Wimblecomm Spotlight – John Merriman

Just before the opening of his new community space in Morden, I had the pleasure of sitting down with John Merriman to talk all things Merton and learn about his journey so far. In our conversation, we touched on his many roles within the Merton community, opening a new business in the middle of a pandemic, and the importance of having a team around you. Whilst John remains very humble in his achievements and his contributions to the Merton community, his actions and successes speak for themselves.

Genevieve Etienne-Farrell: You have been involved in so much within the Merton Community which means we have a lot to cover, but let us start by talking about your role as Chair of the Merton Chamber of Commerce…

John Merriman: I accidentally became Chair of the Merton Chamber of Commerce (MCC.) Merton Chamber of Commerce represents about 850 businesses in Merton who are effectively their members. Some are members by default because their region/bid district or business park where they operate is a member, or they are individuals who have signed up as members. I have been through the transition of Brexit coming in, EU funding disappearing, and representing businesses through an incredibly challenging high street season where the High Street has virtually nose-dived. Coming out of Covid-19 is going to be a very different challenge, so our voice on the Chamber is making sure that business still has a voice locally although it may not look like it because business has moved, evolved and changed.

GEF: Thinking about your role more specifically, what do you bring to the table as Chair of the Merton Chamber of Commerce?

JM: My role on the Chamber is making sure that it evolves and continues to remain relevant. Diana and I have a very strong relationship – she has every contact in the borough and knows what she is doing – and the Chamber has a good heritage. I think my role is to bring more diversity to it. Being based in the east of the borough in Morden, I am regularly among the minority from this side of the borough at the meetings, so it still represents Wimbledon as the loudest voice in the borough more than it does Mitcham and Morden, and we are always looking at ways of broadening that. The minute that the diversity of the Chamber isn’t increasing, I will say that it is time to move on.

GEF: The challenge of overcoming the east and west divide of the borough is something that we all face when working in the Merton community. How does this challenge directly affect the MCC?

JM: The MCC is run as a small business itself, and business only works if you have people purchasing. Although a simplistic view, we have found that Wimbledon more readily accesses the services that we provide more than anywhere else. So, if we were to take the membership money from people in Wimbledon but then provide a service to people in Morden and Mitcham, this would be unfair, and the people who don’t pay still wouldn’t pay. This is one issue that we are continuously trying to address. 

GEF: How will you and the MCC continue to support businesses across Merton moving forwards?

JM: Well, I recently represented the MCC in a discussion with some leading figures in the borough, and one of the main things that I wanted to bring to that conversation was how we make sure that everyone in the borough comes out of the Covid-19 pandemic stronger and more equal. My role as Chair of the MCC is voluntary so I give my time and energy because I am passionate about finding ways to connect the whole of Merton and helping us all to succeed together. Despite the areas of Wimbledon and Wimbledon Village being more affluent, Wimbledon really needs support coming out of this pandemic. People think that it is easy to run a business in Wimbledon Village, but it is really hard because of higher business rates, rents, and a fluctuating footfall. There are different problems on this side of the borough (in Morden and Mitcham) where it is hard to even run a business. So, I just want to make sure that the Chamber represents all businesses across Merton.

GEF: At the start of the interview, you mentioned that you accidentally fell into this role. How did that happen?

JM: Andrew Wakefield, the old Chair, had a heart attack driving his car through Wimbledon and sadly passed away. He was actively chairing it and it was temporarily handed over to someone who then moved to Ireland, so I then ended up taking it on. It took me a long time to decide whether I was qualified to do it as I was only running a small business in Morden, so representing businesses in sectors that I didn’t know made me question whether I was the right person. However, I was keen to listen and I continue to listen.

GEF: Sometimes it is more about character than experiences and qualifications. Tell me more about your background…

JM: I grew up in Morden, my 2 children go to school in Morden, my parents live in Morden, I work in Morden, I shop in Morden and I love this town. When my wife was ill with Cancer, I stopped running Love Morden, which I started in 2010/2011 with the guys at Londis. Anil and Rashpal who run Londis are great community people. We started Love Morden together and built up a network that grew to 30-40 businesses strong, consisting of Tattoo Parlours, food outlets and all the kinds of business that don’t usually have a voice. It was brilliant! 

GEF: As well as giving a voice to local businesses in Morden, what kinds of things did Love Morden do for the community?

