‘Opening more showrooms is a priority’
Intrigued by news that Brentford-based BathroomsByDesign had opened a new showroom built entirely out of shipping containers, Linda Parker went to meet chairman Sam Colwill and MD Charlie O’Rourke to get the full story
From modest beginnings as an eBay store employing one person, BathroomsByDesign has recently fulfilled its 20,000th order and now employs more than 20 staff. And with a flagship store in Richmond and a new showroom just opened at its HQ in Brentford, it has no plans to stop there.
The family-run business was founded in 2006 by Sam Colwill. It has a thriving contracts business, supplying some high-profile clients, including the V&A Museum and Fortnum and Mason, while Sam’s brother Rupert is busy developing the trade side of things. Last year was a record year for sales, which grew by 25%.
Sam Colwill brought in Charlie O’Rourke as interim MD when he went on paternity leave last year, and, on his return, he persuaded O’Rourke to stay on as MD, while he took on the role of chairman.
Colwill says: “Together, we have become a dream team and I am proud of what we have achieved and will achieve.”
The new Brentford showroom reflects the company’s unconventional approach, being built entirely from shipping containers. It features 10 room-set displays, a tile gallery and an entertainment zone where events can be staged.
BathroomsByDesign has also launched a new Virtual Reality app for use in its design consultations, which it believes will be a game-changer in the industry.
I sit down with Sam Colwill and Charlie O’Rourke to talk to them about the company’s new showroom, growing contracts business, and its plans for the future.
Q: BathroomsByDesign seems to have a very different and interesting take on their showrooms – how did the shipping container idea come about?
Sam Colwill: When we moved to our 12,000sq ft HQ and distribution centre in Brentford back in 2014, we’d always planned to have a showroom, as the office just wasn’t big enough to accommodate our growing team and displays. So we started looking to extend the offices into the warehouse. I’d always thought shipping containers could make great building blocks for almost anything and I knew they were being used more and more in London, across Australia and in the US. We looked at the costs and timing of building the showroom using traditional methods, and shipping containers came out as both cheaper and quicker. What’s more, at the end of our lease, we can take the showroom with us!
Q: What was the timescale of the project?
SC: In early 2016, we spent around six weeks planning various layouts that we could fit into the warehouse. We had lots of height to play with, so stacking the containers become an obvious solution and we finalised plans that used five containers stacked, two and three high, with a narrow mezzanine structure to connect them to the existing office walls – creating a three-floor 3,300sq ft showroom. We bought five pre-cut containers to create the room sets and walkways we wanted, minimising the number of walls we had to build. They were delivered in May that year – nearly taking the roof off the entire warehouse in the process. There were a few heart-in-mouth moments. Within 24 hours, we were wiring in electrics and fitting insulation, so it all moved very quickly.
Q: So effectively, you broke down the project into modular ideas?
SC: A bathroom showroom should be an inspiring place, so I had decided that the ground floor needed to house a display of complete, fully furnished bathroom sets – just like our first showroom in 2009 in Richmond. We also wanted to include a private design studio, where customers could have dedicated and uninterrupted meetings with our design team members. The lighting in that studio includes projectors that beam our 3D design software on to the walls, creating a much larger and immersive screen for customers.
The first floor became more of an exhibition space, with products and brands categorised into zones, where we could show off a wider selection of products. We also added a second design studio.
As we were in the middle of an industrial estate in Brentford, with no staff room and nothing for our team to do during their lunch breaks or after work, we decided that the second floor should be for them. We installed a pool table, a cinema screen with an Xbox, some tables and chairs, plus a few deck chairs and a bar with Guinness on tap!
With one eye on the future, the fifth container became a fully furnished one-bed flat set, with kitchen, double bedroom and en-suite shower room.
We did a soft launch in January 2017, held an official launch party in July and in total spent around £120,000. The whole process was a huge learning curve but a lot of fun.
Q: What are your priorities for 2018?
SC: Opening more showrooms is a priority. We have succeeded in Richmond and Brentford, but have the facilities and infrastructure to add several more stores around London.
We also want to develop our internet presence and improve the overall buying and communications experience for our customers. Consumer behaviour is becoming more and more convenience-based, so the easier and more tailor-made their experience, the better. We have a service for the customer who wants to buy face-to-face in a touch-and-feel showroom, and someone who wants to do everything by email.
