Family business evolves to survive pandemic’s impact

A well-known Teesside trader has revealed how his family’s business, which is more than 50-years-old, is evolving to survive the impact of the pandemic.

Father-of-four Napa Singh’s grandad, who was a drapery salesman, came to Middlesbrough with his two brothers after they moved from India in the 1940s.

Napa’s dad Gulzar was employed by the iconic Teesside companies ICI and Dorman Long before deciding to work for himself.  “He became a door-to-door salesman, which was really hard, so he decided to start a market stall because it would be easier customers coming to him than the other way round,” said Napa, who started working for his dad when he was 18.

“If you work for the family business you’re either going to give it your all or you’re not really interested and do something else.”  Napa’s older brothers choose that career path.  One became a dispenser, the other works for the police.

Gulzar, who’s now 80, tried to retire but changed his mind and was still working at the age of 70.  He finally gave up when he had a stroke eight years ago.

The family were trading at different markets virtually every day of the week before taking a unit in the Dundas Indoor Market selling a range of household items.  They opened their first shop – Finishing Touches – in Stockton and in 2019 opened a second in Middlesbrough as they moved from the indoor market to the Dundas Shopping Centre.

The driving force behind Finishing Touches, which sells furniture, rugs, mirrors and pictures, is Napa’s 26-year-old son Dylan.  “There’s always been a transition – from door-to-door to market, to shop – and that’s the same for the generations as well,” said Napa who is 47.

Finishing Touches was doing really well, and the family even had plans to extend it, when it had to shut because of the lockdown

The last two years have been tough and for small traders there has also been the additional impact of the steep rise in online shopping.

“We had to do sell online as well,” said Napa “and that helped keep us going.  But every other small business had to do it as well and that’s made the competition even bigger.”

The family has concluded, however, that there are certain big-ticket items that shoppers have to see for themselves rather than buy after just seeing a picture and description.

In the latest evolution of the business Finishing Touches will start to sell sofas and beds – as well as its range of rugs, furniture, mirrors and pictures – because, said Napa: “People need to come, look, touch, measure and try out.

“You’ve got to keep changing.  It’s a different ballgame from my dad’s time when he’d go to his market stall, set it up and expect people to come – which they did.”

Richard Wilson, senior associate with Dodds Brown which manages the Dundas Centre and Indoor Market, said: “This is the time of the year when many of us make plans to change rooms in our homes.  Because we’ve been stuck indoors so much I suspect a lot of people will be looking for something a bit different.”

He added:  “I urge everybody to support our local independent traders.  Many – like Napa and his family – have worked so hard for their achievements and now, more than ever, they need us to recognise the contribution they have made to Teesside over decades.”