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Design Director Kieron chats with The Telegraph

‘There was a lot of emphasis on every penny mattering’

Written by Matt Caines / The Telegraph / 12th November 2018

Kieron Bakewell is living the American dream, having just been crowned best international exporter at The Telegraph Trade Awards for his company’s impressive efforts Stateside.

His furniture business, naughtone, makes lounge chairs, barstools, desk pods and more that are ordered to fit out workplaces at some of the world’s biggest brands, including Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. Sales to the US account for 60pc of its £23m turnover.

There’s a tendency for furniture firms to start local when it comes to exports, he explains. They begin with Europe and then the Middle East, but the US offers richer rewards. “It’s trying to catch up with European design, so it’s a huge opportunity,” says the co-founder. “Americans love Brits and British design.”

Trading across the Atlantic makes logistical sense, too. Europe has dozens of different cultures, languages and ways of doing things, he says. “With the US, it’s far easier to access a much larger customer base.”

Of course, a company will need to make some adjustments, and naughtone, which means “no-nonsense” (the firm’s tagline is “useful, beautiful furniture”), reprinted all of its sales documents to list items in inches, not millimetres.

It’s all about removing barriers and making things so easy for a local customer that it feels like buying a product from down the road. “Put yourself in their shoes,” he suggests. “Think about buying something from Austria, for example – the price is in euros, so you have to check the exchange rate and work it out, and then you’ve got to add shipping.” It’s at that point, he says, that people unsurprisingly find the process too much. “They go somewhere else.”

naughtone made things particularly straightforward by breaking America with a US price list that included shipping. “We fixed it for 12 months, so we took a risk on currency,” he explains.

But it paid off for the business, which was co-founded in 2005 by Bakewell and Mark Hammond, with whom he worked at a furnishings company after they studied design at university. The firm had gained rights to reproduce some mid-century classic British furniture by Robin Day. “He was one of the most successful designers out there,” says the co-founder, who suddenly had an “amazing” opportunity to work on the manufacturing process from beginning to end: finding suppliers, getting the components made, and assembling the final pieces.

He saw potential in replicating the model at his own venture. “It’s similar to how a lot of small businesses start; you cut your teeth at another company and see the opportunity there for yourself.”

The duo launched their firm in Harrogate, Yorkshire, without any investment. “We both took out personal loans, borrowed laptops from friends and so on,” says Bakewell.

Not having large piles of early-stage investment money also helps an entrepreneur to focus on cash flow, which is “everything” for a young enterprise. “There was a lot of emphasis on every penny mattering, because it really did.”

The co-founders wanted to target architects and interior designers, who could recommend (“specify”) their products to clients on a project-by-project basis. They secured some initial orders after taking a handful of prototypes to a trade fair, for which they cheekily set up a larger stand than they perhaps deserved. “If you look as big as the guys either side of you, that’s what people will perceive,” says Bakewell.

There have been a couple of key milestones in Naughtone’s growth journey since then. The first was co-director, Matt Welsh, buying in as an equal shareholder in 2007.

The second was bringing the brand’s manufacturing in-house, when it bought out one of its suppliers. “The lion’s share of our turnover comes from upholstered products,” explains Bakewell, who used to have to engage as many as five suppliers to source raw materials, create components, and then upholster and assemble each piece. “We had to start taking some ownership of that final part of the process.”

It was a “turning point” because it enabled the business to get a better grip on its pricing and with such close control of the process, it could directly improve the quality of its products. “With our finance and administration teams and so on, we were also able to propel a manufacturing business in our local Yorkshire, which felt great.”

On its Harrogate base, the co-founder admits that it can be both a blessing and curse. There’s not as big a pool of talent as there is in London, but his 82 employees tend to stick around for longer, as there’s not as much competition.

Creating a culture where staff are given lots of responsibility and feel involved in day-to-day decision-making also helps to reduce turnover, but Bakewell has found that challenging. “[Delegating] has been really hard and I see lots of founders not thoroughly letting go and accepting that things won’t always be done in the way that they want.”

He also thinks that small and medium-sized enterprise owners should be less fearful of working with the big brands. “The demands on household names to be innovative and stay ahead of the competition suits SMEs, because they’re agile and can turn things around quickly,” he says. “Some of our bigger competitors are too cumbersome to turn around proposals for a chair in a few weeks.”

It’s important work, thinks Bakewell. “Workplace design has an immediate, definite and positive effect on staff productivity,” says the entrepreneur, who sees a “shift” in how modern offices are kitted out. “The percentage of furniture in a building – products for breakout areas, cafés, libraries, quiet zones and so on – is increasing.”

He adds: “We’re at the high-quality end of the market, but the degree that companies buy into that is quite surprising.

“It’s not about price, price, price; it’s about organisations taking positive steps towards showing their people that they care about them.”

And while Bakewell admits that giving employees spaces to get away from their desk is not a new concept, many businesses are still lagging behind and need to catch-up. “Even if it’s old news, it’s still very important.”

Credit: Matt Caines, The Telegraph