Liam Hopper: “Independents have got to change…”

After acquiring his first kitchen showroom in 2008, Liam Hopper built a chain of successful stores and early in 2022 sold the six Leicht showrooms to Nolte. Although he has now left the kitchen world for good, his insights into where the market is going and what retailers need to do to survive make for stark reading…

Liam Hopper
Liam Hopper

Liam Hopper used to joke with his friends that he was born in a kitchen carcass as his bedroom was full of Leicht furniture. His father, Graham, was of course known as Mr Leicht UK and effectively ran the operation until his untimely death in 2020, aged 61.

Despite the fact that kitchens were not his first choice of career, he went on, between 2008 and 2021, to build up an impressive empire of seven kitchen showrooms – six Leicht stores under The Kitchen Group name, plus Lakeland Kitchens in Kendal, of which he acquired a part share.

His goal was to become the largest independent retailer of German kitchens in the UK and, having built up his retail estate, sell it off. He admits, kitchens were never his passion but “it was a good, easy option and there was good money in it – if you get it right”. He hit on a winning formula that saw him successfully achieve his goal in January 2022, aged just 35, when he sold his six Leicht showrooms to Nolte, who were looking to expand their presence in the UK. He also sold back his share in Lakeland Kitchens.

And as he confides during our interview, “when my father died, kitchens died for me”, and when Nolte agreed to buy him out, he recognised it as the perfect opportunity at the perfect time.

His formula was to expand through acquisition, taking over kitchen show­rooms that had failed and turning them around, with the exception of the Milton Keynes store, whose owners were looking for an exit.

He also ran Leicht Contracts, which he set up with his father in 2014 to handle the larger projects from major house builders. He stepped away from that in 2019 to concentrate on building his retail business.

He may have exited the KBB world, but it is not yet time for the pipe and slippers and he has now become a property developer and is planning to build up his hairdressing business – he already owns one salon in Tunbridge Wells – as well as devising a course to help entrepreneurs scale their business up to £1 million.

I caught up with him at his Tunbridge Wells office, not far from the Nolte store he once owned. As well as discussing his career and his final departure from the KBB industry, he found time to share his thoughts on where the KBB market and retailing is today and has some stark warnings for retailers and some advice on how to survive and prosper.

Q: Before we talk about how you built your retail empire, now you have left the KBB industry, what are the most significant changes you have seen in the market?

A: Over the past five years we have seen the emergence of big powerhouses like Wren and Howdens. They have the best training academies in the market. They take non-kitchen people and teach them kitchens and train them to draw designs. Their CRM systems are the best in the market. And many of the staff they train are then spat out into small independent retailers.

So you have a lot of people joining the industry that are younger and trying to make their living in the higher-end sector. Once upon a time, we’d look for an experienced showroom mana­ger at a certain salary, but now that is the starting salary for these young people. The pandemic saw the average salary go up by £5,000. Everyone knows their worth.

The original, old-school owners designed and they sold, they were all-rounders. Now you don’t get that so much. The market has massively changed. Customers are more aware. They may buy their appliances online. They may go to the local stonemason for their worktops – so we make less profit on those services. And you have big internet-based businesses coming in that may do appliances and kitchens, plus add-on services.

Q: Do you see the sheds as more of a threat?

A: The sheds are expanding. The average price for a Howdens kitchen is now close to £20,000 in London and they do nice-looking kitchens – and, you know what, the products from Howdens and Wren aren’t bad. They are catching up.
Independents have got to change and as an entrepreneur you have to adapt to the market. You may have to change to a different brand, attract better staff and change how you are taking money – offer credit. Offer what everyone else isn’t doing. Those who don’t adapt to the new market cannot survive.

Leicht showroom
Q: Can independents fight back?

A: You have to give the customer the experience they want – make them feel special. [High-end] customers want to deal with the owner. The showroom has to look beautiful – you can’t have brochures and samples every­where. It should be clean. There should also be music. Every­thing about it needs to be better than everyone else. You also need to get recommendations and build up your Trustpilot and Google reviews. A good review can boost a business, but a bad one can topple it.

Q: Where do you see the market going over the next few years?