JM: We brought the community together through street parties and found clever ways of getting around TFL who own all the roads here, like in Wimbledon. In terms of the network, we sent invites to everybody, so all the businesses that wanted to join the network did. We had the issue of English being a second language for some and wanted to bridge that gap well, but that proved difficult as Love Morden was a voluntary project on top of running my own business. I had to stop when my wife became ill, and as with all these things, it needed someone to lead it. Chris Roe, Co-Chair of Cranleigh Tennis Club, did so for a while, as did another brilliant lady called Jane, but everyone has their own things going on. So, Love Morden is furloughed at the moment! Thinking back, it is probably because I had done that that I was asked to chair the Merton Chamber of Commerce; I networked in an area that didn’t have a network.

GEF: It sounds like Love Morden worked well collectively to bring the people of Morden together. What was one of your Love Morden highlights?

JM: The best thing we did was the Christmas lights! We got Stephen Alambritis, Leader of Merton Council, to push a fake plunger to light up the Christmas Tree. What we hadn’t told him is that behind all the shops here (on Crown Lane,) which is private land, we got permission from all of the businesses to set up a big firework display. We all put in a few hundred pounds, effectively spending thousands. Even though we couldn’t get permission to do a firework display from Merton Council, we had the Leader of the Council pressing a plunger that set off a huge firework display. There were pictures of him smiling, fireworks everywhere, and we said, “Rock on – this is how you do community!” There is always a way around things, and Love Morden has a feisty edge to find those ways. I am gutted that it has stopped, but I am sure we will be back.

Film Merton

When Sadiq Khan announced that any borough could bid to be the London Borough of Culture with the chance of winning millions, John was keen to get Merton involved. The council’s reluctance led to John starting a petition which was signed by 200 local people from the Arts & Culture scene which eventually swayed Stephen Alambritis and Jed Curran, the CEO of Merton Council. In its earlier stages, he chaired the project, and the launch attracted 500-600 people to Wimbledon Theatre. In his own words, he accidentally or not had quite a lot of say over how it was shaped but had to withdraw from the project when his wife Ruth became ill. After his wife died, he tried to continue but couldn’t, and added that his exit was a shame because he knew what he thought it could be, and what he thinks the borough needs. We then went on to discuss the positives from the project.

GEF: So, what were the positives from Film Merton?

JM: We were over the moon to have won something – I am pleased we were in it and that we tried. Other local boroughs didn’t get anything. We didn’t win the overall Borough of Culture, as Waltham Forest did, but we did win one of the Cultural Impact Awards which was a lot smaller. That meant that they looked at our full bid, chose the bit that they liked, and told us to move forwards with that. In this instance, it was film, and I’m not into Film so my eyes rolled, but we accepted it. We went to the Civic Hall, Sadiq Khan gave us the award and it was brilliant. Additionally, Merton Council were very kind to give substantial funding to make it all happen.

Secondly, it inspired things like us having a cinema here (at Metronome.) This will now be the first venue in Morden showing films since the Odeon was knocked down in the 80’s so that’ll be good. We have a whole programme of films coming here, and I know I wouldn’t be doing that if it wasn’t for Film Merton. Mitcham needs a Cinema or an Arts Hub too.

GEF: Mitcham Library now has the Mitcham Arts Space. Do you think that could fulfil the need?

JM: I love libraries, but community spaces associated with Libraries and the Council aren’t owned by anyone, they are owned by everyone. This means that they don’t have a voice to push them unless a character is behind it. I think that with any event/space, that is very necessary. The reason that Kingston and Croydon work as well as they do is because of a few key characters that push things. It wouldn’t matter if I had the best Theatre in the world (or the worst,) it’s the people that do Culture. So you can have the nicest room in a library but unless there’s a person who loves it, is fighting for it, and would do it even if they lost their job, it won’t be as effective. That’s why this place (Metronome) has survived. I’m going to be running Metronome for no money for probably 3 years now, until it will make enough to pay me anything. But I believe in it enough. If a council opened it, they would have to operate differently, employ someone, and have a very different metric to measure success.

GEF: You’ve said that it is ‘people that do culture,’ so tell me about a community culture that is important to you personally.

JM: Morden Baptist Church is my home in terms of my people. I do all their music stuff, and I am on their Leadership Board. Every culture is represented there, and it’s genuinely lively. All the Black Lives Matter discussions and actions that have been occurring lately are not an issue there because it is a genuine community of lots of cultures. The Black Pentecostal church is hugely represented, so is the older white congregation who have been there forever, as are quite a few from Sri Lanka, Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria and loads from Zimbabwe (both white and black.) Everything is very mixed there through to the Board, so they are my people and a representation of the Merton that I love.

