Very few businesses can claim to be around for over 50 years, but for Peat Wholesale the journey began with components and it is still entertaining the Irish masses with the latest digital components and accessories.
When Peat Wholesale was mentioned to me recently I made the initial error that lots of people make and suddenly thought of Peats Word of Electronics or Peats of Parnell Street as it was known, the popular electronics business that became a victim of the recession and closed its doors in 2013. The two are connected by blood but for decades traded as completely separate enterprises.
Peat Wholesale, located in an industrial estate in west Dublin, is what you could describe as a spin-out of the original Peats business that opened its doors in 1934 when founders Brigit and William Peat first set up shop at 199 Parnell Street. The wholesale business was started by Geoff Peat, one of Brigit and William’s sons, in 1969 to focus purely on selling components to distributors while Peats of Parnell Street remained the go-to place for audio-visual equipment for generations of Irish consumers.
“You’ve got to throw your mind back to the times … tenament buildings, Summer Hill, Dominic Street, all around Gardiner Street, that’s where the nucleus of people lived. Ballyfermot wasn’t even built”
Geoff Sr recalls the early days of the original company: “My dad Billy, he worked for Bewleys at the time and he drove an oil truck but always had an interest in electrical goods. Back then the main ingredient of a radio was a transformer which charged the 1.5-volt wet batteries that kept the radios going.
“The radio then was the web of today and round where we were on Parnell Street there was the Church Street Capuchins and the Jesuits in Gardner Street and in those days priests and trainees were not allowed to even talk, so he used to make little radios for them. That’s genuinely how it started because of the little crystal radios.
“The first shop was on 199 Parnell Street at the time and it was briefly called Cabra Radio because we came from Cabra but eventually had to change the name so it became William B Peat and Co Ltd, in the early 1940s.
“My brothers and myself become involved in all of the areas and facets of the business as it developed. As a middle son, I had to make my own way, and so myself and my late wife Isobel started the wholesale business in 1969.
“You’ve got to throw your mind back to the times … tenament buildings, Summer Hill, Dominic Street, all around Gardiner Street, that’s where the nucleus of people lived. Ballyfermot wasn’t even built.”
Geoff Sr recalled that before big brands like Sony, Samsung or Panasonic came along, radio and record players were bespoke items and Peats worked in tandem with furniture makers – a whole industry of which existed off Henrietta Street – to make the elegant units that formed the centrepiece of many a Dublin parlour in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
“But of course in the 1950s everything changed with the arrival of the TV. I became a TV aerial erector and used to climb up the poles, which was absolutely lunatic. You were on a two-inch pole and you were 100 feet off the ground. The reason was the stations we were getting fed from Belfast and Dublin were at sea level, so you had to get above the airport – that’s the way it was.
“RTE were just around the corner on Henry Street and we would see the various people on the radio like Gay Byrne in the mid 60s and 70s passing through.”
An accidental fall from a roof put paid to Geoff Sr’s aerial work and he was put in charge of the Peats for Parts business. “My late wife Isobel and myself we used to go to England and buy bulk components and we would lay them out on the floor and value them. It was total innocence, we didn’t have training.
“On Saturday mornings outside Peats on Parnell Street there were queues and people would be looking for replacement needles, cleaning kits, we sold all of that. The TV and hi-fi business was booming, so I said to Isobel – at this stage we were married –why don’t we do something on our own. It caused ructions at first but in fairness each of my siblings threw in a few quid into the pot and Peats of Parnell Street became our biggest customer.”
Parts, shillings and Penneys
It is a coincidence that the day I meet Geoff Sr and his son Geoffrey, Ireland was absorbing the news of the sad loss of Arthur Ryan, founder of Penneys and Primark.
Geoff Sr recalls a tightknit business community in the 1960s. “Penneys was right behind our little store and Arthur Ryan would come in every day into a pub called The Commodore, which was beside us and we all knew each other. I would certainly know him as ‘Mr Ryan’ and my father would have known him better. It was a community of business people, but there was a lot more respect for the ‘misters’. My dad was Mr Peat, not Billy.”
