Watch repairer Harry Collinson shares the secrets behind his 40 years in business
One of Sunderland’s best-loved High Street names is celebrating 40 years in business this month.
Here’s how Collinson’s clocked up four decades in the city.
If it hadn’t been for a quick decision made at the tender age of 16, Harry Collinson Snr’s life might have taken a very different path.
He was about to leave what was then Southmoor School Technical College and had two potential careers to consider – a job as a galviniser or as a trainee watch maker.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a galviniser, it was too dirty,” he said.
“So I sort of fell into working in the jewellery trade.”
Now owning the city’s Pandora franchise, Colllinson’s and Nomination, the family is well known throughout the North East and beyond, for its products, service and watch repairs.
And Harry reckons that reputation is down to one thing – good, hard graft.
He learned his watch repair trade while working at the now long-gone Janet Frazer catalogue operation, dealing with the time pieces that were returned because they were faulty or broken.
“There was a whole group of us,” he recalled.
“And I knew from the minute that I got there I’d made the right choice, although I think I got on everyone’s nerves because I just couldn’t stop asking questions.”
Harry was one of only a handful of men working in a factory of 2,000 women and his enthusiasm and natural talent led to his boss finding him a new job repairing watches at the city’s Wittens Jewellery.
The opportunity for a large pay rise saw Harry then move on again – this time to work in the little watch repair booth in Joplings, earning the princely sum of £50 a week.
Ever ambitious, he decided to take up a job offer in London with his childhood sweetheart and wife Sandra, keeping their home in Town End Farm.
A lifelong Sunderland supporter, Harry remembers the magical day that Sunderland won the cup in 1973.
“Our son Harry was born in June that year and if we hadn’t been in London he may well have been called Jimmy, after Jimmy Montgomery,” he recalls.
Although the family loved London they decided to head home, where Harry once again took up watch repairing, first at the Co-op in Newcastle and then in Sunderland’s Binns store.
“I felt that was the right time, in the early 80s, to start working for myself,” he said.
“I got a map of Sunderland and I drew a circle, taking in Easington Colliery and Murton and every Monday I used to go round all of the newsagents in those areas, putting a card in the window offering watch repairs.”
As an incentive, Harry offered the newsagents 10 per cent of any work he got through them and soon found that he was rushed off his feet, making the decision to quit his job and start his own business.
He and Sandra found premises upstairs in Blandford Street, starting off “with £4 in two pence pieces that we had in a Tupperware box” and opened their first store in June 1981.
Harry speaks kindly of former city music shop owner, the late Ivor Saville, who acted as a mentor and gave him business advice.
From his base above what was the Wimpy Bar, the watch repair businesses started to grow “even if we did have to put up with the smell of the fat from the burgers.”
Now that he was the man in charge, Harry admits he “didn’t turn any business away” from repairing pigeon clocks – used to check on the racing times of the birds – to visiting grand houses to repair grandfather clocks.
When battery watches started to replace mechanical timepieces Harry took himself off to be trained in their repair so that he could add another string to his bow.
The company was flourishing, so much so that he decided to take on second premises at Waterloo Place.
“I’d been to Beamish and seen the windows of the Co-op building that looked like something out of Charles Dickens so I decided to get some made exactly like that,” he said.
In 1993 the shop opened its doors, selling items for the first time along with the repairs.
As the years progressed and their family grew, Sandra and Harry made plans to buy themselves a villa on a Greek island – but then they visited a jewellery trade show.
It was here they found a new company which was causing quite a stir and Harry realised this was a huge opportunity to open Pandora’s box – literally.
“The money for the villa was invested in Pandora,” said Sandra.
It was a huge investment but one which has turned out to be a shrewd choice, with Pandora in Sunderland a massive success.
It paved the way for a further new brand, with Collinson’s also now offering the Italian jewellery favourites, Nomination.
It has been a long and illustrious career but despite vague promises to Sandra of retirement, it’s looking less and less likely that Harry Snr will give up completely.
If he does he knows he’s leaving the business in good hands, with daughters Vicki and Rachael both involved, while son Harry junior has also inherited that entrepreneurial spirit.
The accolades have also continued to come, with a recent highlight being included in Vogue’s “little black book of secrets”.
“I don’t know where the time has gone,” Harry revealed.
“But it’s fantastic that people have stuck with us for so long - we have second and third generation customers who come to see us.
“It’s all about good service and giving people what they want and that’s why we’ve managed to stay around for so long.”