SUNDERLAND once made a quarter of all the world’s ships in its famous yards.

A home for the maritime sector, the River Wear was an industrial mainstay for hundreds of years.

Black and white pictures capture such halcyon days, as huge vessels, some pulled by tugboats, leave the region’s waters to cheers and applause from gathered onlookers.

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Sunderland was once called the biggest shipbuilding town in the world, with records showing yards dating back to 1346, when Thomas Menville opened in Hendon.

By the 1900s, more than 12,000 men, a third of the town’s adult population, were down by the river.

However, by the late 1980s, the sector, which had employed 7,500 people just a decade earlier, was a shadow of its former self as nationalisation, which led to job losses, and increased Far East competition sounded the death knell of the industry.

Kevin Royal knows a thing or two about the era.

He spent time at Doxford Engine Works, which was one of the major employers on the Wear and part of shipbuilder William Doxford & Sons, but moved on due to the nationalised shipbuilding industry starting to close down.

As he sits on a settee in a bright sofa showroom, Mr Royal, who is now managing director at ScS, couldn’t seem further from that sector.

He said: “I’m a marine engineer by trade.

“But through the nationalisation I ended up moving from engineering to retail.

“I was probably a better talker than I was an engineer,” he laughs.

ScS began trading in Sunderland around the 1890s as a family-owned general home furnishings store, so Mr Royal’s switch from engineering at least meant he retained links to Wearside.

He initially joined the firm in 1981 before taking a break in 1986.

However, he returned later that year and has worked his way through the ranks ever since.

He is measured when he speaks about his experiences, and how he took the time to quite literally ingrain himself within the fabric of the business to gain a better understanding of operations.

He said: “I spent time learning the company from the ground upwards.

“I went into the distribution centre, I went in the vans and I spent time with the upholsterers.

“It was an excellent grounding and time with people who were the real engine of the company.

“Without such support functions, you don’t have a business.”

By 1985, Mr Royal was manager of his first store, which, looking back, was a marker post of his ambition and a sign of him laying the foundations to progress through the company.

He was only 26.

“At the time, that was considered to be very young”, he said.

“Traditionally, managers had been in their late 40s or early 50s.

“After that I had the honour of opening our first store in the MetroCentre in October 1986, which was a really exciting time.”

From there, Mr Royal oversaw a site in Stockton, on Thornaby Bridge, and was manager at ScS’ MetroCentre Retail Park base in the mid- 1990s.

What then followed was a period of continued career progression, moving to regional manager in 1997 and retail director in 1999 before becoming a sales director in 2001.

He was last year made managing director and says his development is clear evidence of the company’s commitment to providing opportunities for staff.

He said: “There have been no glass ceilings; if you are determined enough and want to do it, it doesn’t matter what your background is or where you started.

“I’m an example of that.”

When ScS began, its NorthEast roots were particularly important in its formative years, with a Sunderland store complemented by bases in Newcastle, Stockton and Durham.

However, after a management buyout in 1993, the business began to expand outside the region, with a focus upon larger outlets that were soon to become a staple of retail parks.

But, says Mr Royal, while the company’s estate was growing – it now has 100 bases and nearly 30 House of Fraser concessions – it never lost sight of its customers.

Bosses have ramped up the firm’s website to cater for shoppers’ changing needs but retained strong store operations to marry the two together.

According to the company’s latest financial results, the tactic is having an effect.

Half-year figures for the period to January 28 showed gross sales were up 14.1 per cent on a year ago to £165.9m, with revenues 14.6 per cent better off at £157.9m.

Online gross sales were up 25 per cent to £5.4m.

“We have seen two years of very strong growth”, said Mr Royal, “and we want the very best website in our sector because we see online as a key developer of footfall into stores.

“These are big ticket items and people still want to feel and touch them, and see what they are like for comfort, before buying.

“Our customers are salt of the earth people, who are working very hard to provide for themselves and their families.

“They are good, honest people who do not have unlimited amounts of disposable income.

“We have built the business with these people and aren’t going to move away from them.”

However, bosses have added to the company’s traditional offering, with carpets now a part of its portfolio.

“The amount of times we shook hands with customers and gave them their receipt before watching them go out of the store and over the road to buy a carpet”, tails off Mr Royal, who revealed trials on the venture were undertaken in the North-East.

“From a standing start, we now believe we have about five per cent of the UK carpet market.”

Mr Royal also says ScS has continued to push on with its growth plans, despite some Brexit anxiety from customers, highlighting its partnership with high street operator House of Fraser as an important factor.

He added: “The feeling is quite mixed but what it has done is re-focus everyone here and we’ve taken the chance to assess ourselves and ask, are we the best in the market and are we giving the best value?

“Once the Brexit decision had been taken, people got on with it and have continued getting on with it.

“We believe in our products and the signs are encouraging.

“March has been positive and we are getting indications that the Easter period should be a good one too. House of Fraser is a really good example of how, if you are going to grow your business, you sometimes need to look outside your comfort zone. It gives us a different feel and it hasn’t cannibalised into ScS’ business; it is a completely different sector in the market place.

“We have also strengthened the senior management team and future-proofed the business.”