‘We deliver the ultimate kitchen experience’
Scottish independent kitchen specialist Kitchens International turned 25 this year and added two more kbbreview Retail & Design awards to its trophy cabinet. Francesca Seden caught up with brand director Paul O’Brien to discover why they believe entering – and winning – the awards plays an important part in their continuing success
It was the year that the Channel Tunnel opened, the first National Lottery draw took place and Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. But 1994 witnessed two other momentous events – the founding of Scottish retailer Kitchens International and the inaugural kbbreview Retail & Design Awards.
Those last two are important. 2019 marked a 25th anniversary for both Kitchens International and the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards, with the Scottish retailer – no stranger to success at our awards – walking away with two of them for Kitchen Retailer of the Year and Kitchen Showroom of the Year.
Not bad for a retailer that started out as a concession in an Edinburgh furniture store with just three staff members, including current brand director Paul O’Brien (pictured) and managing director Gerry Watson.
Now, of course, Kitchens International has grown to become one of the largest and, arguably, one of the most respected independents in Scotland, if not the whole of the UK, and has a cabinet full of trophies to prove it – many of them from the kbbreview Retail & Design awards.
The company now employs 82 staff members across its six studios and has three distinct branches to its operation – retail, contract and now its commercial arm, which was set up just this year, targeting restaurants, hotels, cook schools, shops and offices looking for well-designed kitchens.
I ask Paul O’Brien what the awards mean to the brand, why they’re important, and why retailers and designers should take the opportunity to enter.
“The awards are very important to us,” he explains. “They offer a great opportunity for us to promote ourselves and form a part of our marketing strategy and it’s also always nice to be recognised by your industry.”
O’Brien tells me that the real value is not only in the winning of the award, but in the entry process, which allows retailers to look at their businesses objectively. It gives retailers the opportunity to reflect and analyse and implement any changes that might need making.
“But we also use the awards as a barometer. Most retailers, including myself, are guilty of getting stuck in the thick of their businesses and the awards entry process gives us a chance to reflect – to challenge ourselves and ask whether we’ve followed through on commitments we’ve made publicly in the past. Have we made the improvements we said we would, or implemented the ideas we said we would?
“It’s all well and good having great ideas and a great strategy, but often people are too busy being busy to implement those.”
“In the years that we haven’t won,” O’Brien says, “we’ve made most significant advancements and changes in the business. In 2017, we didn’t win and we completely overhauled all of our processes from start to finish. We looked at every single stage – from the client’s perspective, at our efficiency and we made lots of changes.
“So there’s plenty of value in simply entering. It’s worth that investment and that homework. I would also say to remember that the past doesn’t equal the future. Just because something has worked before doesn’t mean you should shut the book and close yourself off to change. The reason we’ve won a few times is that we’re constantly developing and learning.”
So how did Kitchens International get to this point, and how does it feel to reach this milestone?
At the heart of KI’s success is a real dynamism, passion and, as O’Brien tells me, “a real drive to deliver the ultimate kitchen experience to our customers”.
Great teamwork is also a core value of the business and the company is set up in a way that is dynamic and flexible, with KI’s Effective Smaller Teams operating each showroom and the various departments.
“This decentralised autonomy to make decisions impacts greatly on our people’s attitudes towards change and makes them more open to it,” O’Brien explains. “It’s also empowering for our staff to have that responsibility as ideas coming right from the front line of the business will often be implemented across the showroom network.”
“But most importantly,” O’Brien adds, “our brand is our culture and its culture is our brand. It’s about why we do what we do, as much as the way we go about doing it. We have a pretty clear understanding of our clients.
“We spend a lot of time analysing what they want and what they need. And we’re continuously striving to improve our performance. The feedback we get from our customers is invaluable to us. We use this every week. We drive ourselves pretty hard and are our own worse critics. We have a healthy attitude to change and developing new ways of doing things.”
Kitchens International is also focused on training and has run an apprenticeship scheme since the very start. The company currently has seven apprentice fitters on its books and 34 staff members who have been with the company since leaving school or university.
As a consequence, along with the nurturing environment built by senior management, staff retention is high and all team members are passionate about the work they do.
I wonder if all this has helped the brand weather the various economic storms over the past 25 years and navigate the rapidly changing retail landscape?
O’Brien explains that training is key, but that it is constant reflection, evaluation and development that have seen the company grow to where it is today. “We’ve got no idea what is going to happen to the economy in the future, and we can’t control that, but we can control and improve our performance, we can control how efficient we are, we can control how effective we are.
