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People Profile – Sunny Nandha – Shopkeeper & Entrepreneur

I was born in 1985, in Perivale, West London and grew up there. I have three older sisters and I’m the youngest of the bunch. I grew up in the same house as a fairly big family with my mum, dad and three sisters. My father ran a Londis store, as a Newsagent, so in a way being a shopkeeper has always been a part of me. I’ve grown up in a shop and it’s in my blood. I’ve been behind a till from about the age of six. The tills are a little bit different nowadays from the ones I grew up playing around, but shop life has been a part of me for most of my life.

Being raised in West London I was familiar with London slang ‘ya know!’ When I go back there now, they don’t understand me so much, I don’t use quite the same ‘lingo’!

Me, always smiling

On reflection I honestly can’t remember now what motivated me to become a shopkeeper myself. I think the experience I had on the tills with mental arithmetic meant Maths was certainly my forte at school! I went through the whole education system at the local schools in London. I took my GCSEs, A Levels – Maths being one of them, as well as Law and Computing, and in the end, I decided to go to Kings College to do a degree. I opted for Computer Science over Maths at the time. I came away with a Bachelor degree in Computer Science and from there for about two to three years, I worked in banking in London. I’m not sure whether I enjoyed the ‘9-5’ office lifestyle, I think there was always something missing there for me. I enjoyed being in London, the partying and work-hard/play-hard lifestyle that comes with it, but you can only do so much of that before it grows dull.

I started off working with Deutsche Bank and then moved to RBS, which was around ten to eleven years ago. Around that time RBS began to reduce their staff and there was a ‘bug’ of ‘job uncertainty’ that spread throughout the company. Fortunately, I wasn’t made redundant, but when the news came out that there could be redundancies, I started to consider other areas of work I could do.

At that time my father was running a hardware store in Epsom. I was familiar with how the hardware shop operated, the profit margins, the whole logistics of it and so forth, as I used to run his store while he went on holiday. He knew he could rely on me while he had two weeks’ vacation. Holidays are always a big issue when taking on a shop because you’re self-employed. To staff a shop while you take time off isn’t easy. I’ve never felt it’s possible to just phone in sick or shut the doors for a fortnight. Some shopkeepers do, don’t get me wrong. There are businesses where they just close their doors and go off on holiday, returning two weeks later, like nothing happened. I couldn’t do that because I think people could easily shop elsewhere, so my mentality has always been to have my doors open and available for business.

Just graduated with my degree in Computer Science

As I started considering what I could do if I left banking, I realised I was fed up with going into London every day and found the idea of working for myself very appealing. I looked around for businesses that were available and I believe the Handyman’s store here in Cranleigh was only the second business I ever went to see! The first one was in Oxford, which was too far away from West London. I had just got married at the time, back in 2010, to the love of my life. We hadn’t been married a year when I took the step of leaving RBS and buying the Handyman’s in Cranleigh.

On paper the shop in Oxford seemed a better option but it felt just a bit too far to travel to and fro each day. From West London to Cranleigh is about 1 hour 10 minutes depending on traffic, so it’s closer than Oxford. The day I came to see the Handyman’s, driving from London towards Guildford, getting closer to Cranleigh I noticed nothing but woods, trees, hills and the countryside, which was completely different to what I’d grown up with in London, a concrete jungle. Before I got to Cranleigh I thought ‘Am I really going to find a shop in and amongst all this? Where are all the people?’ I honestly considered turning around a couple of times, as I came along the A281, because I wasn’t sure I’d find anything worth pursuing here.

I still remember the moment I approached the couple of roundabouts coming into Cranleigh. It was a gorgeous day and from there on it just all opened up! The village itself looked absolutely beautiful and that particular day ‘Spring into Cranleigh’ was happening. The Fair was out and I was amazed how vibrant the village was. From that moment I knew this was going to be the place to have my own business though I hadn’t even seen the shop. Cranleigh seemed to appear so out of the blue, the weather was beautiful which made everything so much more appealing. If it had been raining and there was nothing else going on, I doubt I’d have responded so positively. It would have rested entirely on what the shop had to offer.

Our old reception area was very cramped and had to change

It was a massive decision for me, being very newly married, a commitment to running a shop would take up my Saturdays practically forever, and giving up a Saturday is not easy! That first amazing moment arriving in Cranleigh made up my mind. When I first viewed the shop, I knew what I was looking for because I’d run my dad’s shop when I was younger. The product range was perfect; predominantly decorating goods with housewares, ironmongery, key-cutting and timber. It was everything I was looking for, right up my street. I had a conversation with the owner Colum, my predecessor. We had a great chat and if I remember correctly, I believe we shook hands and made the deal the same day! I hadn’t even gone back to consult with anyone else, I had already made up my mind, and I’ve never looked back since.

