What’s the secret behind 50 years of success as a KBB retailer?

There are very few KBB retailers that can boast a history of more than 50 years, and even fewer with the same ownership continuously. However, one of the rare exceptions is Cambridgeshire-based Anglia Interiors. So, George Dean asks, what’s the secret to a long and happy business life?

Since it was founded in the 1970s, Anglia Interiors has seen 11 different prime ministers, watched the UK take tentative steps both into and out of the EU, and has seen the trend for interior colour explode, fall out of fashion, and then come back in vogue again.

Having been in business for so long, founder Peter Bird is a walking vault of stories about Anglia Interiors’ greatest moments. He reminisces about one particular highlight, many years ago, when Princess Margaret was staying overnight at one of the colleges at Cambridge University. “One of her aides came around to borrow a three-piece vanity mirror for a single night,” he explains. “We did wonder if we’d get a royal plaque for that! We never did, but I’d still settle for a knighthood.”

Although 83 years old, Peter is the only founder remaining with the business. He started Anglia Interiors in his early 30s with a couple of friends. “One sold and exported antiques to America, and the other was a surveyor in the building trade. I’d always wanted to sell kitchens. The link between all three of us was interiors, so hence the name, Anglia Interiors.”

However, after a few years, both of Peter’s co-directors had pulled out of the business, giving him the chance to tailor Anglia Interiors entirely towards the kitchens that he loved, but he also offered bedroom solutions too. In those early days, Peter explains that the landscape of the kitchen industry was totally different. His first suppliers were Alno and Wallspan, both of which Anglia Interiors has outlived. “Alno were a very good supplier,” Peter recalls. “They made very good products, but they had no sense of adventure. When pull-out kitchens started, they wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

A business can’t exist as long as Anglia Interiors has without some changes, some of which have stuck, and some of which have been dropped along the way. In the late 1970s, Peter opened a second Anglia Interiors showroom in Bedford. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out, so it was shuttered after five years. Undeterred, Peter then opened another location in Norwich, although that was short-lived as well.

Although these were setbacks, Peter has turned them into lessons. “The Norwich showroom taught me that business works differently in different places”, he explains. “Wherever your area is, localise your business. Your pattern there doesn’t necessarily work the same as anywhere else.”

However, such challenges can also present great opportunities. One such challenge was Anglia Interiors’ short stint manufacturing its own products in the 1980s. Although its own-brand manufacturing arm hasn’t stuck around, it was the reason that Peter’s woodwork-loving son, Arron, first entered the business.

Pictured: Arron Bird (left) with Peter Bird (right)

Now, over 30 years after he first joined, Arron is the modern-day owner of Anglia Interiors. Peter is officially “retired”, but he still comes into the showroom regularly. “He’s Mr Future, and I’m Mr Past,” Peter proudly tells kbbreview.

It’s a common belief that you shouldn’t mix family and business, but Peter and Arron have managed to juggle it well, although they both admit that it’s not been without its challenges.

Strong personalities

Arron says that at times it’s been hard work, explaining: “We argue pretty much every day. I don’t regret that fact, but we’ve both got strong personalities. But, somehow we’ve made it work, and we’ve compromised. Although it’s definitely been tough at times.” Arron says he’s grateful that he’s been able to come into the industry through his family. “The advantage of doing it that way is that I have a bit more of an understanding of how things are created,” he says. “You need someone who you can get to work alongside you.”

In its modern form, Anglia Interiors provides kitchens, bedrooms and fitted home offices from its 3,500sq ft showroom in Huntingdon. The business boasts over a dozen displays of different sizes – primarily kitchens, but with a couple of home office arrangements too – with an impressive range of suppliers, including Neff, Siemens, Quooker, CDUK and Bosch, just to name a few.

Many showrooms up and down the country will explain that what sets their business apart is their commitment to customer service and going the extra mile for clients, and that’s no different at Anglia Interiors. “People go around showrooms. But what do they learn when they go home?” Peter asks. “You need to make the effort to talk to them and show them what you do. Get them interested in what you do. If you don’t, they’ll go to five or six other showrooms, and let me tell you, someone else will.”

The front window display at Anglia Interiors

Aaron believes that there may be too much choice in the market for the average consumer now, so it’s the role of independent retailers like Anglia Interiors to try to make the process as simple as possible.