“And we never take the easy road,” O’Brien continues. “I actually think we try to address the most difficult challenges in this industry – how do you train your people, how do you find the right people? And these are things that retailers complain about, but are reluctant to do anything about.
“Some retailers whinge and moan, but don’t change things, and your employees are influenced by the people they engage with on a daily basis, whether that be the senior management or the installers. So if you’re dynamic and flexible and open to change and new ideas, you’ll empower your staff and encourage them to be just as dynamic and flexible and come up with their own ideas.”
As this issue of kbbreview is all about how retailers can add margin by taking a more holistic approach and selling add-on products and services, I ask what recommendations O’Brien has for them to broaden their horizons and improve their businesses.
“First and foremost understand your customers and their needs,” he suggests. “Also understand who your target market is and who it is you want to be dealing with. This way, you can align your products and services to meet the needs and expectations of your clients in that particular demographic.”
Kitchens International has also greatly invested in all of its clients – past and present – and is always looking for ways to engage with them and create future sales opportunities.
On its website, the company has the ‘My KI’ section, where past customers can share pictures of their new kitchen and also their experiences of the company. It also has a dedicated after-sales department designed to take care of clients who have bought from the company previously.
As well as making sure everything is working in their kitchens and fixing any problems they may have, O’Brien says this service also creates opportunities to make add-on sales, such as new appliances, or a new kitchen for the client or a neighbour or friend.
O’Brien tells me that he’s faced criticism from fellow retailers with the after-sales service and has been told the brand is “asking for trouble” because of the number of calls they’ll get requesting small remedial jobs.
“But if we go out and we fix or replace handles or drawer runners and that customer’s neighbour needs a kitchen, it was probably worth that effort as that neighbour is very likely to come to us based on the recommendation they’ve had from Mr and Mrs Smith down the road,” O’Brien says.
“We’re always fresh in their minds and in their conversations. It’s about finding as many opportunities to engage with your customers as possible.
“Some retailers think too short-term,” O’Brien adds. “They’re so focused on making more margin right now that they fail to see the bigger picture. We prefer to take a longer-term view.”
Staff development is crucial to the brand and it has a programme called Insights, which is designed to help nurture and develop the strengths of its people, while addressing any issues or problems team members might have.
“However, it also relates to our clients because they’re obviously all completely different,” he explains. “We have some clients that don’t want to talk to us at all when we’re on-site fitting their kitchen and want us gone as quickly as possible. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just what they want.
“On the flip side, we have some clients who will make us tea and chat to us and one that even complained because they said we’d completed the job too quickly. They were perfectly happy with the job, but felt that as they’d spent a lot of money, they wanted a bit more time and to make more of a connection. So we’ll try to align the right staff to the right jobs.”
Despite all the success, Kitchens International has faced its challenges, but O’Brien says there’s not much he’d change about the past, given the opportunity to go back in time.
“We’ve grown from within,” he says, “and we allow people space to make mistakes, as it’s only through this that people can learn about the implications of mistakes and learn from them.”
Being a large operation, one of the biggest challenges that Kitchens International faces is effective communication. Having smaller teams with autonomous authority helps with this, O’Brien says, and KI also has a company-wide intranet system where they share news and updates.
So that’s the story up to now. The company is making the most of its anniversary from a commercial perspective with celebrations going on throughout the year.
“We had an anniversary sale that was really well-received and we have loads of events planned that target our past and current customers,” O’Brien says.
“On August 23, we invited our partners and customers along to an event and there was horse riding, golf games, Segway rides and so on, and then in the evening we had a gala dinner with all our staff and key suppliers – all the people that make us who we are.”
O’Brien adds: “We are really proud to have grown the business from scratch and of our team and achievements.”
Looking to 2020 and beyond, I’m keen to know the plans for the business and O’Brien tells me they will continue to develop their retail, contract and new commercial arm.
“The hospitality industry is on the rise in Scotland, as is tourism, so we’re taking those exact same skills that have served us so well in the retail market and just applying them in a different channel.
“Other than that, we’re constantly looking to the future and looking at how we can develop and nurture the new generation of the KI family who will eventually take over the business.”
And I imagine we’ll see you at the kbbreview Retail and Design Awards next year, I add. “The short answer is yes, I’m sure we will be there,” says O’Brien.