Within five or six weeks it was all sorted out. Colum is still a big part of my life now and comes in as a customer regularly. We have staff Christmas do’s and he always comes along. He initially said he’d stick around for a couple weeks to show me the ropes. I began to visit from when I agreed the sale, and he said he’d stay about two weeks or so, and about four years later he decided to retire! Sometimes in life you find people that you get on with perfectly. Colum and I are two such people. We’ve often recalled the reason he was selling the business was in order for him to retire. But once he no longer owned the business, the weight of responsibility left his shoulders and it took on a new perspective for him.

I can’t believe where the time has gone, but in August this year, I’ll have had the shop for ten years! It feels like it’s only been a few short years since I took it on. I haven’t had time to get bored, none of the shop life has become tedious, none of it feels the same. It’s new every day which is great because that’s the sort of guy I am, I need to keep things fresh.

The village looked beautiful

It’s absolutely key to employ the right staff and I have got the most fantastic team I have to say. Without the team of guys, I’ve got here, it simply wouldn’t be possible to run the shop so smoothly, and year on year it continues to grow stronger and get better. Tim, Paul, Tony and I get on so well together, the way we work with one another and the way we handle our customers. I know I could leave any of them on the shop floor and they’d do a perfect, if not better job than if I was here!

If I’m away from the business, I don’t worry at all.

When you’ve got that sort of backup, it makes running a business straightforward, it makes it nothing short of a pleasure. We each take a part of the responsibility, though ultimately, I know the main responsibility rests on my shoulders, but when you’ve got staff as great as I have, it takes a huge pressure away.

I can’t believe I ‘ve been in this little shop for over 10 years

At the Tim began to work with us, the similarities he and I shared were lovely. We’ve both been in business and retail our whole lives. His father owned a shop and he’d run his dad’s shop when he was younger. We can relate to how it is to be brought up in this way and the skills we’ve gained are very similar because of our past experiences. So even though there’s a bit of an age gap between us, we have a common bond between us that breaches that.

Speaking of friendship, I’ve never felt like a stranger here in the village. It feels like I’ve had a warm welcome since the moment I first arrived. Again it really helped that Colum stayed on, because he had built a wonderful rapport with the Handyman’s customers. He had worked closely with Christopher, who had worked here for many years but left before I was on the scene. They were well known in the village as they were local people.

This really helped me settle in, and I felt right from day one, that I could naturally develop a banter with the customers, it was almost like the Two Ronnies. I can assure you there have been some moments just like their ‘Fork Handles’ sketch! And while we’re on that topic, one of the guys who works here, Paul McKenna, was actually at the filming of that very sketch! He was in the audience on a works night out. When he first came into talk about the job, he mentioned this in his interview and I had no further questions! Who am I to say no to someone who was there during the filming of that infamous sketch?

Out with the old and in with the new style front door and windows

Usually, the people that come in are happy to have a laugh with us, but if they don’t, we’ll politely serve them and move onto the next customer. It’s a big feature of working here, on a Saturday we have a load of regulars who may or may not want a bit of time away from home and they pop into the shop. We have a laugh and joke with them and it feels like they’ve come to let their stresses go a bit. They spend a few bob and off they go. Between us we have a saying in the shop ‘What happens in Handyman’s, stays in Handyman’s’. If there’s a wife or husband who comes in at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and needs a bed fixed, or the TV’s come off the wall for any reason, they can come here and say whatever they like, and it’ll never be heard of again! And you don’t quite get that level of service with Amazon!

Some people might think that in ten years of business I’d have had as many ups as downs but I have to touch-wood here… When I started out, I was hesitant and anxious to recover my initial investment and always hoped for that. I believe because I’m really lucky with my staff team, the support of the local community and our regulars, we have been tremendously supported throughout the years since I’ve been here. Year on year it has gone from strength to strength and I haven’t yet, in this business anyway, had to consider or even think we might have a lower turnover one year than the previous year. It hasn’t happened yet and the trend continues to go up, and I hope it carries on that way because we work very hard to achieve that.

The team here now is Tim, Paul, Tony, John (Dad) and myself. We’re always trying to improve day in, day out. Recently we’ve refitted the store and overachieved, and in that regard, I thank my lucky stars every day. I’m a firm believer that you get out life whatever you put in. I have absolutely put my heart and soul into this place, my wife will tell you I always give the business a high priority in so many situations. It takes a really good woman behind you to give such strong support. We’ve had two wonderful children in these ten years as well. My wife I am sure, would have wanted me to spend more time with them. There are some things I’ve had to sacrifice in that respect, which has been most difficult at times.

