FROM humble beginnings to a thriving fashion and homeware chain, Choice Discount Stores are gearing up for a mammoth milestone - celebrating 50 years in business.

Choice was founded by entrepreneur Con Donovan who moved to Hadleigh from the east end in the early 1960s' armed with a steely determination to open his own discounted fashion store.

In 1966 that dream came true when Choice in Rectory Road, Hadleigh was established. Thanks to support from his wife Kath, years of hard graft and sacrifice, the business expanded and today - managed by the couple’s children - there are now 19 branches across the south east with three new stores about to open.

Con died last year aged 81 and was still working up to the end. David Donovan, MD of Choice said: “My dad and my mum worked extremely hard to build the business up. For my dad the business was always about looking after the customer- giving them not just a bargain but a quality bargain. This is still our passion today.

“I know my dad would have loved to have been here for the 50th anniversary celebrations but he would be incredibly proud of what the entire Choice family has achieved thanks to our customers and our loyal and hardworking staff.”

WHEN Cornelius (Con) Donovan founded Choice Discount Store in Hadleigh his motto was honesty is the best policy. “Being truthful is key,” he once said, “some people may not like it, but I’ve not been hit yet!” This motto endured - as has the family business - which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, thankfully with no fisticuffs along the way.

The East End businessman, who was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to business and charity work, died in November last year at the age of 81 but his four sons, David, Mark, Neil and Phillip have taken over their father’s legacy as joint owners and managing directors of the company which specialises in selling big label fashions, home ware and furniture at heavily discounted prices.

The brothers, all who live in the south Essex area, have been involved in the Choice empire since their schooldays. At one point they all worked as humble Saturday boys on the shop floor for their father. You think nepotism might come into play here but anyone who knew Con Donovan would laugh at the thought his sons would receive special treatment.

“You must be kidding,” laughed David, 52. “He was harder on us that any of the other shop-workers, probably because he wanted to make a point that just because we were his sons we weren’t going to get away with anything. We certainly did work hard and we learnt a lot of valuable lessons.”

After leaving the army following his National Service, Con was expected to follow the family tradition of working in the London docks but instead, with true entrepreneurial gusto he ventured out on his own to pursue a dream of working in the fashion industry. Supported by wife Kath every step of the wat, the couple moved to Benfleet in 1961 and started up their first business, a factory making and selling value-for- money women’s clothing.

Within five years the couple’s dream of opening their own discount clothing store was realised and Choice in Rectory Road, Hadleigh was born in 1966. It remains the head office of the company today and now covers more than 8,000 sq ft. The company’s contribution to the local economy was even recognised when the shop site was officially named Choice Corner by Castle Point Council.

“One of the earliest memories I have of the business is of my dad being downstairs on the shop floor measuring up shoppers up for dresses as in those days that’s what you did. He’d also be down there, encouraging women to try on coats. He loved to be on the shop floor meeting the customers and bantering with them,” said Phillip, 49.

As the company became more and more successful expansion became the name of the game. Today there are 19 Choice Discount Stores, several right here in Essex incluiding Basildon, Grays, Clacton, and a home outlet at Rayleigh Weir -to branches further afield including in Cambridge, Slough and Chatham. The company employs 500 people and rising, with three brand new stores in the pipeline destined for Romford, Wood Green and Luton in the near future.

Mark, 54, added: “I think my most vivid memory over the years is when we opened the Basildon Choice branch in 1991 on the Mayflower Retail Park and the entire cast of the TV programme London’s Burning came down for the opening as VIPs. The A127 literally came to a standstill – we stopped traffic!”

So in an age where half of new businesses fold within five years, what’s the secret to Choice’s longevity?

“I think it’s just giving people quality brand name labels at heavily discounted prices,” said Neil, who specialises in the IT and finance sections of the business. “We try to give shoppers what they want and if we can’t sell it cheap, we won’t sell it at all.

“Shoppers are careful with their money but they always want a bargain and we will give them that bargain, whether it’s in buying a new dress for a night out to a brand new sofa to a suitcase. Although women’s fashions are our biggest seller, children’s wear is fast catching up as you can go into a Choice store and get a new wardrobe for your child with well-known labels cheaper than practically anywhere.”

Surprisingly suitcases sell like hotcakes at Choice, with 500 a week flying past the till. Sofas are big business too.

