‘It was in our blood…’
A finalist in the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards 2019 Showroom of the Year category, Celtic Interiors in Cork not only has an impressive display offering, it also manufactures its own bespoke furniture in-house. Chris Frankland talks to director Aiden O’Leary (pictured) about the business and its ambitious plans for the future
Celtic Interiors takes a little finding. Tucked away on an industrial estate in Douglas, near Cork, it’s not far from the Douglas Court Shopping Centre and on a convenient junction with the N40 ring road.
Outside, it looks rather unassuming, but when I walk through the door I am blown away by the feature staircase that leads to the upper floor where there are more kitchen displays – the showroom has 20 in total – as well as bedrooms.
I’m not surprised at the quality of the showroom. Celtic Interiors was a finalist in the Kitchen Showroom of the Year category at this year’s kbbreview Retail & Design Awards and won the Kitchen Retailer of the Year Award in 2017.
Director Aiden O’Leary emerges from his office with a cheery greeting and takes me on a quick tour of the showroom and workshop – as Celtic also manufactures its own kitchens. He tells me that as you go further back in the building, you can sometimes hear the machinery, which apparently reassures customers that what they are seeing in the showroom is made on the premises and “doesn’t come out of a box”.
I sit down with O’Leary to find out more about the business.
Q: So, how did it all start?
A: There are three directors: Joe Nash, Paudie O’Leary and myself. We were cabinetmakers. The other two guys were the founders and I started with them when Celtic was one year old. The two lads partnered up when they met as contract fitters on sites. They started in a tiny store in the city. It was 10ft by 5ft with a tiny office and a little room upstairs where we put things together. The showroom was the boot of Joe’s car. He had a couple of sample doors and a couple of worktops, and it worked for a while.
I took over the manufacturing, Joe concentrated on selling and Paudie looked after fitting. And slowly we grew. We had about four staff when we started in 1993, and then we moved out here in 1998. From then to 2004, we grew to 20 staff.
Then we bought a manufacturing facility about 40 miles away – a 20,000sq ft warehouse that we kitted out for high volume. This is when the boom was rocking and rolling and we managed to get up to around 45 staff – doing 20 kitchens a week. And then the recession hit, so we brought manufacturing back here and scaled back to 20 staff – and we’ve not lost any since. We’ve got a great bunch of people.
Now we’re doing four kitchens a week, but we often do a lot of other furniture too, such as bedrooms, in the same house.
Q: What made you go bespoke?
A: It was in our blood as cabinetmakers. We like putting a twist on things and I think that’s why a lot of our customers come to us. If they wanted a straightforward kitchen, they can get it in the sheds. They want something special, that’s a bit different from everybody else. It’s also the service and the backup.
Q: Just how bespoke do you get?
A: We do have some standard ranges – such as the typical shaker door that’s part of where we are – it’s embedded into the fabric of Southern Ireland, it’s what 80% of the people coming through the door want. Modern is only 20%.
With that 80% we need to design it so that the client is amazed. Something they can’t get anywhere else – a curved breakfast bar, or bifold doors on a large cabinet – something that’s unique.
We don’t make standard carcass sizes. Everything is made to fit. No nasty in-fills. We can make it 471mm if it needs to be – because it looks and functions better.
Q: Being made to fit, what do you do if a customer cancels late on in the process?
A: We take a deposit of €1,000 (£865) and then 40% eight weeks before it is fitted. They pay in full three weeks before completion. It works well for us. We are never caught and our name is good enough now that people don’t question that.
“We like putting a twist on things and that’s why a lot of our customers come to us. If they wanted a straightforward kitchen, they can get it in the sheds ”
Aiden O’Leary, director, Celtic Interiors
Q: What’s your turnover?
A: Around £3 million. It’s been steadily growing. I have a 15% increase targeted for this year. We’ve streamlined what we’re doing in the showroom and our product, so we can get a little bit more out with more margin.