We did a lot of the DIY ourselves, and yes that is me up a ladder

Some people will fondly remember Phil Hanley, who was a member of staff here for many years. He was an absolute star. Unfortunately, Phil died very suddenly some three years ago and that was a very hard time because we were so close. He was Colum’s brother-in law and was a huge part of all of our lives. There are certain things we no longer stock in the store because we don’t have the knowledge he had, a couple of categories that we simply don’t have the experience that he had. We’ve all known people we’ve worked with who you can never replace and Phil was one such person.

This past year or so has been a rollercoaster. Again, I must touch-wood and be thankful that we are an essential business due to many factors. For example, we sell all types of fuel, we stock electrical and building materials as well so there are so many services we provide that have kept people going and it’s for that reason we’ve managed to remain open right from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For us it’s been a very busy time, as not many stores were open during the first lockdown. It’s been easier through the second and third lockdown as many places have fortunately been open throughout both of those. But that initial lockdown was tremendously busy. Some of the staff were furloughed at the outset as they didn’t feel completely comfortable working when COVID first hit but were cautious due to the underlying conditions. At that time, I ran the business alone with maybe an extra set of hands occasionally. The only way we could work it was to limit access to one or two customers at any given time. Because we couldn’t let many people into the shop there were long queues outside.

As you know mental health has been another side effect of COVID and we were glad we could play a part in the village community life during this time. Customers have all been very positive with their comments, by saying things like ‘Thank God you’re open, we’d be going crazy without you’. If I had a pound for every time someone said things like that this past year, I wouldn’t need to work anymore! We became in a sense, a lifeline for people who needed us.

My beautiful wife and two lovely daughters having a birthday party at home

Over the years you get to know customers so well and occasionally see them go from simply enquiring about DIY products and projects, to becoming quite an expert, they turn their hand to many jobs. It’s so nice because we’re constantly giving advice to people on a job and when we get positive feedback, it almost feels like we’ve had a hand in doing the task too. I can give you one example of that – Tim, one of the few people who wasn’t known in the shop before he joined our team. When he started, he literally didn’t know how to change a lightbulb! I interviewed him in the shop itself because I was so short staffed. He and his wife Janet had just sold Cromwells, a local cafe at the time. I spoke to his wife Janet, before he came for the interview and she said he wasn’t very handy around the house at all. I said don’t worry, send him in and we’ll have a chat. It’s been five years since then and he still knows nothing! No putting all joking aside, in the last five years since he started, Tim’s been advising most of Cranleigh how to do DIY jobs. So if Tim can do it, anyone can!

When I’m not working at the shop, up until recently I played football once a week. I’ve always been into the footy. I’m a Manchester United fan. I went to every single game of theirs when I was younger, especially during my university days. But having a family and a business takes those opportunities away and I follow most of the sport on TV now. When I was very young, I played cricket for Uxbridge, back in West London. That was until I was about 13 or 14 when I discovered football was ‘way cooler’ and I changed to football. What little time I have available now is taken up by my family. Normally it’s just a Sunday I have off so I spend it with my wife and children. With the staff helping out more I sometimes manage to get a Wednesday off too. The way we’ve got our setup now I have a lot more time away from the stop which makes things a lot easier.

I can’t imagine working in anything else now. There’s no way I can go back to another job, this is me. I aim to improve all the time and find I can’t rest if we say no to something for a customer. I feel like I’ve let that customer down. It happens every so often, perhaps because of supply issues during the pandemic and now with Brexit there can be delivery problems or delays. I wouldn’t say I feel a failure but every time this happens, and we let them down, it really affects me. Perhaps in a bigger town where the customers are not so well known it would be a different story, but here in Cranleigh, I feel like I’m saying no to a friend.

Lets thrive together and support our local businesses

I was 25 when I took over the business and I’m 35 now, so it’s all I’ve known! We appreciate every single customer who comes in, we know most people on a first name basis and it’s so warming to see them. One person in particular, Jackie May, brings us cakes every Thursday morning. She just comes in and says ‘Love you boys’, sometimes she’s not even buying anything, she just pops in out of kindness. We have so many customers like that and we never cease to welcome them! That feeling of support is something I will always remember. If everyone else supports other shops with the same kindness we’ve received, I think Cranleigh will continue to thrive.

For more information contact Sunny Nandha:
Shop: 01483 272916
Email:
www.facebook.com/handymanshardwarecranleigh

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