GEF: During the Covid-19 Pandemic, how did you manage to keep that community together?

JM: One way was through music. I wanted to get people of all ages and all abilities together to sing or play something so that we could still feel that sense of community whilst there was no real physical community. People recorded themselves at home on their phones and computers, and we combined those recordings to produce Look Up Child. On the song, you have got each person on their own, and then everyone comes together to create something beautiful. I wanted to sum up the community in a song and really enjoyed putting it all together.

GEF: You did exactly that! Sticking to the theme of music, how did the Crown Lane Studio come to fruition?

JM: I used to be a high school teacher at Cheam High teaching Music and acting as a Governor; I loved it. Then I had a river accident with my wife where our car was swept down a river and we only just escaped. The river had burst its banks and we watched the car get swept away, and that made me think about how precious life is. At that point Ruth & I always wanted to start this business at the studio, so I quit my teaching job. We started Crown Lane Studio, and in 2008 the recession started, and we realised just how tough things were going to be. There is some sort of strange parallel between starting a business in a recession and starting this business (Metronome) in the middle of a pandemic. It hasn’t been easy starting either of them.

GEF: How did you manage to achieve success the first time around?

JM: Bizarrely, what worked with the Crown Lane Studio business was the people that were around me. At the beginning, it was my wife Ruth, and Bill who still works with me. Bill is a friend’s Dad who volunteered to come and help me because he could see how hard it was at the start. He helped wherever I needed him, and we did that for a while until I could pay him. Now 14 years later, he is still working with me.

Family and Teamwork 

Throughout our conversation, it became very apparent that family and teamwork are integral to who John Merriman is. He attested to treating everyone like family, spoke of his experience of being a foster parent, and reiterated the importance of having a team of people around to support you in life. He praised Chrissy (Manager of Crown Lane Studio,) and Naomi (Manager of Metronome,) for their flexibility and desire to get things done, even if the work occurs outside of the usual hours. Despite his drive and the many things that he has achieved thus far, he is not one to keep the spotlight to himself and stated – It is the community around me that has made this all happen, and I put me at the centre because it would not have started if I wasn’t here, but equally it wouldn’t happen without the whole community. The more people that buy in, the better. 

Later in our conversation, he gave further insight into his take on leadership and how he shares responsibility to create the team ethics that he deems most effective. He added, They are not my staff; we are a team. That is the terminology I will always use. When asked how he implements this in the day-to-day running of his business, he spoke of giving others the authority to make decisions and gave the following example. Today, Naomi (Metronome Manager) wanted to do something different to what I would have done with some signs that we have, but what she says has to go. If I overrule her on this, a little bit of her ability to make any decision is chipped away. Although I wouldn’t have done it this way, it is really good – and has probably worked better than my idea, and she will now make the next decision on her own.

Opening his New Business, Metronome, in the Middle of a Pandemic

John talked about the difficulties that all businesses are facing because of the pandemic. He referred to local businesses like the local Tattoo Parlour who wasn’t allowed to open during lockdown, but still had to pay rent, and in fact faced a rent increase. He questioned how himself and the Chamber of Commerce could help people in these difficult situations but reflected on how much of a challenge it is to find these answers whilst running his own businesses and taking care of his own family. He concluded this point by adding that community stuff is hard because none of it pays, and this is the reality for so many.

GEF: Tell me about your latest venture, Metronome…

JM: The concept of Metronome is that it is a Coffee and Events Space for the community, with curated events. People can hire it privately, and it is a very flexible space, so within an hour it can turn into whatever you want it to be. It is very comfortable, very homely, and will have an alcohol licence. It is also attached to a Studio with a room that’s like the halfway house between, which can be hired by the hour throughout the day if you just need a quiet meeting place, or for the whole day. You can also order food and drinks straight to the room through an app. The studio side of the business has been run for 13 years full time as a commercial studio.

GEF: Did you use any grants or council funding to set up these spaces?

JM: No, nothing that I’ve done in my life has been grant based or charity funded. I would like to run things as a business if I can and do well for the community through that business. Like the Refill water fountain outside of Metronome, that is a community asset that comes out of (hopefully) being able to run a successful business.

GEF: What challenges have you faced opening Metronome in the middle of a pandemic?

JM: I have written 3 business plans for this place, as government guidelines have continued to change. I have had to consider what is financially viable; whether I can afford to pay staff with a limited number of customers allowed in at once, and it takes a new business plan to realise that it can work but only with a reduced menu. This has never happened before, even in wartime we just ploughed through. Your business might get blown up, but you are not told that you can or can’t work, can meet or can’t meet, 1m or 2m…it’s so hard.

