‘We’re the largest independent in Norfolk and Suffolk’
Having opened his fourth showroom in Diss, Norfolk, nine months ago, it’s fair to say that Gareth Pendleton, owner and managing director of Norwich Bathrooms and Kitchens, knows a bit about the kitchen and bathroom game. Rebecca Nottingham heads to the company’s flagship showroom in Norwich to find out what makes a great retailer
Like many retailers, Gareth Pendleton started out in the industry as a bathroom fitter, after successfully completing a plumbing apprenticeship with has dad years earlier. Working for himself from home, he soon grew it into a flourishing local business off the back of customer recommendation, eventually employing a team of fitters.
“I started out in 1998 doing the odd bathroom fit here and there,” he explains. “There are lots of plumbers out there, but there aren’t many who can recommend products and come up with a design scheme for a bathroom, are there? I can and that’s what gave me a bit of an edge, I think.”
Though he’d built up a solid local bathroom design and installation business, the self-professed entrepreneur felt that he could take things even further and eventually, in 2007, he took the leap from installer to retailer with the launch of his first bathroom showroom in Norwich.
“The aim was always to have a tangible business,” he says. “Being a one-man-band installer isn’t a tangible business. I’ve always operated with members of staff and have always been very customer service- and design-oriented, so opening a showroom where I could demonstrate that seemed like the obvious next step.”
Pendleton must be doing something right. Since opening the flagship Norwich Bathrooms and Kitchens (NBK) showroom in the city of Norwich nine years ago, not long before the recession of 2008 kicked in, he’s opened additional showrooms in nearby villages Thorpe End and Long Stratton and, most recently, a fourth showroom in Diss. He’s also added kitchens to the product mix and they are sold through its Norwich and Diss showrooms.
He now employs 35 members of staff, including a full-time fitting team dealing with between 12 and 15 fits a week across all four showrooms. Between the four showrooms, the order book is generally booked up between three and four months in advance and Pendleton is aiming for group turnover in the region of £4 million by the end of the year. I’d say that’s a pretty tangible business, wouldn’t you?
“The brand, NBK, has become really well-known in the area over the years,” he says. “We’re the largest independent kitchen and bathroom design and installation specialist in Norfolk and Suffolk now, and that doesn’t just happen overnight. With hard work and the right people, I’ve striven really hard to build up the business.”
To cope with the growth of the retail business, the company also has a large HQ and warehouse. This facility, Pendleton tells me, has helped support the company’s growth and allows designers in each showroom to concentrate on giving clients an enhanced customer service.
“We have three full-time staff at the HQ and warehouse,” he explains. “They are responsible for ordering the products for each kitchen or bathroom we sell and making sure we have them in time for each fit. This isn’t to create more of a production line of orders, but to give designers more time to spend on each design rather than being bogged down with paperwork – it all comes back down to offering the best possible service we can to our clients.”
All four showrooms carry the distinctive NBK logo so that consumers know they’re dealing with the same company, but each one has been carefully designed to appeal to its local target audience.
“You have to understand the demographic of the consumers in the area before you start opening showrooms,” he explains. “Think about the products they will like and employ the right showroom staff, who will be sympathetic to their needs.
“That said, a lot of our clients will visit all four of our showrooms before they decide on the layout and design of their project, so they get a wider picture of our design capabilities and the products we can offer.
“I’ve noticed a lot of the ‘design centres’, that some of the big brands are opening, are very minimal in terms of displays and focus a lot around giving the consumer a place to sit, relax with refreshments and ponder their design. People generally come into the showroom for our help and I think too many displays can actually confuse them. So I’ve taken that into consideration with my showrooms where possible.”
According to Pendleton, the displays in each showroom are changed regularly – “around every two years to show new product and to keep the showrooms looking fresh”. Every bay is designed in a lifestyle setting and finished with tiles, flooring and accessories, just as they would be in a client’s home. This, he says, “adds value to the showroom and the business, but inspires customers and helps them visualise how their own bathroom or kitchen will look”.
It’s difficult to ignore the fact that Pendleton started his retail business shortly before the 2008 to 2013 global recession – an event that’s been described as ‘the worst five years since the Great Depression’. So what made his business not only survive such a difficult economic period, but also become such a success?
“What’s the strategy? A long-term commitment to the business and finding and keeping great staff,” he says. “The enthusiasm for what we do comes across at every point of the sale.
