September Blog & a little Moorgate History
This month I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. Some of this reflection was driven by the loss of a couple of friends in the industry and some by finding a few old photographs from our past. I thought I’d share a little of our history for those of you who don’t know us very well.
September is upon us. eerily When we first opening our store at the foot of Ship Hill in Rotherham we used to do 70% of our years business between late September and February. Now our business is much more consistent. Our online sales tend to be more reliant on the nature of the special offers we are selling and most of these tend to crop up in the summer months; when manufacturers wish to move-on some stock or indeed release a newer and slightly updated model. We buy this stock and offer it for sale at a substantial reduction and these bargains can offer us a level of business that can transform a month from being quite a quiet one into something spectacular. Our online sales support our retail showroom too.
When we started selling audio equipment, online was something from a science fiction novel about a dystopian future ( it’s uncanny how eerily accurate some of those Phillip K Dick short stories were).
In fact Keith Hobson opened in Rotherham because back in the 80’s most of the proper hi-fi brands would only allow one or sometimes two shops per city to sell their products. Sheffield (where we were from) had a few hi-fi specialists and so all the brands were fully subscribed and we had little chance of getting the dealership for some of the brands we wanted. As a result we went to the nearest town that didn’t have a specialist shop and this was Rotherham.
Keith was an enthusiast long before he realised his dream and opened a hi-fi shop. He’d worked most of his life has a tool manufacturer and engineer for a number of large manufacturing concerns around Sheffield. Music had always been his passion and hi-fi the best means to appreciate it. Keith had moved out of engineering in the Seventies and managed Sound 70’s on Barclay Precinct for many years. Poor choices by the ownership and the decision to move car audio in forced him to think about opening his own store.
Rotherham was a surprisingly busy and prosperous hub of activity before the arrival of Meadowhall. It had a mainly skilled workforce who either worked in steel or in the pitts. There were many colliaries and steel works and this was before the government (and greed) did a hatchet job on two of the North’s largest industries. In some respects the North has struggled to recover and it certainly took decades before it found its feet again.
We opened at a prosperous time in Rotherham and we were the first store that sold a wide range of hi-fi brands in the town. We found a place for ourselves on the busy high street and set to work establishing relationships with customers and suppliers alike.
To start with we sold mostly Japanese electronics with some carefully chosen British loudspeaker brands like Wharfedale and Mordaunt Short. As soon as we were established we joined the Hi-Fi markets group and that brought NAD and one or two better brands. Keith was an audiophile and wanted to stock the products he’d dreamed of owning himself and had seen at shows. Thorens, Quad, Mission, Linn, Naim Audio and Meridian, as well as a host of high end US brands like Krell, Magnapan and Apogee.
In the early 80’s Laskys was a force to be reckoned with on the High Street. Here you could see high quality hi-fi equipment from all over the world and as a result more people were introduced to good sound. They’d see these brands in the windows of Laskys and remember them when they wanted a good stereo.
In the 80’s owning a hi-fi system was a high priority for many people. After house and car it was the next thing people would buy. It was the time of the rack system.
Keith and Robert (the store manager) would read the hi-fi magazines and attend trade shows to discover products to sell. They were both driven by a desire to have better sound themselves and knew that demonstration was key to the experience of choosing audio equipment. Demonstration underscores everything we have done at Moorgate Acoustics. You simply had to hear it for yourself and that is as true now as it was back then. With this in mind it was logical for the Rotherham shop to have listening tooms so people could experience good sound in an environment like home.
One of my first jobs (when I joined the company part-time in its second year) was to write to those suppliers whose products we wanted to sell and present our case for stocking their brand. Back in the early 80’s it wasn’t easy to get an account selling some brands and there was a degree of what I’ll politely call “reserve” in some of the sales managers who made decisions as to who did and didn’t sell their products. Some never even replied. Others would make vague promises to come and see us when we were more established. I was amazed to discover yet others would only supply you if you stocked other brands that they liked to be “aligned” with. I thought buying hi-fi would be relatively straightforward but I was wrong on that score. If somebody can find a way of making something obscure, complex and worrisome then they probably will.