GEF: What has helped you to face all these new challenges?

JM: I don’t like to give up, but that’s definitely thanks to the people around me that carry me through. I can sit down and come up with an idea, but to see it through, I need them. It is the strength in the community that means community-focused businesses work well.

My parents have supported me a lot too – throughout the whole pandemic they walked down here and painted, so every bit of paint in here is them. (They did the work and I say that it was to give them exercise so I can pretend it helped them in some ways.) My kids came up with an idea that saved us £200 – rather than having an actual switch that an electrician would have charged us to wire in, we have a remote control for a socket. It is brilliant because you can turn on the synth unit with a remote that costs 16.99!

GEF: What opportunities do you hope to provide at Metronome?

JM: I am happy to give stuff, and I will be providing more work opportunities. I want to make sure that people are employed on a level that means they will always have responsibility that can tier up. They can start by serving drinks, but then the next step could be that they’ll be in charge of curating art. We will have a product line as well, so there is opportunity for people to manage that. Ensuring that people have some kind of upskilling whilst they are here is important. There are so many things that it can grow into if people take the responsibility. They will probably want to give more hours than I can pay them for, but they will own that concept and the vision, and they can run with it. It’s a place for the community in the middle of town, hopefully it will make its money through tea and coffee and lunches during the day, and the rest will follow.

GEF: How do you support the Merton Community through your businesses?

JM: We give the community a safe space where they can thrive and be creative. At Crown Lane Studio and Metronome, people can be themselves and explore what life is all about. I think you can only be creative if you feel safe. Metronome is fully sustainable, fully accessible, and dementia friendly. There is step-free access from the Tube to the Coffee House to the Studio, and all the team are autism trained. The room is laid out so that you’re not sitting with your back to a window at any time – once you are in, you are safe and secure, and you can relax. And in that place, you can be creative. You can laugh, love, spend time with people, build community. Having worked with the fostering team, having a safe space is where everything starts from…It sounds like a bit of a high goal for a coffee shop, but I really believe that.

GEF: Creativity is one of the things pulling us through Covid-19 globally, and both of your businesses sit in that creative field. How can artists and creatives in Merton get involved?

JM; At Metronome, I think the curator groups for the gallery space, the cinema, the music, and events can each grow into something big. The curator cinema side could become something that happens all over the borough in pop-up places like Film Merton. The gallery could bring more artists here giving people of Merton more access to art, meaning more artists receiving more revenue, putting this part of the borough on the map culturally – and that’s key. I think this space (Metronome) is physically small but ambitious in its outlook. 

GEF: How do you see Merton building back better post this Covid-19 pandemic?

JM: I’d say that the collective strength is where Merton will strive. I think we’ve got the right people; I think Jed Curran is the right CEO for Merton in a crisis. Merton have been voted one of the top 5 boroughs in dealing with Covid-19 by central government and they say the reason for that is people/groups that you’ve featured on Wimblecomm such as the Dons Local Action Group and people working together. All the networks are there in Merton, they just haven’t had the reason to work together on something, but this means they have and it’s brilliant and strong and Merton will thrive. Chatting to Jed Curran in a meeting the other day, he agreed that that is what he wants for Merton. 

GEF: As we look to build back better as a community, give me your top 3 tips for success and getting through rejection and obstacles.

JM: 1 – Look after yourself by bringing a team around you.

2 – Look after others, especially those that don’t have the support that you’ve got.

3 – Try the things that nobody else has done. What’s the USP (Unique Selling Point?) Whatever you do, make sure the unique thing is something that you strongly believe in and then it will stand a chance of standing on its own because you’re not imitating.

Interview by Genevieve Etienne-Farrell

We hope you have enjoyed hearing from John Merriman and thank him again for his openness and desire to lead a change here in Merton. In this #WimblecommSpotlight, we have seen how his voluntary works with the Merton Chamber of Commerce, Love Morden, and Film Merton have contributed to people across Merton having a voice, and how he continues to use his businesses to better our local communities. We wish him the utmost success with his new community space Metronome which lays in the heart of Morden and encourage you to visit to see how John and his team bring life to a community space. Whether you choose to ease in your new week at 2pm on a Monday with their Silent Hour or enjoy Friday at Four when they turn up the volume and play a chosen album in full, the possibilities at Crown Lane Studio and Metronome are endless.

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