“Customers see the purchase as a whole, but you need to try and see what kind of values they put on the individual parts of the kitchen,” Peter elaborates. “Retailers see cost in four segments: worktops, units, appliances, and associated fittings. But consumers see it all as one whole amount.”

Part of that customer simplification extends to how the business handles its work. When a customer agrees to go ahead with a new project, Arron sets up a Whatsapp group chat named after the client’s address. Everyone at the business is added in – along with the customer themselves – in an effort to be fully transparent and keep them informed. “It means they can keep up to date with what’s happening even if they’re out of the house, or away on holiday,” says Arron.

Decades of amassed industry knowledge is another factor that Peter and Arron believe gives them an advantage over the competition – particularly the national retailers. A lot of Anglia Interiors’ business comes from those who have been dissatisfied with larger kitchen retail corporations.

“We deal with people, and that’s why these small family businesses are successful, because you, as a client, you deal with people,” Arron says. “The large sheds aren’t able to offer you that personal service, although they can be cheaper.”

Professional service

Peter agrees, saying that he’s noticed how there isn’t as much so called “product knowledge” in the industry as he used to see. “I can bore people to death talking about carcasses and hinges – and you don’t necessarily get that in the sheds – but this business still runs on that.”

Arron continues: “The most important thing is that the customer’s expectation of you should be greater than the sheds. You’re offering a professional design service backed up by decades of experience.”

This unique level of knowledge is undoubtedly a benefit for the business. Peter is eager to tell me that Anglia Interiors’ most famous customer is John Major, Prime Minister of the UK for most of the 1990s, who wanted a nice kitchen after his retirement from politics. It’s a testament to Anglia Interiors’ skill that someone who made a career out of building political cabinets trusted them enough to install his own.

As a modern company with historical roots, the pair are both well placed to have watched the industry develop and change over the past half-century. One of the things they think has changed massively in recent years is the way that suppliers communicate with independent retailers. Peter explains how he used to know the head of finance at one of the leading appliance suppliers on a first name basis. “You could get through to her, tell her what you needed, and they’d do their best to help you out.”

Aaron agrees that supplier communication has changed in recent years. “There was a more genuine feeling to people before,” he says, “and now it’s a little bit more corporate. You’re just a name on a screen now.”

When so many retailers have closed their doors over the past 50 years, what’s Anglia Interiors’ secret? Arron says “good service” at the exact same moment that Peter says “bloody hard work”. After considering a bit more, Arron reflects that the business’s secret is probably best summed up as: “looking after your staff, and remembering what it’s all about”.

He adds: “It’s not all about the quick buck. Don’t undervalue yourself – don’t make yourself a busy fool, and never be ashamed of your price.”

Peter agrees wholeheartedly, and also says that at the end of his long career, the satisfaction of a job well done is its own reward too. He enthusiastically recalls: “Just before Covid, a man came in here and asked for me by name – turns out, I’d done a kitchen for him 42 years ago, and now after all this time he wanted another! The only thing he’d changed in all those years was that he’d had the worktop replaced.”

This April, Anglia Interiors is set to celebrate its big 50-year anniversary. Although the Anglia Interiors team plans to celebrate the business’s success at the showroom, Peter also likes to think that its story could serve as inspiration to others in the industry. “Kitchens were just beginning back then, and the industry was in its infancy. Not at all like how it is now, obviously. I’m proud that the business has gone on for 50 years. I hope that if people hear about us, it might give them a bit of hope in this day and age. If you’d just started one now, would you not aspire to that?”

Peter and Arron on...

Arron: "I've seen some big changes in manufacturers' processes to make machines more efficient, or handle waste better. But they absolutely should already be doing that - and I think it's their responsibility. Sadly, most consumers don't worry about where their old kitchens are going. I'd say they're interested in sustainability right up until you mention how much it might cost.

Peter: For my first 20 years in business, you knew pretty much everybody by name, and they all knew you. It's still the same industry, but the way that people contact each other has changed. Before, you perhaps didn't know all the people loading the lorries, but you knew everybody who got the orders up or did the sales. That's all gone now, and it's all order numbers and waiting on hold.

Arron: I think stick to what you know, unless you're really confident in your abilities. Home offices, bathrooms, bedrooms - they all come under that umbrella of home improvement, but you've got to be good at all of them, or you risk messing up your reputation.
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