On the up · 4 December 2015

Family business series: Brother and sister team sees Forsyth hit the right notes

Forsyth Music Shop, Manchester
After 150 years, it remains to be seen whether the business will pass on to the next generation

We’ve come to the end of our week-long family business series, taking in companies spanning the hospitality, arts and crafts, fashion and food sectors. Rounding things off is a fantastic business from the world of music.

Figures released by American Express in the run up to Small Business Saturday, now in its third year and expected to see millions of pounds spend at independent retailers, show that just under three quarters of family-hiring entrepreneurs think working with loved ones is good for business. The main reasons cited include relatives being more committed to the success of the company, the best qualified and most knowledgeable people to employ.

As a fifth generation family business, Forsyth has been in the same family for over 150 years and is now run by brother and sister duo, Emma and Simon Loat – having been handed down from their parents.

In 1857, the Forsyth brothers settled in Manchester to help Charles Hallé set up the Hallé orchestra having learned their trade with their father – the factory manager for Messrs Broadwood in Golden Square. After initially specialising only in pianos, Forsyth soon diversified into supplying sheet music and all other instruments. Some 150 years later, it is still run by the same family – the 4th and 5th generations.

Simon said: “We encourage people to shop here as an independent business and pride ourselves on giving impartial advice. We support lots of other local businesses (piano tuners and technicians, restoration and advertisement services to name a few) and we employ 40 staff in-house plus a number of freelancers. We feel a responsibility for the area and everyone who works in our shop is a musician – whether they are in bands, orchestras or music students.”

Both Simon and Emma have grown up in a musical environment and the Forsyth shop means so much to Emma, she even held her wedding reception on the shop floor, one Saturday afternoon, while the store was open.

Emma and Simon’s mother, Anthea said: “We’re a solid unit because as we’re a family as we’re always supporting each other because we ultimately all have the same goal. In the centre of Manchester we’re regarded as a bit of a landmark – particularly for musical Mancunians. Now that we’re online, we’re also going out to a wider audience so people know it’s worth a trip to Manchester to see what we’ve got!”

(1) How has the business changed over the years?

We have been in these premises for over 130 years and have evolved over time. The core of the business is the same – we sell musical instruments, specialising in acoustic pianos and sell sheet music and recordings. Initially we also had a significant part of the business in artist and venue management. We managed the Hallé orchestra from these premises for the first 70 years as well as a large roster of other performers. Up until the 1980s we had around 20 teaching and rehearsal rooms in addition to the shop premises – unfortunately we had to give these up when they demolished the adjacent building.

Obviously technology has changed the way we do business too with the advent of digital accounting, the internet and EPOS systems to help with stock control. Online shopping has brought more competition at the lower end of the market, but has also allowed us to reach out beyond the North West to sell nationally and internationally. For higher value items such as pianos, hand made guitars and folk instruments we are a destination shop that people will travel to visit once they find us on the web.

The family has always been core to the day to day running of the business and the intrinsic values of passion, independence, integrity and the desire to do the best for our customers has always been there.

(2) What is enjoyable about running a business with your family?

Getting to see your extended family regularly is actually quite a perk – it makes the family a lot closer overall. For my husband and I it means we are able to be flexible and accommodate each others work and home/family commitments in a much more understanding way.

(3) What unique advantages are there that other businesses, which aren’t family run, don’t have?

When it’s family you can be open and frank about things, or indeed have a laugh about things together. When times are tough you know you can rely on each other to put in the extra effort and hours. With family you know it’s not just a “job”. Customers really appreciate the extra effort we make to be welcoming and helpful and the family feel extends to the way all our staff interact with the customers. Everyone is very proud of the rich heritage of the business and try to go that extra mile to help the customer – passion, integrity independence and the desire to do the best for our customer is at the heart of everything we do.

(4) Are there any draw backs?

As with any family there will be times when tensions get high, but I think the advantages out weigh the disadvantages.

(5) Have you given any thought to succession plans, or are they already in place?

In essence we are only now going through a succession period as our parents have recently “semi-retired” and have taken on a much more advisory role rather than being involved in the day-to-day running of the shop. So all being well it won’t be for a couple of decades before the next stage of succession would need to take place. My brother and I both have relatively young children, so it’s far too early to say whether they would be interested in working in the business. But we are ensuring that they receive a sound musical education so that they have the skills and knowledge in place should they wish to do so.

We were grateful to our parents for making it our decision to join the company. There was no assumption made that we would want to work at Forsyth, and we both have explored careers in other fields. The fact that we decided it was the right thing for us puts us in a much stronger position – we have enthusiasm and no resentment!

(6) What advice would you give to anyone considering going into business with their family?

The business needs to be a shared passion, something that all members of the family who want to be involved believe in and want to succeed. You need to try and be objective about what each of you can bring to the business and try and work to your individual strengths. If between you, you don’t have all the skill sets required to make your business successful don’t be afraid to bring in outside help. A family business doesn’t mean exclusively run by family, and it is important to be able to offer the prospect of advancement to non-family employees.

For sanity’s sake it is important to try and have some “boundaries” so work doesn’t dominate 24 hours a day. Make sure you pursue other interests outside of work. It is only natural to end up talking about work things when not at work – but don’t let it be the only topic of conversation.

(7) Why is Small Business Saturday so key to the promotion of family businesses throughout the UK?

Many small businesses are family businesses and customers value the continuity of personnel and trustworthiness that are associated with family firms. Small Business Saturday is an excellent way to remind everyone that there is still a massive wealth of independent and interesting shops and other businesses out there – not just the omnipresent corporate high street names. Indeed, we sense there is a growing movement towards independent shopping both on the high street and online, and we want to be part of it.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Hunter Ruthven was previously editor of Business Advice. He was also the editor of Real Business, the UK's most-read website for entrepreneurs and business leaders at the helm of growing SMEs.

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