A: A lot of the big brands are going to start to come into the market and acquire stores, like Nolte have – and others will follow. They will buy into existing dealerships because there is no succession planning in the KBB industry. Kitchen studios open and they die with that owner.
I think the distributor model is coming to an end and it will go more online with more competitors to the AOs of this world – maybe smaller and more entrepreneurial.

Selling kitchen furniture online has been done for years, but I think it will get better when AI takes over. With AI and VR technology and the metaverse, kitchens will [be sold through] virtual showrooms. AI will come into the KBB industry over the next five years. Retailers need to be aware this could happen and that there will be a shift in the market.

Q: What’s your best advice for retailers going forward?

A: Be important to somebody. Don’t be a nobody to lots of people. Stick to a few suppliers and be important to them. Keep up with social media and if you are not able to do it, outsource it. Look at what your weakest area is and make it your strongest. And just don’t give up. God gave us legs so we can pick ourselves up when we fall.

Q: You took over failed kitchen showrooms, but what made you so sure you would succeed where they hadn’t?

A: For one thing, we had more stores. My model was different. I worked on a 30-grand model – £30k rent, £30k wages, £30k run­­ning costs and my salary was split across all the stores.

My personal running costs were under control. I didn’t have a mortgage. I didn’t need to be ripping huge chunks out of the business. I attracted some of the best people – younger people who wanted to work for an entrepreneur. People follow strong leaders, and I was a strong leader because I had great mentorships from my father and Mike Rogers, who I worked for at Design Interiors for 19 months. I had done thousands of kitchens and so, in reality, going up against this competition, I was better.

And people don’t remember the name of the failed showroom, they remember it as a kitchen shop. And the product makes no difference.

Q: Did running multiple stores save on certain costs?

A: With any business consolidation is where you make your money, as everything becomes cheaper as you can consolidate on CRM systems and running costs are lower. Things like accounting don’t cost any more because you have got seven stores.

Q: Your plan always was to build up a group of shops to sell off…

A: It was always my plan and certainly during the pandemic, because the moment my father died, kitchens died for me. It was over, so there was only one route – the exit. So how do you plan for an exit? I decided to rebrand as The Kitchen Group and built it up through acquisition. It gave a good platform to scale and sell. You can’t sell one-off kitchen companies.

Q: Did it feel good to achieve your goal of becoming the biggest independent German kitchen retailer in the UK?

A: Yes. My dad wasn’t able to finish his story and so it gave me the ability to help finish it for him. Around April 2021, there was a phone call out of the blue from Nolte. They were looking for a new route into the UK and I was planning my exit and had the biggest quantity of stores.
The exit happened on December 23. I wanted to sell to a company who would take it to the next level, who would be here in 10 years’ time, who had a good model, a good product and a good vision. And Nolte had all of that.

Q: For you, was it always more about the thrill of the chase than selling kitchens?

A: I think being an entrepreneur is the loneliest job in the world and as I didn’t get too many ‘highs’ in kitchens, I had to seek out ‘highs’ in other places. It’s a drug – the thrill of the chase, chasing those high-ticket kitchens and the higher the kitchen price, the more profitable it is. But for me, multiple units were the buzz, opening the next store, and it does become a drug, as that is what makes us thrive.

Q: And so what is next?

A: Kitchens have come to an end and I have moved on. I am now building houses as a property developer. This year we have £4 million worth of new-builds. I am expanding the Oh My hairdressing salons and I have a second one opening in Reading.
I am also involved in some e-commerce start-ups with my youngest brother, one of which is in hair products and the other in gaming. I am also working with a business partner to devise a two-day course to help entrepreneurs scale up to £1m.

And finally, I have happiness.I get to chill out in a nice office, go to the gym and I surround myself with like-minded people – entrepreneurs. I had to close the chapter for my whole family and my dad.


2008 Takes over failed kitchen showroom in Sevenoaks

2013 Acquires former Comprex Kitchens studio in Battersea

2016 Takes over showroom of Chameleon Kitchens in Tunbridge Wells

2019 Acquires former Neil Lerner showroom in Finchley Road

2020 Takes a part share in Lakeland Kitchens in Kendal

2021 Buys Kitchen Matters showroom in Milton Keynes as owners look to exit the business

2022 Sells the six Leicht kitchen stores to Nolte

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