Geoff Sr and Isobel hit the road, knocking on electronics dealers’ doors up and down the country.
“From those humble beginning we developed, we took on extra staff. We were in 26 Parnell Street. My father took over the lease of the Mary Rose Hairdressing saloon because Mr and Mrs O’Reilly were retiring, and we had to change the hairdressing saloon into a store. We decided on an important thing that Geoffrey carries on today, we have to protect our retail and trade customers and therefore we only sell to the trade, not the public. Nobody in the trade will deal directly with a consumer, because you just can’t and we don’t want to either.”
Geoffrey adds: “Our establishment is built on volume whereas a retailer is based on singluar sales. We don’t want to upset our relationships.”
The core lesson after 50 years, Geoff Sr explained, is that a business owner must always be mindful of the business they are in and be ready to evolve. “It terribly important to know that you can keep your eye on the future. Geoffrey has a keen eye, he travels, goes to various trade shows in the US, watching what’s up the road.”
Geoffrey adds: “It’s more about how we treat people. It’s more about how we treat our customers, it’s more about how we treat our staff. We try and create an environment where the customer remains centre of our focus. Arthur Ryan and people like that are our role models. We wouldn’t be 50 years in business doing what we are doing if we weren’t able to deliver to our customer a service that allows them to deliver a similar service to their customer. Our ability to do good stuff for them allows them to build their reputation.
“Also, the people you have in your company are the best asset you will ever have if you look after them well and get them to buy into your ethos. When you have good people, you can achieve a lot, when you don’t have good people it can drag you back.
“We have a very strong moral ethos going back to Geoff and Isobel in 1969. Look after people and they will look after you. If you don’t nourish and care for it, it doesn’t live.”
Analogue to digital
I asked Geoffrey how he manages to keep on top of tech trends as the industry gets more digital.
“Everything we do today is very similar to what Geoff and Isobel did in the 1960s and 1970s. Think about it, everyone thinks of the web and the ease of social media but back then it was a radio. Radio still runs through it. The only difference is the speed that everything is moving at. But there isn’t a house in the country that doesn’t have something that hasn’t come through here.”
The wholesale business has endured through the gamut of tech trends from VHS and Betamax videos to CDs, mini-discs and now smartphone-based digital audio, which is mostly streamed.
“Technology is wonderful and we are probably the biggest headphones supplier in Ireland. We would sell 50,000 headphones a year, for example. We try and guess the markets, follow the trends but it is getting harder because the technology is eating itself. You really need to choose wisely. What we try to do is evolve.”
Peats World of Electronics closed its doors in 2013, a sad legacy of the recession. “I cried like a baby, there was still a family attachment, but they were our biggest customer too,” Geoff Sr recalled.
Geoffrey recalls the trauma of the closure of the Parnell Street business. “We lost a huge portion of business, but it was also family. You either survive and fight or close and we chose to fight, we chose to defend and to remain. We bear the scars and we are not the only company. Every other company that survived the recession, the emotional and other scars will be there for years to come.”
When I ask how does it feel to be still in business after 50 years, Geoff Sr is emotional. “The first thing I feel is very proud.”
Sadly, Geoff Sr’s co-founder and staunchest ally, his wife Isobel, passed away six years ago. “It’s hard that Isobel isn’t here to enjoy this milestone. She was a rock of sense during that recession time. She was extremely passionate about the business.”
Geoffrey added: “Isobel had a great brain and a great way. Very quiet in the background, she wasn’t a front of house person, but she was very much the glue that held it all together. When Isobel passed it was very hard for everybody.”
Now at the helm of the business, Geoffrey was born a month after it was founded in April 1969 and is very much looking to the future of the business.
“For me it is very much about the next 15 years. You’ve got to have the basics right: know your business, work your business and have good people around you.”
In conclusion, Geoff Sr is still involved but he is proud of how his son is doing things and also that long-serving staff members are now stepping up and becoming directors of the company.
“It’s exciting to listen to them and see their passion for the future. I get a great kick out of it.”
Written by John Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 19 July 2019
Pictured (above): Geoff Peat and his son Geoffrey Peat. Image: John Kennedy