The top priority for us is recruiting the best talent and building our team with like-minded bathroom enthusiasts who want to be part of our growing business. That’s not just for the new showrooms, but also for an online telesales team and our new trade department – headed up by my brother. We’ll continue to have vacancies throughout the year and we’re happy to receive CVs and even short videos from potential candidates. In my opinion, we are looking for the right attitude, first and foremost – experience can be overrated.
Q: You carry out large commercial projects, as well as residential ones. How does that work?
SC: Historically, we have been focused on, and geared towards, residential projects for retail showroom customers. We have been lucky enough to pick up some nice commercial work over the years, such as supplying and fitting the ladies’ washrooms at the V&A Museum, the Fortnum and Mason store and some very posh hotels across London, Europe and as far away as Zanzibar. This year we’ll be expanding our trade projects. My brother Rupert is building a dedicated trade department and is already working with some high-profile, prestigious clients. It will be exciting to see where, and how far, he’ll take it this side of the business.
Q: Is the contracts market still buoyant? How do you see it developing?
Charlie O’Rourke: We see significant opportunities for growth in the contracts market, which seems very healthy at present, particularly as we develop our exclusive own-brand offering. It’s an area that we have not yet fully exploited and one that will be key for us over the next couple of years.
Q: What impact has Brexit had so far?
SC: In the first half of 2016, we were on course for our 10th year of double-digit growth, then Brexit happened. Overnight, we could see a shift in attitude from customers, who became very cautious. The suppliers of the huge ranges of Italian, German and Spanish sanitaryware and tiles we import instantly increased prices, which reduced our margin significantly. And our sales manager decided to emigrate to Australia three months after the referendum!
It was a really tough period and, with the arrival of my second child in the December after the referendum, I knew the business needed a calm head and safe pair of hands to guide it through choppy waters, so I brought in Charlie, initially as an interim MD during my paternity leave. He instantly steadied the ship, reassured the team and implemented processes to cut our costs. He reviewed our supply chain, reduced the number of our suppliers and negotiated improved terms. I’m so pleased that I persuaded him to stay on when I returned – he clearly has the vision required to implement our growth plans.
Q: Do you consider your business strategy to be aggressive?
CO: We like to think of our plans as measured, not aggressive. The key to our growth is recruiting the right people, particularly in the sales team. We’ve had an unconventional recruitment policy in the past, but we are now moving towards a far more rigorous and scalable recruitment process. We offer an exciting commission plan and career development opportunities: we want to attract the best.
Q: How do you handle customers who take advantage of your design knowledge and expertise and leave without buying anything?
CO: To be honest, that doesn’t happen very often. We don’t charge for home surveys or design consultations. It’s really important for our designers to build a binding rapport with prospective clients. They are consultants, not product shifters, and creating a special relationship with our clients is part our philosophy. It makes it difficult for them to go elsewhere. We also know that it’s a false economy for a client to take their plans elsewhere and get things cheaper. Something has to give: delivery, service or after-sales support. We prefer not to compromise.
Q: How is the new VR app on your website working out?
CO: We are really excited about the next version of our website, with great new features like ‘get the look’ and online chat, so that we can help customers with their online purchases. Our goal is to have the easiest-to-use website in the industry that provides an exceptional buying experience. We are investing quite heavily in Google Pay Per Cick and on Facebook Lead campaigns to drive traffic to our website.
Q: Is the entertainment and events zone of your showroom proving to be an asset?
CO: It’s great for team building, internal meetings, and for our suppliers to use for demos to our sales team. It’s has been really successful in the development of our trade business. A few weeks ago, we were able to entertain the MD and entire sales team of one of the largest loft and basement conversion companies in the South-East. They enjoyed a game of pool and a few beers – it was a great way for them to build their confidence in us as an organisation.
Q: What are your priorities when choosing brands to work with?
CO: Excellent service is top for us: without that, the relationship will fail. One of the reasons we reduced our pool of suppliers was to reduce our losses due to poor supplier service. Poor communications and late deliveries led to extra expenses for us to get products to customers. We now choose our partners much more carefully and keep a keen eye on our costs to keep our competitive edge.
Q: How is your trade business progressing?
CO: Trade is the fastest-growing part of our business, and along with online revenue will fund our showroom development plans. To maximise the trade opportunity, we are looking to recruit a trade manager to work with Sam’s brother Rupert. The plan is to build a strong team, and establish long-term partnerships with interior designers, architects, builders and so on. This is a key hire – it’s the final piece of our trade attraction strategy.