Many of the 65,000 different branded products are sourced from the Far East, especially Sri Lanka and Morocco with new arrivals of the latest trends brought into store each week.

“That’s the thing, although we’re known for our fashion brands customers are sometimes surprised to see we sell home- ware, garden furniture, furnishings too,” added Philip.

As part of their half a century celebrations Choice are holding a sale across their network of branches with up to 50 per cent off selected products over the coming few weeks.

“We are planning to make this a special year, reaching our 50th anniversary is a huge achievement and one which befits the dedication our amazing mum Kath and our dad made all those years ago,” added David.

“It’s still a family business but it goes further than that. We try to instil a family atmosphere for our employees too. We have one area manager here who began as a Saturday boy 20 years ago while 60 of our staff members have been at the company for more than 15 years.”

That’s no mean feat in a world where job- hopping has become the norm.

David added: “We’ve gone through years where not only did we not open on a Sunday but nothing in Hadleigh opened on a Sunday to not being allowed to have undressed mannequins in the window, to a culture of 24 hour online shopping and social media. Who knows what the next 50 years have in store for us but I’m sure there are exciting times ahead.”

Perhaps the last word should go to the founding father of Choice, Con Donovan without whom Hadleigh could have been a very different place. Con always strived to keep Hadleigh alive. True to his plain speaking form in 2010 when addressing a regeneration meeting he called for action in boosting footfall to the town.

“This a great opportunity, lets stop talking about it and get on with it! “ he boomed.

Giving plenty of interviews over the years to the Echo Con’s core message was always the same- the customer is key. “To us it’s all about value. We keep prices down because we know money is tight out there in this climate, but we keep value and quality up. Our customers love us, we must be doing something right!”

We can’t argue with that.

CON Donovan was a man who got things done. Procrastination was not a word in his dictionary which meant good news for the charities he supported. Over the years the discount store chain, under his leadership, raised more than £600,000 for Havens Hospices in Westcliff and Thundersley as well as supporting other local charities. The good work continues and Con’s legacy is now being carried on by his family who remain dedicated to the business’s charitable works.

Con vehemently supported Havens Hospices, in particular Little Haven’s Children’s Hospice, which held a special place in his heart. Even after death he was still raising money for them. Choice set up a Just Giving page in his memory asking for donations to Havens Hospices, instead for flowers. The appeal raised a staggering £22,405.

Liz Marshall, HR manager for Choice, said: “Con always gave generously to charity, particularly the children’s hospices. “When he passed away, rather than have flowers at the funeral, we invited people to donate instead. Con would have been absolutely overwhelmed as it is such a huge sum of money. “I think it also brings comfort to his family seeing how much people cared about him.”

Con’s annual golf days and celebrity-packed charity evenings were legendary but it was his personal dedication to rolling up his sleeves when the chips were down that led to him being named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours just months before his death.

In June 2015 he was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to business and charity work. Particularly singled out were his actions when the adult hospice was in crisis a few years ago. Con wrote to all his contacts to ask for donations and even personally covered a fundraising shortfall of £28,000. Through his church he also saw to it that a township in Africa received a 40ft container packed with 200 computers, stationery and toys for poverty-stricken children. This was within days of a call for help going out.

In 2012 Choice held a special sale for customers and donated a chunk of the profits to Basildon Hospital after staff saved Con’s his life when he was taken ill during a family meal. Aged 77 at the time Con and his wife Kath were celebrating their wedding anniversary with their children when Con took a turn for the worse. His sons rushed him to Basildon A&E. Con told the Echo afterwards: “The treatment I received was incredible from the moment I arrived in hospital. To the doctors, the sister and all the nursing staff, I want to say how much I appreciate the care they gave me.”

Also in 2012 Con threw his weight into backing plans for a statue to honour boxer Henry Cooper. A former amateur boxer himself, Con met the champ when they were carrying out national service in the army together and they remained friends. Con also supported local boxing groups throughout his life.

David Donovan, MD of Choice said: “Our dad worked tirelessly for charities and the local community and we will carry on his legacy.”

Choice in numbers…

50 – the number of years the business has been going

500 – the number of staff members employed by the chain today

22,405 – the amount collected for charity following Con’s death

100,000 – the number of customers who walk through the doors of Choice stores each week

600,000- the amount in pounds the chain has raised for Havens Hospices over the years