Peter Silk retired in 1987.
Ridgeons - now, and then
Published: 05 January, 2012
CAMBRIDGE: Last year marked a momentous occasion for regional builders’ and timber merchants Ridgeons, as it celebrated an incredible 100 years of trading. The company was originally founded in 1911 by Cyril Ridgeon from a back bedroom in his home at St Barnabas Road, Cambridge.
Today the family-owned company has steadily grown to position itself as one of the UK’s largest independent timber and builders’ merchants. It is also one of the oldest companies within the region and employs over 800 people. With 22 branches across the East of England, the Ridgeons’ name is entrenched in the history of many cities and towns, and is a cornerstone of numerous communities.
However, the Ridgeons of today is very different from the company that Cyril Ridgeon established, and while Ridgeons’ mission and values have remained true to those of its founder, the environment in which it operates has seen significant changes over the years. Peter Silk, a former Ridgeons’ employee, who worked for the group for over 50 years, gives a unique insight into what it was like working at the company, how it has changed over the years, and the importance the company’s family values have played in helping staff retention.
Peter Silk started working for Ridgeons in September 1937 at the Hobson Street showroom. He was just 14 years old and had wanted to stay on at school, but money was short so he had to go out to work. Starting as a junior, he earned ten shillings a week, working from Monday to Saturday, with a half day off on Thursdays.
Mr Silk said: “I was expected to keep the place clean and tidy. One of my duties included the weekly cleaning of two huge ferns in the entrance, using a mixture of milk and water, to make sure they looked bright and shiny when people entered the showroom. I also had the responsibility of carrying the daily takings and paperwork on my bike up to the accounts office at Tenison Road, something it’s very hard to imagine happening nowadays.
“When I started working for Ridgeons, Cyril Ridgeon was in charge of the company, and although being a junior I didn’t work with him much, I do remember that he always took the time to come and see his staff. When Elliot Ridgeon took over he was very much known as the ‘Governor’ and was well respected for his business ability.
“A significant change within the company for me came when David Ridgeon was appointed as managing director. The pace of change quickened with David’s presence as a result of his management approach and deep rooted knowledge of all aspects of the builders’ merchant trade. He was democratic on all decisions taken, was kind, fair, considerate and a delight to work with. I believe that it was David’s strong leadership skills that firmly embedded the family business attitude that is still evident within the company today.
“The builders’ merchants industry changed considerably during the 1950s and 1960s due to the introduction of mechanical handling and the new material plastic. New mechanical handling methods meant that the speed by which the branches could now unload deliveries was phenomenal, a job that had previously taken the majority of branch staff a day to complete, was now undertaken in a matter of hours. The accounts department were also updating all the time by adding electrical equipment and machines. But there were still no computers and everything was written by hand, a far cry from what it is like now. The use of the Biro pen was also a significant change for us as previously we only had pencils to work with.
Keith Bane started in 1978.
“As the years went on, I worked my way up at Ridgeons and in 1968 I was appointed Executive Director, which was obviously one of the highlights of my time at Ridgeons.
“In December 1987 I retired from Ridgeons after over 50 years of service. At this time computers were becoming the future and when I left, Ridgeons had just completed installing point of sale computers.
“For me, what made working at Ridgeons special was that it was and still is a family-owned business and you really feel like you are cared about. It’s like you are part of the extended family and it’s the little things that matter, such as staying in touch. During the Second World War when many of the workforce were away from home, Ridgeons stayed in regular contact with each employee sending letters, and this is something that the company maintains to this day. Since retiring, I still feel part of Ridgeons and we even have a visitor from the company to check on us from time to time. We also receive gifts at Christmas still, which is a nice gesture and something not many companies would do. Every couple of months, myself and four other directors, who have also retired, meet up to have lunch together, which shows the family values the staff at Ridgeons keep with them even once they leave!”
Keith Bane has also spent most of his working life at Ridgeons, joining the group in February 1978, when he was 22 years old. He started his career as a Trade Counter Sales assistant and has worked his way up to Branch Manager of the Ridgeons’ Pampisford branch. He has now been with the company for over 33 years. Kieth explains what it’s like working for the region’s largest independent timber and builders’ merchants:
“My typical working day involves managing the branch staff and ensuring they are all happy and that everything is running smoothly. I think you need to have certain qualities to be successful in this job, including the ability to motivate staff as well as knowledge of stock issues and sales ability. You need to always be aware of the competition and the market trends so that you are able to adapt as and when necessary. Most importantly you need to be able to form excellent relationships with your customers and staff.
“Since I first started working for Ridgeons many aspects of the industry have changed. Many suppliers have ceased trading or have been swallowed up by larger companies. We have been through two booms and two recessions, which has obviously changed the way that we do business and who we do business with.
“However, an important side of working for Ridgeons has always been the social element and family business attitude. Over the years we have had many memorable occasions, including lots of Christmas parties. Every year the branches also used to come together to compete for trophies at various sports, which was always good fun!”