‘We put our money where our mouths are’
No longer constrained by a big plc, the directors of York-based kitchen retailer Studio35 are relishing the autonomy of launching their own business. Karen Wilson speaks to its founders one year in
When Gary McGowan, Rob Thorpe and Mark Turner set up Studio35 in March last year, they knew it would be a hard slog. Since the trio used their personal savings, lives have been on hold, holidays have been scant and Thorpe’s even delayed moving from a flat to a house with his girlfriend.
However, despite working six days a week and making home visits in the evenings, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
As the former manager of Smith Brothers – a Plumbase builders and plumbers merchants in York – McGowan was made redundant when parent company Grafton closed the site in December 2016. “It came to a mutual end as the mid- to high-end work we were doing didn’t fit into their portfolio,” he explains. “It became difficult for them to support us with CAD systems and the suppliers that only dealt with Smith Brothers.”
However, during the redundancy consultation period, the idea for launching a new business was hatched with McGowan’s colleague Thorpe, who’d worked for Smith Brothers for 13 years as a kitchen designer and showroom manager. Time-served joiner and builder Turner, who used to buy materials from McGowan, was the final piece of the jigsaw.
“We could’ve stayed within the Grafton Group or found alternative employment,” says McGowan. “But we decided to put our money where our mouths are, and set up a business dealing with the suppliers we wanted to deal with.”
Luckily, a Grade II listed building became available to lease on Blossom Street, a stone’s throw from York’s city walls, while warehousing was organised through Bowker Logistics at Elvington, just outside the city. But with just two months to transform the former motorcycle shop into a high-end kitchen showroom, it was all hands on deck for the opening in March.
“The landlord had transformed the flats above, but the ground floor was just a shell,” says McGowan. “However, it was a nice size and a great location. We covered the front of the shop with big images, which stopped people peeking in but also created a bit of buzz and excitement.”
Although the entry-level market was pretty much saturated, the closure of Smith Brothers had left a huge gap in the market for kitchens between £15,000 and £70,000, and their combined experience meant choosing their preferred partners was easy.
“I’ve dealt with many kitchen manufacturers over 25 years and there was no debate,” says McGowan. “The only one we wanted to go with was Schüller, as they offer the highest quality and best service we’ve ever experienced. As a privately-owned, family-run company, they invest a lot in research and development, and win Red Dot awards nearly every year.”
Adds Thorpe: “They don’t just process what you’ve asked for either – they recreate your drawings and send them back for you to check, which eliminates 99.9% of any errors.”
To complement the kitchen, the firm only partners with Cosentino for surfaces. “It’s about the guarantees and level of service should anything go wrong,” says McGowan. “There are cheaper options, but you get what you pay for.”
While the nearest Schüller dealer is in Leeds and they have local competitors selling German kitchens by the likes of Häcker, Siematic and Poggenpohl, Studio35 says that it benefits from offering the full package from concept to completion. This could include knocking through, installing bifold doors, fitting insulation, pulling ceilings down, and replastering and sandblasting brickwork. “A typical kitchen installer might suggest you get a builder for those things,” says McGowan. “But we have a team of trusted self-employed electricians, plasterers, plumbers and decorators who we’ve known for eight to 10 years.”
If a client wants something unique, such as reclaimed flooring or a bespoke mirror to match glass splashbacks, the team can source it. Existing pieces can also be incorporated, which have recently included an old dresser painted to match the new scheme and a refurbished extractor hood from a fish and chip shop.
A direct line to the owners of the business is another advantage, along with flexibility. “Each of us takes ownership for individual projects, so clients have one point of contact, but we all contribute towards the design and everyone knows what everyone else is doing,” adds McGowan. “With a new-build or extension, nine times out of 10 the day we’re supposed to start may not be the day we start. It’s frustrating, but we’re always willing to shuffle things around for the client. Most use our fitters, but if they want to use their own installer, we’ll always have a discussion with them to make sure they’re fully aware of the specific requirements of fitting a Schüller kitchen.”
Their approach seems easy-going, open and unpretentious with a dollop of good old-fashioned Yorkshire friendliness. They’ve even sorted out issues with previous customers of Smith Brothers as a sign of goodwill, are happy to follow up on snags beyond the five-year furniture guarantee, and offer a three-month health check after installation to make sure customers are happy.
Unburdened by the shackles of a big plc, the trio seem quite content that sales are roughly halfway between their business plan’s worst- and best-case scenarios. It’s early days after all, and undertaking around two projects a month with an average cost of £30,000 ensures clients get their full attention.
“We found our previous careers becoming more finance- and shareholder-driven with increasing turnover and profit being the main business aims,” says McGowan. “But now there’s no rush and no hard sell.”
It’s clear the customer’s experience is placed front and centre. After filling out a 15-minute pre-design questionnaire, McGowan or Thorpe will make a home visit to take measurements and gain further insight before creating a 3D virtual reality plan using Winner Design from Compusoft, so customers can stand in their current kitchen and view how it could look. “It’s amazing how much it inspires the excitement,” says Thorpe. “And people often want to go a bit grander.”
Although Schüller has standard door sizes and widths, bespoke elements are certainly possible and with more than 700 different combinations from classical shaker to modern slab doors in numerous colours, every kitchen will be unique.
The Next125 range also has several signature features, such as special veneers and ceramic doors, as well as the Red Dot award-winning cook table with its striking splayed legs and the cube glass wall panel system with attachments for accessories.
“All the end panels, worktops, and side panels can be made in the same material and no one in this area does anything like that,” says Thorpe. “Using an 875mm-high carcass and 50mm plinth means we can create that floating look, too.”
Currently business is split 70:30 between retail and commercial clients, with some work coming through interior designers, architects and developers they’ve previously worked with, such as Mass Architecture and Wilton Homes. “Most new customers have either seen the showroom or Googled us,” says McGowan. “But some have researched the Schüller brand and then found their local dealer.”
With a minimal marketing budget of £1,000 a month, so far the team have focused their efforts on Google AdWords and advertising in local free magazine Yorkshire Living, which targets their catchments areas, although some spend has recently been moved to Houzz.
They’ve also invested heavily in three branded vans. “Once you’ve paid for the vans, it’s free advertising,” says McGowan. “Someone might not be looking for a kitchen when they see it, but they might be next year. It just breeds familiarity.”
As for the future, a network of Studio35 branches or a sidestep into bathrooms or bedrooms is definitely not on the cards. “It’s all about quality over quantity,” says McGowan. “I’ve sold bathrooms and bedrooms in the past, but I think concentrating on kitchens means we can give customers the best service.”
Although businesses that provide products with such longevity could be seen to be shooting themselves in the foot, McGowan, Thorpe and Turner seem to share an approach that favours building a reputation over making a fast buck.
“We’re not looking for a £10 million turnover and 10 to 15 shops,” says McGowan. “We don’t want to be the next Mark Wilkinson – that’s not us. We’d rather have a small team who can keep control of everything. There’ll come a time where we might take on an apprentice designer and installer – but we’ll always be hands-on.”
To illustrate his point, McGowan tells me how he visited an old customer of Smith Brothers who wanted to add extra cabinets to his existing Schüller kitchen. “It looks as good today as the day it was fitted 10 years ago,” he smiles. “It just shows how the quality of the product stands the test of time.”