Business management

Family Business Week: strong relationships make a strong and agile business for EA Stephens

How a third-generation timber merchant is supporting its local community in Liverpool and the regional economy of the North West of England.

The 2022 Family Business Week celebrates the central role family firms play in shaping and supporting their local communities, the economy and long-term sustainability. We continue to use our platform to celebrate the diverse success stories of businesses like EA Stephens, which have built on many years of heritage, inspiring the next generation of family businesses to come.

Mick says his father, Edmund, started his business 65 years ago when “the bank took a chance on him” to help grow his endeavour collecting firewood and then driftwood from the Liverpool docks.

Edmund never forgot the opportunity he was given. Mick says those values run through the family business today, which chooses to trade with other local small businesses, family firms and start-ups in order to build community ties and growth in the region. “We love Liverpool, we love the people, we love the area,” says Mick. “We like to see other people getting on, and we like to get on ourselves.”

The family business now prides itself on being able to provide almost any material or service for any building or timber project, retail or wholesale.

Family business management: staying agile during tough times

As one of only a handful of north-west family-owned businesses in the sector, Mick says they can differentiate from the big chains by being agile. Although it can sometimes be challenging to compete with corporates, they can make decisions and act on them quickly, add new systems, processes and stock lines, and change direction if they need to.

This was an advantage during the pandemic, when the business was able to stay open while bigger businesses were closed.

EA Stephens maintains a close connection with its customers and endeavours to keep lines of communication open. This helped during Covid and now the cost of living crisis, because they can explain why prices are fluctuating (Russia and Ukraine are big suppliers of timber) and try to reassure their customers to keep coming back.

Family values build long-term relationships

Mick says the values that his dad instilled in him – integrity, trust, loyalty – are values he now tries to instil in his own two sons, Martin and Jack, who work in the business.

“We’ve found if we work with our customers on their success, it makes us more successful,” he says. “We don’t persuade people to buy things they don’t need – Dad said sometimes that’s the easy thing to do but not the right thing to do.

“We’re loyal to small, growing businesses and we get that loyalty back. Sometimes we’ll get a bit of bad debt because of those values, but we think it’s worth it.

“And teamwork is important – we’ve found that the more we pull together, the more we do.”

Thinking long-term can help with sustainability

“There’s an old industry saying which is ‘measure twice and cut once’,” says Mick. “I used to think it just meant ‘don’t cut a piece of timber the wrong length’ but the more I think about it, the more I realise it applies to business in many ways.”

Mick says the business is committed to buying sustainably sourced timber and keeping on top of the sustainability of its product lines. They have invested in electric and hybrid vehicles although as a machinery-dependent business, their energy costs are soaring.

During volatile and uncertain economic environments such as these, long-standing relationships start to pay off. During the pandemic when timber was scarce, for example, suppliers retained EA Stephens while other businesses were dropped.

The challenge now, says Mick, is to guide his sons through the workings of a family business when the last few years have been so chaotic. What is business as usual?

Succession, systems and processes

Like many family businesses, they discuss work around the dinner table. Whether it’s acquisitions or pivoting in a new direction, it can feel all-consuming at times, says Mick. But they all get a lot of enjoyment out of it, including his wife and two brothers-in-law.

He would like his sons, who are 27 and 25, to go on and run the business. They’re learning from the bottom up, much like Mick did, but he says there’s no pressure. “We love what we’re doing, we’re happy, we want to be here for years to come. But let’s see what happens.”

Find more on family business here.

Family Business Week (21 – 25 November) is a celebration of family businesses as a force for good. Whether you’re a family business owner, employee or adviser, or a policymaker, there are plenty of ways to get involved and show your support for Family Business Week.

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