Hughes Electrical which was started in Lowestoft by First World War veteran Frank Hughes celebrates 100 years
When soldier Frank Hughes lost his leg fighting for his country in the First World War his prospects could have been bleak.
But the enterprising young Londoner was not about to give up.
He saw a future in electrical engineering and tried to find an apprenticeship. But there were no jobs to be had.
So Frank left London behind and headed for Suffolk where he became an apprentice before starting his own business in 1921 selling and servicing radios.
It put him at the cutting edge of technology. Household radios were still very much a novelty and the BBC did not start broadcasting until 1922.
The business he founded now has 32 shops, soaring online sales, is the biggest renter of domestic products in the country, and employs 850 people.
Hughes Electrical celebrates its centenary this year having outlasted most of its specialist competition.
“I think my grandfather would be impressed and very surprised to see where we are now,” said Frank’s grandson Robert Hughes, who is now chairman of the company.
“My grandfather was a corporal in the British army before the First World War,” said Robert.
“He was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Forces. But he lost his leg in 1917 and was invalided out.
“Back in his home town of London he couldn’t get a job. So he got onto a train and got off at the end of the line, which was Lowestoft.
“He found an apprenticeship, and when he qualified he set up his own business dealing mostly in radios for the fishing fleet and domestic use.”
Rewinding electric motors for the boats, recharging capacitors and topping up the old fashioned radio batteries with acid were among the other services.
“My dad Jim, his brother Peter and sister Phyllis would be sent off on their bikes with this dangerous fluid,” said Robert. “That would definitely not be allowed today.
“They were all steeped in the business from the start. My uncle Peter was product enthusiast and got us into all the latest gadgets.
“We were one of the first to bring TVs into Suffolk. It was the same with microwaves. He was passionate about it and being at the cutting edge of all the products.”
As the company passed on to a new generation it brought with it a treasure trove of electrical items from the past.
“My father’s generation was always reluctant to throw anything out, and we had a lot of very old products,” said Robert, “so we donated them to a museum in Norfolk.”
Hughes grew steadily from its small beginnings – expanding as households relied more and more on electrical goods for labour-saving and leisure.
“The 1950s, ’60s and ’70s saw a massive growth in the market. By the mid-1980s we were one of 22 specialist electrical chains, including Granada and Comet.
“We had a lot of competition. Now there are only three left – Curry’s, Richer Sounds and us.
“Our survival has been due to diversification. Now we have shops, renting, business to business trade, and a huge web operation.”
Renting appliances from TVs to washing machines is gaining popularity especially with younger people because they can update without the cost of buying new.
And there is no waste because replaced items are taken back to be renovated and rented out again.
“We are the biggest renter of domestic products in the country now. A lot of youngsters now rent because they swap it out,” he said. “Refurb and re-rent helps people who can’t afford new.”
That policy helped the company secure one of its most prestigious contracts.
When 10,000 televisions were needed for the athletes’ village at the 2012 London Olympics Hughes clinched the deal by offering a carbon-neutral option to rent them, then take them back and re-rent to other users.
“At the 2012 games they set out a clear strategy that they wanted to be zero carbon.
“There must have been 10 or 15 companies quoting lower prices. We told them ‘we are going to rent it to you, and then take the away and rent again’.
“That equals zero carbon. They placed the order there and then. We also rented them 3.000 washing machines. We were very proud to be part of it.”
He jokes that afterwards thousands of customers believed they were renting Usain Bolt’s TV.
Two years later Hughes provided a similar service for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
They are still looking for ways to become a greener operation. “We are putting solar panels on a lot of our roofs, and all our company cars are electric.
“We charge them up with the solar panels. We’re are all trying to race to net zero as fast as we can,” said Robert, who joined the family firm in the early 1990s.
“I did an MBA at the London Business Scool, and had been in private equity and before that Norwich Union Investments.
“Phyllis left the business by the mid-90s then my two brothers Andrew and Jeremy and myself were the only family members involved.”
But Hughes is still a family firm with no non-family shareholders.
Despite a big rise in online sales since the Covid pandemic shops are still a vital link in its sales strategy.
“The importance of shops is that they are somewhere to show off products. Manufacturers like that.
“We use them to cement our relationship with suppliers, and we need to get commitment from manufacturers to supply us. Companies who stay invested in shops add value.”
Hughes’ highest number of shops was 46 in 2014. Although some have since closed the remaining 32 are spread over seven counties, with the majority in Suffolk and Norfolk.
The company came to Bury in the 1980s when it bought out a local business. It started off with a fairly small shop before moving into the much larger former Mothercare store in Brentgovel Street.
Its Suffolk and Norfolk stores include branches in Haverhill, Diss, Newmarket, Thetford and Stowmarket.
Robert was managing director until last year when – keen to see where a younger person’s enterprise and creativity would take the company – he handed over the role to Mark Wardell.
“I ceased to be MD just before the first lockdown. I’d been running the business for 25 years, and was very interested to see what someone else would do.
“Mark, who’s 36, had been with us since he was 16 when he had a holiday job. He has breathed fresh energy into the business.”
Robert, who lives in Bury, is still very much involved in the firm including doing all employee inductions, introducing new recruits to the business and its values.
“People are the most important thing in our business, whether they are customers, staff, or suppliers,” he said.
But the move gives him more time for other commitments like trade association RETRA and Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, keeping fit by running ... and string theory.
He has started an Open University Degree in astro-physics which is a long-term interest.
“I did sciences at university, but things have moved on a lot since then,” he adds.