When these suppliers eventually deemed to visit us they’d generally poke at things in a derisory way and also pour scorn on some of the brands we did stock. Often they’d show us products and then tell us that we didn’t meet the criteria to stock it. We never let this sort of behaviour dint our enthusiasm and we saw it for what it was. We remembered the people that were kind to us when we were starting out, just as we remembered those who were arrogant and rude. Northerners have long memories.
Musical Fidelity were an example of a company who were very good to us. We were recommended to Anthony Michaelson by Doug Brady and became their third stockist. He’d been shown the door by quite a few LINN/Naim dealers at the time and so had gone looking for shops that were perhaps more open minded.
Mission were another. Mission were a great company to deal with. They’d tell you they’d do something and that thing would be done. No messing or back pedalling. Their word was their bond and we loved dealing with them. Their people were filled with enthusiasm for their products and enjoyed their jobs. They also loved music and we tended to get on with them like a house on fire. Their UK sales manager was one of the greatest men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Dave used to like doing business in the pub and he was such good company that it was almost impossible to leave without a huge grin; despite the financial value of the order he managed to take.
I recall he once contacted me when I was at a Kenwood conference in Manchester. He insisted we meet in the basement bar of the hotel and discuss a deal that couldn’t wait. We left the bar blearily eyed and when I had slept off the beer I had to explain to my dad why I’d ordered enough Mission speakers to build a wall to block off the bottom of Ship Hill.
Some companies are a joy to deal with and others are a pain. Even when their product is so good you want to buy it; you know dealing with them is going to make a good thing painful.
Building Moorgate brand by brand led to some success; mainly local people who worked in the mines and the steel mills. Miners and steelworkers were the greatest of people in our experience. This was in the time of apprenticeships; when young people (mostly men) went straight into learning the mechanics and skills needed to work in two immense industries. Jobs that they thought would last a lifetime. They were hard working, well paid and enjoyed the fine things when they were away from jobs that were usually extremely physically demanding. Many of them loved music and found Moorgate Acoustics.
I will never forget the footage of the police attempting to break the lines in Orgreave, just a mile or two from our Rotherham shop. I saw faces I knew in the ranks of miners; men who I knew to be kind and friendly people. I was twenty years old at the time and was struck by the overuse of force and the rumours that police were being bussed in from all over the UK and some were removing their badge numbers. Even as a twenty year old I could see a larger battle being played out on the nations TV’s.
Moorgate opened the shop on Fitzwilliam Street in Sheffield in 1988. I’d been with the company for six years after having joined as Saturday lad, tea-maker and general dogsbody. My dad threw me in at the deep end under the tutelage of Robert Iwan who was the manager of our Rotherham store. Robert and I had an extremely difficult relationship for a good few years before we became firm friends. He didn’t like me or anything I did; which was a poor start to our relationship.
By the time we opened in Sheffield we had built a reputation and already had some of the best brands around at the time. We were well-known and a new store in Sheffield gave us the opportunity to expand. We chose Sheffield because our research showed that a lot of our customers back then were actually coming from Sheffield so we reasoned going to them would be a good move. It turned out we were right.
My dad and I would spend many hours talking about music and what we felt we wanted Moorgate Acoustics to mean to its customers. We wanted everything to be customer-centric and opening a new store meant we could put more into practice than we were able in the Rotherham store. Bigger demo rooms, a larger and more spacious showroom and a new choice of products. We put a listening area right in the entrance to the shop. We reasoned that if we always had a decent system playing then people would remember that we made a good sound if nothing else. It also gave people a place to sit and relax if they were waiting for the demo room or for service.
We weren’t re-inventing the wheel by any means but my dad felt strongly that we should be a place where customers were welcome and not pressured or hard sold. It’s stuck with us ever since and we continue to try and connect with people using our shared passion for music first and the equipment needed to enjoy it second.
When designing our Sheffield store we also remembered the comments of those reps who had refused to allow us to sell their products. By putting in better facilities we were able to erode their concerns. Having two shops also meant we’d have more buying power. Slowly their concerns were addressed until the brands we wanted were on our shelves and ready for demonstration. Those skeptical of our ability to succeed discovered that we were serious about what we did and weren’t put off by their scorn, snobbery or elitism.
More to follow……….