Sterling managing director is always looking to improve service
While giving a tour of the Sterling store at Tillicoultry the managing director greets dozens of staff by name.
Given the size of the site it houses more than 30,000 pieces of furniture and has hundreds of employees it is no mean feat that Gordon Mearns recognises and knows so many faces.
That personal touch suggests he has not lost touch with the people who represent the furniture retailer on the shop floor even though most of his career has been spent in the board room.
It also gives a small clue into what kind of boss the chartered accountant is.
While the bigger strategic picture is important he is equally aware the company won't flourish without good staff to interact with customers.
So even though he has been with the furniture company for 27 years through boom times and recessions - he still needs to be out there speaking to people and keeping an eye on what is happening.
He said: "There is not a day goes past that I don't walk through the sales floor here at Tillicoultry and I also get out into the branches as well.
"It is really important to do that. Having your head office in the store means we are very close to our staff and our customers."
With a typical six-day working week Mearns isn't shy about putting in the hours.
Again the details are important with daily updates on trading and regular checks to make sure margins are being maintained.
Time gets quickly eaten up by meetings which could encompass looking at competitor's promotions, tweaking marketing strategy, analysing financial performance or talking to buyers about new ranges.
So far the hard work is paying off though as in a tough market for all retail Sterling is holding its own.
Turnover has stayed relatively steady for the past two years although Mearns admits there has been a noticeable drop in sales since VAT was pushed back up in January.
He said: "We have to be realistic. VAT was just another thing added to the generally depressed consumer confidence.
"We have had three years of recession type conditions. People are trying to repay debt and put away money into savings as they don't know how secure their job is going to be."
Still the company feels confident enough to have invested £500,000 in a 10,000 square feet extension at Tillicoultry which now houses a garden centre, home store, food hall and clothing department.
It means customers can now pick up anything from a hot tub to a pair of wellington boots or a packet of organic biscuits.
Having created eight jobs as part of that project Mearns is eager for more growth when conditions allow.
He said: "It wasn't a major investment in the overall scale of things but it was on a list of stuff we wanted to achieve and we raised it to the top.
"We felt the customers coming here were seeing things in other places which we could provide for them.
"So with the food court, clothing and other household items it gives them something to spend on if the big ticket furniture purchases are not something they could afford.
"The customer is at the heart of everything we do and we felt by adding this it would give people a better experience.
"Then when they are in the market for something bigger we will be at the forefront of their mind.
"We'd like to expand the company and have more stores but now is not the time."
While finding suitable sites is difficult Glasgow has been pinpointed as one area of opportunity.
The Vogue store on London Road will soon be rebranded to Sterling and Mearns believes there could be room for another site in the city.
He said: "Because the marketing of Tillicoultry was so successful in the past some people think we are still only here.
"Yet we have nine Sterling stores and five other subsidiary company stores as well.
"We bought Vogue three years ago and London Road is the last to be converted.
"That will be our first big store in Glasgow but we feel there would be potential for another one as it is a big market."
Buyers for the shops will travel around the world taking in trade shows in Milan, Paris and Hong Kong.
Then it is up to the visual merchandising teams at Sterling to translate those trends back to Scotland.
Mearns said: "We have been doing this for a long time.
"Our buyers are keeping their finger on the pulse of the latest trends and influencing manufacturers.
"You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the customer.
"Value is a big thing just now as everyone's budget is stretched so we have to drive products which are at a price point our customers can afford.
"We want to let know people we will look after them if anything goes wrong and we also want to inspire them to make that purchase."
As for many big ticket items ecommerce and online sales are not quite as large a factor as in other parts of retail such as high street fashion and grocery.
Yet even though the volumes sold through the Sterling website are relatively low Mearns knows the importance of having a top notch online presence.
He said: "In modern retailing you have to be multi-channel or you will be left behind.
"Around 70 per cent of furniture buying is now researched online beforehand so if you don't have a good website customers will find another company.
"A customer might travel to Tillicoultry and see something they like but might not want to commit there and then.
"They may need to measure a space so the website allows them to then complete the transaction online.
"Most people still want to sit on the furniture. They might end up buying online but they will come to the store to try it out.
"While it's still relatively small in terms of what is booked online it is a growing part in terms of influence.
"More and more customers are coming in with sheets they have printed off and are looking for a specific piece they have seen on the website."
Customer service is clearly important to Mearns and the company has invested heavily in training programmes in the past 12 months.
A head of customer satisfaction was brought in to monitor how Sterling is perceived and a mystery shopping programme was introduced.
Those initiatives have since led to staff training programmes designed to improve service levels. and product knowledge.
Alongside that a white glove delivery service - which encompasses building and placing of any furniture then disposal of packaging - has also been introduced in response to customer requests.
Mearns said: "There's a fine balance between offering help, being good at selling and pressurising a customer.
"We would never want our customers to feel intimidated and in today's tough marketplace everyone has to up their game.
"It is about getting a consistency of approach by our staff. If a customer is out there and one sales person is ignoring you and another is coming on too strong then that will put you off.
"A satisfied customer will come back and they will tell their friends. That recommendation is possibly the most powerful marketing we can get."
Mearns talks a lot about earning the trust of the customer but concedes it takes time to do that.
He said: "People have had their whole lives shaken up by the events of the past three years.
"They need retailers who they trust and we speak to our customers as often as we can.
"People tend to only replace their furniture every seven to 10 years so it can be hard to build that relationship but we work very hard at it."
After graduating from Strathclyde University with a degree in technology and business studies Gordon Mearns trained as an accountant with Touche Ross.
On completing his training he decided to move into industry joining Sterling in 1984 as a financial accountant.
Sterling Furniture Group had been set up in the early 20th century by the Knowles family.
In 1974 George Knowles who was inspired to convert a disused mill at Tillicoultry into a retail destination after seeing the popularity of out of town shopping during a trip to America.
Knowles's son George junior took over the company in 1985 and began to grow the business beyond its heartland by opening stores in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Ayr, Uddingston and Inverness.
The company's advertising campaigns with sports broadcaster Dougie Donnelly a friend of the Knowles family - spawned the catchphrase Sterling, Tillicoultry, near Stirling and became well known in Scottish culture.
When George junior died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 41 while on holiday in Majorca it was Mearns, by then finance director, who was selected to run the company as managing director.
Sterling now has 14 stores across Scotland and employs around 500 people.
Mearns, who completed an MBA at Strathclyde University Business School in 1991, lives with his wife in Bridge of Allan and has three children.