We’re not getting the first-time buyers, on average they are over 35 and they’re investing in what they see as their last home, so they want the kitchen to see them out.
Q: And you have a plan to achieve that growth…
A: Our original collection we manufacture ourselves, and we will do anything the customer wants. We will not say no to anything, but you will have to pay for it. The alternative is our new Atmosphere range. It will have some limitations, but you’ll be getting better value for money.
We have managed to get a supplier in The Midlands [Ireland] to copy our standard carcass colours, drawers and doors and hinges – it’s the same but in a more standard format.
We get people to fill out a questionnaire that takes about 45 minutes to complete. At the end of that, we have a pretty good idea of what sort of layout they want and what they want to spend on it.
Q: So you are at full manufacturing capacity in-house?
A: Exactly. So what we want to do is continue exactly as we are – being manufacturers, with a limit or maybe four kitchens a week. Anyone we feel could go for something a bit more standard to meet their budget, we will source that in. It’s a good option for a lot of younger people who still want a Celtic Interiors kitchen.
Q: Is bedroom furniture a growing part of your business?
A: Yes, especially for new houses. We have a lot of repeat customers who bought a kitchen coming back for bedrooms, sitting rooms, dressing rooms, and so on. It’s a small percentage of sales, but there’s a strong margin.
We are also looking at a catalogue of freestanding furniture – dining tables and chairs, occasional furniture and accessories – sourced through a catalogue from the UK with an agent in Cork.
Q: I see that you’re active on social media?
A: We’re strong on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but we find that our videos seem to get a lot of views, so we’ve done everything from testimonials from clients in their houses, our own videos in their house, to videos explaining different elements of our new displays.
Q: Are more people finding you through your website these days?
A: They are. Most are through previous customers and word of mouth, but when we ask customers how they heard about us, they find it hard to answer that question as they say it was a neighbour and then they’ll say they saw us on Facebook and looked at our website.
So which came first? I will be in the showroom and a customer will bring up our Facebook page to show me something and say ‘I want that’, so it’s definitely active. We also have a large gallery of finished projects done by a professional photographer.
Our website is only around a year-and-a-half old. If someone has made an appointment to come in, they’re going to look at your website. And if it’s poor, it’s a poor reflection on your company.
Q: Do you do any contract work?
A: We have a builder we used to do a lot of work for – a company took over their assets and they wanted us to continue with them. It’s only three houses every two weeks, which would involve a kitchen, a utility room and three bedrooms. We like having it, because we get paid in advance and the margin is still there.
Q: And you’ll not be entirely immune to possible after-effects of Brexit?
A: No, it could affect us in terms of the boards we buy [for carcasses] and it could affect the likes of, say, Neff as although they’re coming from Germany, the core stock is held in the UK. Miele should be OK. If we have to find another source or route for products, so be it.
We’ve just done an early stocktake. All our paint products, although they’re mixed in Ireland, the base products come from the UK. So we’re stocking up on that at the moment. We only have so much capacity to house sheet material, but we are looking at hiring a container.
Q: What did it mean to be a finalist in the Kitchen Showroom of the Year category in this year’s kbbreview Retail & Design Awards?
A: It meant an awful lot to us. We won the Kitchen Retailer of the Year award in 2017 and have entered the showroom category before, but have never got to the finals. We were thrilled to be in the top four, especially with the competition we were up against. It kept us on our toes showroom-wise. We try to keep the showroom perfect. People look at your showroom as what you’re going to be supplying them with. Why would you want to buy that if it’s not up to scratch?
Q: And so looking into the future?
A: The Irish economy is growing and we want to be part of that. We’re pushing for a 15% increase or more, as we feel the money is there. With our new Atmosphere range we’ll be increasing on our 20 kitchens a month and we’ll never outgrow our supplier’s capacity.
People are playing it safe, they’re modernising and investing in what they have. But we have a name for a good product with a unique edge. It’s what’s selling for us and making the company grow.