Retailer profile: Norden Bathrooms, Tiles and Kitchens

The Norden Group has grown from humble origins operating from MD Dave Norden’s spare room to a £10 million business with 37 staff over eight sites with a thriving heating supplies business as well as a bathroom and tiles showroom and a new move into kitchens. Chris Frankland went to find out more

When times get tough, as they did when an unwelcome microscopic visitor from China wreaked havoc on KBB retailing in the UK, it would be all too easy to rest on your laurels. But that is not the Norden way.

Norden Heating and Plumbing Supplies is a well-established business with a customer base of more than 400 at its busy trade counter in Epsom and a retail bathroom and kitchen showroom just down the road in Ewell. 

So you have to admire their move in January 2020 to relocate their bathroom showroom across the Kingston Road to a new 2,000sq ft showroom – already double the size of the original – that they then further expanded to 5,000sq ft. And for good measure, they bought out an existing tile retailer and added tiles to the mix.

But they didn’t stop there. Having planned for some years to make a move into kitchens, Norden set about converting the old bathroom studio into a new kitchen showroom, where it would sell Schüller and Next 125 and Symphony and Laura Ashley.

I visited the new bathroom and kitchen showrooms to talk to Norden Group MD Dave Norden about how the company has expanded.

Norden explains: “It was early in 2019 we realised that we had outgrown the original 1,000sq ft showroom. We could only get three staff in there and so, we started looking around for new premises. 

“We looked at some in Cheam, but then we found the premises we are in now. We doubled its size from 2,000sq ft to 5,000sq ft. It was expensive to do. The figures were frightening, but we had confidence that it would be OK.” 

And he was right. He tells kbbreview: “In the original showroom, we were doing between 20 and 30 bathrooms a month – that has doubled now. Here we are doing 50 bathrooms a month and around £300,000.”

Of course, 11 weeks later, and just five weeks after they had opened the new kitchen showroom at the end of September, they had to close both as KBB retailers were not deemed to be ‘essential’ businesses.

“And quite right too,” affirms Norden. “To be honest, it was the toughest time of my life. Trying to do the right thing. When we were told we could reopen the trade, I was nervous about telling my customers to come in and what their reaction would be. So we held back opening. We had to make two redundancies, which was the worst working day of my life. It was extremely unpleasant. They were good people. The family made some sacrifices, too, financially. But thank God for the furlough scheme. It was an awful time, but we are through it.” 

Front window display

Plumbing

Dave Norden set up Norden Heating and Plumbing Supplies in 2006. He had previously worked for plumbing and heating wholesaler and merchant Fry & Pollard, which was acquired in 1984 by his late grandfather, father and brother. It was a very successful company with a turnover of around £22 million and 40 staff. He went to work for them when he turned 16 and stayed on when it was bought out by Tricom. He worked his way up through the ranks and when BSS Group took it over, he became assistant manager at the PTS branch in Raynes Park, which he built up into its flagship store in the South.

It was while on holiday in Lanzarote that he hatched his plan to ask his family to start up their own business again. “I had a customer base at Raynes Park and predicted that £100k a month of trade-only business would follow me,” he tells me. 

He recalls that his grandfather was “absolutely delighted” with the idea.

Before long, he had moved out of his spare bedroom and into a unit on the Nonesuch Industrial Park, where he achieved £1 million in its first year. Now Norden occupies six units with 14,000sq ft of warehousing space.

Bathrooms

But Norden did not make the move into bathrooms until 2012. Why? 

He tells me that he noticed a drop in business from some of his loyal customer base of one-man-bands who were starting to install more bathrooms. Norden could see that this would be a natural progression for
his business.

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So he moved into a former bathroom showroom that had been vacant for two years. Initially, he employed his brother-in-law and cousin, who knew nothing about the trade, “because their people skills were phenomenal”, which to him was “more important than product knowledge”.

Norden aimed at the middle to high end market and he recalls how happy he was to get brands such as Duravit and Hansgrohe on board from the outset. 

“Most companies knew our family, knew Norden and Fry & Pollard, and that really helped,” he adds. “And the showroom is in a great position here. We ticked a lot of boxes without probably knowing it at the time.”

He says that they also targeted Bette, Catalano, Utopia, Merlyn, Showerlab and Gessi. To those, the showroom, which now had much more space, has since added Laufen, Crosswater, Emporio Bagno, Axor, Dornbracht, Vola, Kyrya, Artelinea, Radox, JIS Sussex, Bisque, Zehnder, Viega and HiB.

But he tries not to have too many options in any one product category as he believes that would give customers too much choice. And, he adds: “If we do £100k a year with a tap supplier, we’ve got clout. If we are doing £5-10k, we don’t.” 


The kitchen team. From left: Designers Michael Poulton and
Lotty Tuck with showroom manager Doug Jackson

Desirable

But he did want desirable brands: “The wow factor is what we are going for throughout the whole showroom and not just in our window displays.”

The showroom also boasts a working steam room and they open late on Thursdays for customers to come in and try it out. 

There is also an impressive display of fully working shower heads. They had planned to install a sauna too, but, as Norden confides, costs were “frightening” and the plan was shelved.

The showroom uses Virtual Worlds software for those customers that want a design service. Norden does charge for this, but that is refunded on final purchase. 

Norden also realised that he had to offer tiles to his customers. Luckily, he had a good relationship with the owners of International Tiles, who were looking to retire. 

So he bought their retail business and added tiles to the new Ewell showroom, taking on three of the team from International. 

He felt confident the tile business would grow and formed it into its own division, just as kitchens and bathrooms are.

But there was one final piece he wanted to complete the Norden jigsaw – and that was kitchens.

“Kitchens was something I had wanted to do about five years ago. We had purchased Unit 6 in Kiln Lane for storage and we had pencilled Norden Kitchens to go in there. 

“But when we realised we could do it here [in the old bathroom showroom], we shelved that plan.”

Norden had to pause the fit-out of the kitchen showroom for six to eight weeks because of how the Covid crisis had impacted cashflow. It opened in September 2020, only to close again some five weeks later.

Laura Ashley kitchen display

Norden promoted assistant manager at Norden Heating, Doug Jackson, to kitchen showroom manager and brought in designers Lotty Tuck, who had worked for Howdens, and Michael Poulton, who was with Wickes previously. 

Looking back on it all, Norden reflects: “I am really pleased with what we have achieved. Kitchens had a record month in July, considering we had only been open four or five months. We are selling between eight and 12 a month at the moment and they are nice kitchens. That number’s only going to go one way [and he doesn’t mean down!]”

As with bathrooms, installations are carried out either by a customer’s own installer/builder or by tradesmen recommended by Norden.

Norden has grown over the years to 37 staff, eight of whom are family members, and it has eight retail and trade sites in Epsom/Ewell. 

The bulk of the company’s turnover (70%) is plumbing and heating, with bathrooms taking 20% and kitchens 10%, but this “sleeping giant” is expected to grow.

Dave Norden sums it up like this: “We are immensely proud of what we have achieved. 

“My team works extremely hard and we are increasing our numbers quarterly to cope. The family and the people we employ are the backbone of the business.

“We are now going to consolidate. We will continue to grow, especially in our retail divisions.”

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