flexible and tailor everything to suit.”

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But son Ben did not get a free pass to enter the family firm, as Martyn and Irene wanted to ensure that he was there on merit. “When he left school we said he needed to get out there and get a trade,” Irene recalled. “We told him if he wanted to come and work for us, he had to bring something to the table.”

Ben duly followed this advice, gaining his electrical engineering qualifications and working at an electrical company for 4 years. But the lure of the family company was still there and so this year he asked to join again.

His parents still wanted to make sure he would be an asset to the firm and there therefore asked service manager Ashley Grant to interview him. He passed with flying colours and became part of the team in October. Irene commented: “It’s exciting for us because it’s another set of skills in the company that we can offer to our customers.”

Remarking that customer service is highly important to Sylvester Keal, Irene reported that the firm invests a lot in staff training, including a personal skills trainer who regularly advises on how to deliver good customer service and how to deal with customer enquiries or complaints effectively, as well as the recruitment of suitable candidates. Irene commented: “It has given us more focus with regards to growing the business and taking it to the next level.”

The 28 current staff therefore help the firm to build a long working relationship with its customers, seeing the design and install as just the beginning of an alliance. Martyn explained: “We pride ourselves on understanding customers’ needs and giving them exactly what they want – we don’t upsell. Our after-sales is unique as we supply customers with our services thereafter.”

The benefits of this strategic look at the business have meant that Sylvester Keal has recently employed an experienced warehouse manager to control the increased stock available at the firm’s 10,000ft2 premises, as well as a new operations manager to ensure proceedings move smoothly. The distributor also takes on apprentices regularly to add to its engineering skills.

Furthermore the firm is about to bring in a projects manager to help Martyn with the design and installation sides of the business. He reported: “Pulling all of the contractors together is one of our main project management challenges. As we are a specialist we have to send our own people to do the installation as well as the contractors, to make sure the quality control is in place. But that can tie up resource from our everyday service work. The new project manager will help us in our transition period from doing smaller to larger projects.”

Another issue Sylvester Keal regularly faces is project contractor delays, which squeezes the time the firm has to carry out installations, with end users pressurising the firm’s installers so that they can open on schedule. Martyn explained: “This happened on a recent project at an engineering college where the contractors came across various problems with the building infrastructure which then delayed us, because the fitting date was June. We had to renegotiate the warranty start date for the equipment by 3 months. This interrupted our schedule and we had to find extra resources to help us out. Having a small team, it does affect the business.”

The firm’s income is now an even balance between service and projects and ancillary products supply, with the proportion of project work steadily increasing. Ancillary supplies has always performed well, being in the company’s DNA – so much so that it even has its own SK-branded products.

Turnover overall has increased every year since the company’s inception, and this year the steady growth is once again in evidence with a 10% year on year increase which looks to be taking this year’s total to £3m. According to Martyn: “My plan is to take it up to £5m within the next couple of years and then to £10m in 5 years, thanks to growth in project design and installation.”

Recent investments include in IT and software to help the distributor work smarter and more efficiently. “This year alone all the engineers’ worksheets have just gone electronic, as we put in a software package for service and repairs and projects, following one last year for sales and delivery,” said Irene. Furthermore a fleet of at least eight new vans arrived this year too.

With a new website in the offing and a marketing agency helping to grow the business further, the pace of Sylvester Keal’s expansion shows no signs of stopping. Martyn predicted: “In the next few years we’ll have a bigger projects team in place.” While Irene revealed: “We’d like to set up another dealership down south too for project design and installation.” And who would bet against this focused family firm achieving its dreams?

Supplier criteria

Sylvester Keal applies its high standards to finding equipment suppliers to work with and is using its platform to be exacting. “As ENSE members we have now got a direct route through to manufacturers where we are getting the best deals,” said MD, Martyn Keal. “Because of the standing of our business now they are listening to us and want to come and see us.

“We look for quality control in our manufacturers, for example the way they deal with damages or goods shortages. If there’s an issue, how quickly do they respond to it? We also expect loyalty and a rebate scheme set up with the manufacturer. Our customers believe in our company, so we have to supply a top quality product.”

Martyn further mentioned warranties as a potential stumbling block: “It’s not just the length of the warranty, it’s the terms and conditions. Around 90% of the time under a warranty call out for a manufacturer, they blame the customer and they charge them. So a lot of the time we do our own warranty calls rather than send the manufacturers out because we want to keep the customer happy.”

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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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