The Fibonacci sequence
The numbers are certainly adding up for Versatile Bathrooms in Navan, Co Meath – a finalist in the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards this year for Bathroom Retailer of the Year, whose commercial arm won an order to fit out washrooms in Facebook’s new Fibonacci complex in Ireland. Chris Frankland went to talk to co-founder Catherine Treacy and sons Andrew who is MD and co-director Philip
As senior marketing manager Paula Castillo finishes giving me the full tour of Versatile’s impressive Navan showroom, we bump into director and co-founder Catherine Treacy. I comment to her how impressed I am with the foyer area, to which she smiles and says: “So, what’s wrong with the rest of it, then?” It would be fair to say I liked her straight away!
And there is indeed nothing wrong with ‘the rest of it’ – far from it. The 10,000sq ft showroom, refurbished last December, split over two floors, is immaculately presented and accessorised with more than 60 displays ranging from smaller cameos to full room sets and fully working pieces such as the Dornbracht Sensory Sky shower.
Sensory – aromatherapy and chromotherapy – and wellness are two areas that managing director Andrew Treacy tells me they will be looking at very seriously in the future, in an area set aside towards the rear of the ground floor. At the time of my visit, there are plans for a new working spa. Andrew tells me that they have even taken on a wellness specialist, Michael Kelly, who has attended several European seminars on how best to design for that area and carries out training sessions for Versatile staff. “Trying to develop those skill sets over the years has helped our turnover and helped our growth,” explains Andrew.
In Versatile’s kbbreview Retail & Design Awards entry (it was a finalist for Bathroom Retailer of the Year), they said: “We have created a sensory retail experience, delighting visitors’ five senses upon entry to our showroom. Pleasant scents (through diffusers and fresh seasonal flowers) and an impressive split staircase to wow them [visually], plus improved sound system with relaxing music, and varied textures for their sense of touch.”
But Versatile, with its 29 staff and two divisions – Versatile Bathrooms and Tiles and Versatile Heating and Ventilation – started 35 years ago on a much more modest footing when Catherine and husband Billy opened a 1,000sq ft bathroom boutique shop in the centre of Navan, with tiles as the main focus.
Billy’s background was in importing radiators, and Versatile is still the Irish importer for Zehnder and Jaga, among others. Catherine, however, came from the world of fashion and was a model for many years.
She tells me she believes that this stood her in good stead to bring a lot of fresh ideas into the bathroom business.
They soon outgrew their first shop and moved on to the high street itself into what had been a haberdashers for 100 years. Soon they were selling bigger and bigger pieces and needed even more space, so they moved into their current premises in 2003 with just four staff – the first year they entered the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards, when they won Bathroom Retailer of the Year and then repeated that success in 2005. Catherine adds: “Billy had acquired the property and had intended to develop it and rent it out, but I suggested to him that we hold on to it and we got an architect in and turned it into what it is now.”
Versatile has survived a couple of recessions and Catherine recalls: “In the first recession, we had to go on a four-day week. We tailored our product ranges to people’s budgets. The engineering [commercial] side held up well.
“We have more designers now. You have to put your cards on the table to help people. Then the customers will get the best and be thrilled to bits with what they get.”
And I was rather surprised to learn that the vast majority of Versatile’s retail bathrooms business was whole-house projects.
Catherine explains: “Meath and Kildare are good for us but we infiltrate the whole country, as the population is so small. Straight refurbs are just 20%. It’s different from the UK. Houses are being built bigger and bigger. People don’t build a small house anymore – it’s all going to be 2,000sq ft to 2,500sq ft. It used to be that you’d get one bathroom and en suite and a downstairs cloakroom, but now you can have a couple of en suites, a statement bathroom, and outside back and guest toilets. And they are future-proofing with showers that are accessible, washlet toilets, etc – we’re an ageing population. The shower can be as big as you like with no step.”
I ask MD Andrew about the Versatile business model and am interested to hear more about their commercial projects.
“The recession for us was very good. We didn’t see one. We were blessed with our team. We adapted. Customers felt that because they were dealing with Versatile, that’s like a lifetime warranty”
Andrew Treacy, managing director, Versatile Bathrooms and Tiles
He elaborates: “We’ve been growing throughout the 35 years, but the recession for us was very good. We didn’t see one. We were blessed with our team. We adapted. We’re not your typical retailer because we want to put a lot of depth into the projects we support. With the structure we have in the Versatile Group, we have the engineering mind-set, the interior mind-set and the architectural mind-set. We have been able to merge the three. In the recession, it continued to grow because a lot of customers were worried about the retailers they were dealing with and they wanted someone solid, who was going nowhere. Customers felt that because they were dealing with Versatile, that’s like a lifetime warranty.”
