Stephen Johnson has become one of the most high-profile industry leaders through the two years of Covid, not only supporting many initiatives to support retailers but also doubling the sales of his own business Quooker in the process. “Covid has brought lots of problems to lots of companies but, for me, it’s completely transformed my business,” he tells Andrew Davies
If you need proof of the success of Quooker and its UK head over the past two years, it is this – if you didn’t know who Stephen Johnson was before the pandemic, you almost certainly do now.
While Quooker was already debatably the most well-known hot water tap brand in the independent kitchen retail sector, Johnson’s personal visibility during the lockdowns and his willingness to put his company’s name and support behind many industry initiatives has elevated his standing as an industry leader and significant influencer.
His father is Neville Johnson, one of the architects of the fitted kitchen sector in the UK, and it’s clear that the crisis of the past two years has made him acutely conscious that those who are able should strive to maintain the industry’s entire ecosystem, not just their own brand.
“Covid has opened my eyes wide,” he says. “We exist for the greater benefit of our dealers and the more we can do to help them survive and thrive, the more benefit we will get.”
Q: You’ve become very high-profile in the past two years thanks to your support of many initiatives to help the industry through the lockdowns. What is the core reasoning behind it?
A: I’ve always been very open that we operate with a simple ethos – we want to sell as many Quooker taps to as many people as possible. But for me to achieve that, I’m acutely aware that I’m reliant on the support of our dealers and their well-being, the health of their businesses and their approach to their market is fundamental to my success.
However good my product is and however good our business is, I know that if my customers aren’t thriving, that interferes with our ambition to sell more taps. Each and every day we look to work harder and do better than we did yesterday.
Q: When the first lockdown came, it felt like many leading brands put their heads down and did their best to avoid eye contact. You seemed to have done the opposite very consciously.
A: I remember the day vividly, it was March 23, 2020 and we were watching Boris on the TV and everybody from my office emailed me and said ‘this means we’re not coming in to work, right?’. But I said ‘no, what we’re going to do is go into work in the morning and we’re going to devise a strategy that will assist both us and our customers to get through whatever this pandemic throws at us.’
It’s important to understand that before that we were dealing with two to three years of the complexity and chaos of Brexit. So we were already robust when it came to dealing with problems in a proactive way, but when lockdown arrived on that night in March, it was immediately apparent that everybody was going to shut the doors and go home and business was going to stop. I remain permanently scarred by that period from March 24 to June 14, 2020 because our business went from a thriving enterprise to nothing in the space of 12 weeks. Our order intake went from a record high to absolutely zero.
Q: Which is interesting because, to the outside world, you looked very confident and in control.
A: Whatever this pandemic threw at us, our key objective was to remain open for trade and to be able to service our customers. So we switched to working from home wherever possible and decided we wouldn’t furlough anybody – we felt it was important to continue to serve our clients and be available for them at the end of the phone. We also devised strategies that we felt would help our dealers. We understood, for example, that if they closed their doors and stopped selling kitchens, they would stop generating revenue, so we immediately put in place a plan to stop collecting money for 12 to 16 weeks and let them sit with cash in the bank.
I felt so strongly that we weren’t going to surrender to this virus and would remain an operational service and that meant that when everybody did come back to work, we were organised, we’d sorted out how they were going to pay their bills, all the deliveries and we’d managed to stay ahead of the game and keep in contact with our customers. That to me has been one of the single most important decisions we made.
Q: That financial support was very welcome but you must have been in a strong position yourself to be able to absorb that?
A: One of the most important business things my father taught me was that cash is king. You should always have money in your bank and you should work on your own resources. So yes, that strategy cost us a huge amount, but we saw it as a really important investment. What Brexit and Covid have taught me is that you never know what’s around the corner and you must always be alive to what can happen. So we were thankfully in a financially well-resourced position to be able to do it. But yes, it costs us money and it was expensive, but I think it really helped our clients and I’m proud that we were able to do it. I think it was a very valuable service.