“Beyond that, it’s about a commitment to customer service and doing our best to offer something that’s not being offered by everyone else. A desire to create well-designed, well-installed kitchens and bathrooms that meet our clients requirements. And personal confidence. I think you can dwell on the bad stuff too much sometimes and that can actually cause more damage than if you just carried on regardless. We have a very clear, marketing schedule and often we advertise more when we’re absolutely flat out to ensure we keep that momentum going. If we can survive a recession like that, we can survive anything.”
Pendleton also credits the ‘partnerships’ that he’s built up with the company’s core suppliers as a key part of NBK’s ongoing success.
“For me, it’s about building a partnership with suppliers; it’s a two-way street,” he explains. “You’d expect that all companies in the business of moving products from A to B would be the same, but you’d be surprised at the vast differences. In the past, we’ve closed accounts with suppliers that haven’t demonstrated good customer service.
“Today, we work with a core number of trusted suppliers who support us fully and, in return, we are extremely loyal to them. On the bathroom side, that includes Frontline, Davroc, Robert Lee, Eastbrook and Woodstock.
“Frontline have been superb. You can tell when you speak to the staff in the office or the directors that the dynamic at the company is very similar to here. Yes they sell products to retailers, but they have something else in there too, and that’s customer service – and that shines through.
“In terms of kitchens, we only sell Crown from Waterline. We’re highly committed to them and they reward that loyalty with ongoing support and training opportunities.”
It’s always good to hear about a business that not only made it through the recession, but one that’s stronger than ever. But, many retail businesses, large and small, didn’t and I’m keen to find out why Pendleton thinks those failed?
“As a business owner, you like to think that what you’re doing is right,” he says. “Some businesses were caught out in the recession, but did they have the kind of systems and policies in place that we have?
“Perhaps some of it was mismanagement, but there are also differences in demographics across the UK that will have played a big part,” he adds. “A well-managed business in the wrong location could well have suffered. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have felt the effects more if we’d been elsewhere.
“We’re fully health-and-safety conversant, every member of staff has a contract, we have full HR back-up, our pensions are all up to date. Having a strong, well-designed management system has got nothing to do with the business of selling kitchens and bathrooms. I think if you build that up, consumers can feel the weight of what’s behind the staff and that gives them the confidence that it’s a solid, strong company to do business with. I like to think that comes over to our clients through our staff anyway.”
Pendleton also admits that his continued belief in employing a full-time fitting team was part of what helped the business grow, giving NBK an edge over the mounting pressures from online retailers, as well as increasing competition in the local area from a range of independents and multiples.
“We, as a company, are installers and, secondary to that, we are retailers with some lovely showrooms where consumers can view and buy product. If you say goodbye to your fitting team, what do showroom retailers have over online dealers?
“If you employ fitters, you’ve got even more of a commitment to go out there and get business. If they’re not employed, where’s the drive? Where’s the impetus to fight for business? If you have a team on the payroll, not succeeding is not an option. That’s why we work really hard to get business in and why we’ve never had a day unpaid.”
I’ve visited a fair few kitchen and bathroom retailers in my time at kbbreview and it’s fair to say that the ‘customer service is key’ line has been rolled out during many of my visits. But what exactly does that mean? Isn’t it a bit of a cliché? Certainly not, according to Pendleton.
“Customer service is at the core of everything we do,” he says. “The customer is number one for us – they’re right up there on a pedestal because, at the end of the day, without them we’re nothing. They’re paying our wages and we’re going to treat them with respect. I don’t think enough businesses think like that these days.”
Experts say that a good, successful retail business is never finished – it’s a continually evolving project. So what’s next on the agenda for Pendleton and NBK?
“This year has been our best year so far, across the group of showrooms,” he concludes. “I’m under no illusion, however, that if I take my foot off the pedal it may not continue to be so successful, so I’m constantly tweaking and driving the business and making sure that we don’t become complacent.
“Recently I’ve looked into opening a new kitchen showroom, but I’ve decided to hold off this year, following the little bit of uncertainty that’s creeping in post-Brexit. I’ll watch how the situation develops and go from there.
“Overall, my aim is to maintain a nice, stable business with continued development of staff and the showrooms. There’s never one part of the business that’s ever quite finished and that’s what keeps us going. There’s always change here –hopefully, in a positive way.”