And so brand partners are very important…
“Yes, the key heavyweights like Dornbracht and Kaldewei. The market dynamic is different here in Ireland – we deal direct with those factories,” explains Andrew. “They are supported by our brothers-in-arms in the UK and we work extremely closely with them, but we would look after them on an exclusive basis in the island of Ireland [they are distributors for Dornbracht, Alape, Drummonds, Thomas Crapper, Eban, Zehnder, Bisque and have exclusive deals with Diesel Living, Apavia and Harmony. They also sell Laufen, Imperial, Lefroy Brooks, Matki, Dansani, Duravit, Victoria and Albert, among others].
“These opportunities were created in the recession and we work on building those brands. We don’t like too many conflicting brands. So the turnover has been linked to those key factories that we look after exclusively. Our average growth will be a sustainable 15% to 20% per annum.
“We like brands you can’t buy everywhere. We are promoting into a very small market a product that can be bought online or 50 miles down the road is no good to us.”
I ask Andrew about their commercial contracts.
He explains: “We are about to do Microsoft’s European headquarters – we also did Amazon and Google. We would work with their architects and builders. Last week, we got an order from Facebook. They are doing a massive complex called Fibonacci. Seven major office blocks and we’re after getting the first one. And that happened through a retail experience. Interior designer Jean Feeney came down here to do her own bathroom in Tipperary and then she said she was designing Fibonacci and wanted to specify our tiles and our sanitaryware.”
Andrew estimates that the commercial business represents around 50% to 60% of turnover. And it has knock-on benefits for the retail side. “The engineering skills set has been a massive help for our retail business. For the consumer, we will calculate the heat loads for their bathroom, what size of radiator. What energy source they will use – heat pump, boiler or purely electric or mixed. And what’s destroying the fabric in many bathrooms, and what many retailers would not have the experience in, is ventilation – we calculate the amount they need.”
“It used to be that you’d get one bathroom and en suite and a downstairs cloakroom, but now you can have a couple of en suites, a statement bathroom, and outside back and guest toilets ”
Catherine Treacy, director and co-founder, Versatile Bathrooms and Tiles
Joining our conversation, co-director Philip Treacy explains that this work often takes them to the UK: “I primarily look after the UK and Ulster. Through the recession, when we were fighting for any business we could get, a lot of the mechanical contractors from Northern Ireland followed the work to London and we developed relationships from there. It is commercial and residential, with one-off houses and a few hotels.”
During my tour of the showroom, I was shown two new ranges of Italian furniture. Catherine asks that I do not divulge who they are sourcing them from in case “other people want them”.
Andrew adds that the furniture is made for them exclusively and they sell it under the Versatile brand name. “Are we reinventing the wheel?” muses Andrew. “No, we are keeping it relevant to our designs. Later, we will go one step further with a cheaper range. It will again be branded Versatile.
“We’re on a journey with that particular factory. How can other retailers apply it to their own business? The main thing to take out of it is to try to be as individual as possible and work with a client that knows you are trying to match the product to your own requirements.”
We have put an emphasis on it over the past year. Case studies are huge, as are videos. The only reach we have to generate more people for our mailing list for direct marketing is through the likes of LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – [jokes] all the stuff we hate! It’s where people are going. And we have started to engage with the influencers – bloggers. Quite a number of them have been in-store and have posted on their Instagram while they were in the shop, and we saw the numbers liking our Instagram page go through the roof.”
They also host in-store events, for both retail and commercial customers. Andrew reveals that they are planning an event focusing on well-being.
Philip adds: “We do a lot for interior architects, give them lunch and a tour of the showroom and hopefully get our products specified for their clients. If an interior designer is working on bathrooms for three or four clients, they can bring them here in one hit and we will give them a presentation and tour.”
Andrew explains: “With a lot of our top-end clients, we never see them. Their designer has been empowered to make the decisions and then they come down with their clients.”
Looking to the future, Andrew sees a lot of mileage in well-being and sensor products and this is an area where they will be doing more.
“We are at a crossroads now,” says Andrew. “Are we happy where we are, or do we go forward or go back? Because it will mean more people again.”
Either way, Versatile’s commitment to quality products and quality of service is sure always to be a part of their future.