Q: The support you were giving initiatives such as the kbbreview Save Our Skills campaign to help people being made redundant find new roles – that was much more than just making sure you can keep selling taps.
A: I think what Covid opened my eyes to is that we, as a company, have a responsibility to the wider industry. We make our money from dealers selling taps, so as a business I want a thriving retail network and for me to see people losing their jobs and businesses closing was a huge worry.
We did Save Our Skills with kbbreview as well as many other initiatives and, yes, I think it was a really great thing to do and I feel proud as a company that we engaged with the wider industry that way. The latest is that we’ve got involved with Damian [Walters] at the BiKBBI looking at the shortage of installers, because we’ve bizarrely gone from people having no jobs and we’re trying to save our skills to a situation where we’re desperately trying to find people to fill jobs – we’ve come full circle.
Q: Do you think that compulsion to support the wider industry may come from the fact that your dad helped establish it in the first place and you’ve been involved with it all your life?
A: What’s really interesting is that, as a kid, I didn’t love school much and because my dad had a successful kitchen business, I got the opportunity to leave at 16 and go and learn my trade there. I’m very appreciative of that. I was a very privileged child with a clear route into the kitchen industry and I got the opportunity in that business to learn every single department and every single trade. I spent 21 years learning how to make kitchens, how to sell kitchens and how to build kitchens. My dad was a super-hard taskmaster, but he taught me some really good life skills and because of that I’m really passionate about the industry and I want other people to be too. I’ve grown up in it and love it. But for outsiders looking in, I don’t think people see our industry as sexy, as design-driven, or as dynamic as it should be. I want people to recognise that the KBB world is an amazing industry and they should come and be part of it.
Q: And Quooker as a business has really benefited from the high profile it has given you.
A: Oh yes, Covid has brought lots of problems to lots of companies but, for me, it’s completely transformed my business. I can’t sit here and say we’ve suffered because of this crisis at all. We have had significant challenges, but we sit here today having doubled in size through the pandemic. I can demonstrate that with a great example. Prior to the pandemic, we wanted to launch a Microsoft Teams and Zoom sales platform.
We’ve got 5,000 dealers nationally and we wanted to communicate with them without travelling the country, but we couldn’t get any traction with it whatsoever. Nobody was interested, it was just impossible. Along came Covid, and suddenly personal visits were restricted and we now regularly remotely train hundreds of dealers at a time and all our private consumer sales are made over these platforms. My biggest problem now is getting more space. So Covid has enabled us to proactively progress an area of our business that we were struggling to move forward in a really positive way.
Q: And Quooker as a leading brand has benefited too. The profile and awareness is massive.
A: When I reflect on it and try to understand why we’ve advanced quickly in such a difficult time, I think it’s because we’ve had an always-turned-on approach. When lockdown happened, I could have easily cut our marketing budget and said ‘you know what, we’re not going to advertise the brand at the moment’, but we didn’t. We continued advertising, we continued to promote the brand. So, when a lot of people were stuck at home, we got more engagement.
The fact that Covid came and interrupted people’s lives has enabled us to re-engage with our dealers and re-educate them about our core values in a really positive way.
Q: That contrasts strongly with many brands where the principal problem voiced by retailers was a chronic lack of communication.
A: One of the things we do pride ourselves on at Quooker is that if we’ve got a problem, we let you know about it well in advance of you having a problem. We work really hard to always be in stock, so supply issues don’t currently present a problem. But I don’t think any manufacturer goes to work each day to let its customers down. As an industry, we have to try harder to understand that, as this is a really difficult situation collectively.
Appliance companies want to supply appliances and I want to supply taps, but if there’s no stock, they’re hamstrung. We must engage in a spirit of cooperation and work together as an industry. The supply problems are going to persist well into next year and could get worse. I see a lot of tension between supplier and dealer now and a lot of that stems from poor communication. As an industry, we need to work together to resolve the problems.