Generation game: CP Hart’s unparalleled expertise and rising star

Paul Rowland, MD of CP Hart, won our 2024 Special Achievement Award. After 20 years running one of the UK’s most high-profile bathroom retailers his expertise is unparalleled, so who better to take to see him than our Rising Star Angelika Kotarska. Andrew Davies met them both at CP Hart’s Waterloo showroom.

“It’s incredible isn’t it?”, Angelika Kotarska is having the full tour of CP Hart’s flagship showroom in Waterloo. The 20,000 sq ft space, a series of interlinked railway arches, is always a revelation for first-time visitors and Kotarska’s guide is fastidiously adjusting and checking displays as he goes.

Paul Rowland, the company’s managing director since 2003, clearly still enjoys the reaction and takes Kotarska from one display to the next, explaining the point and purpose of each in the wider context of the business and its customers without pausing for thought. He is clearly a stickler for the details.

Rowland began his KBB career with Magnet, chalking up 15 years and rising to the position of sales director until it was acquired by Nobia in 2001. Magnet had bought CP Hart from the Hart family several years earlier and the new owners gave him the MD’s role, tasking him with turning the business around.

Two decades later and a £15m turnover has become £50m and five showrooms have grown to 15. It’s safe to say he fulfilled the brief. The company passed from Nobia to Charco in 2007 and then to the Wolseley Group in 2022 but Rowland’s consistent presence is the steady hand that guides its fortune – and made him the deserved recipient of the Special Achievement Award at the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards in March.

Kotarska, in contrast, is at the other end of the career path but her ambition and drive is no less impressive. Just 24 years old, she started her own bathroom retail showroom – Angelic Bathrooms – in Northampton when she was 22. Her father is a bathroom fitter and, after graduating in accountancy and finance, this led her into the industry where her work ethic, attention to detail and determined nature won her the Rising Star of the Year trophy at the same awards.

And it’s clear that she is soaking up everything she can when given the opportunity to not only get the full CP Hart showroom tour, but also sit down with Rowland and pick his brains.

Q:  Angelica, this is your first visit here. What do you think? 

AK: It’s amazing, and the way it’s tucked away round a corner makes it even more of a surprise when you walk in. Just incredible.

Q: Paul, congratulations on your Special Achievement Award, how does it make you feel?

PR: Very old! But I’m very proud as well.

Q: What would your advice be to Angelika on building a strong, diverse, customer base? 

PR: I do think that the higher up the market you go, particularly if you’re at the premium end, a lot of consumers need the help of professionals to make decisions. So you may be working not just with the consumer, but also with their interior designer or architect too, so you need to start building relationships with the trade. Rather than just dealing with Mr. and Mrs. Consumer once a decade when they’re replacing their bathroom, you’re also dealing with professionals who need to do four, five or six projects a year. So if you can build relationships with them that can last you’re assured of getting what you’re after, a project business. Relationship building is the best form of marketing that you can do, without a shadow of a doubt.

Q: What are you doing for your marketing Angelika?

AK: Not much. Online ads and Instagram, but I don’t find they work, if I’m honest. Facebook ads are the worst. I try and keep up with posting what I’m doing on social media as that’s what seems to draw a lot of people in – especially when you use hashtags. That’s how they search and find you. 

Q: How do you view your relationship with your suppliers Paul?

PR: Suppliers are crucial, they should never be seen as people you want to hit on the head with a baseball bat. They’re partners in your journey and they want you to be successful so use their knowledge and understanding of the industry. Brassware suppliers are the crucial ones to work with because brassware is 33-34% of a bathroom sale, on average. The higher up you go, if it’s a Dornbracht, for example, it’ll be 50%. If you’re using someone like Crosswater or Vado it might be more like 25-28%, but it’s always vital to get that right. If your suppliers understand what you’re trying to do, they should help you on that journey because they know you’re successful and will work with them as partners rather than constantly trying to push back on pricing. You’ll also find that you’ll get a reputation and other suppliers will come to you rather than you having to try and knock down their door. 

Q: How have you chosen the suppliers you work with now, Angelika? 

AK: When I first started, I knew roughly which suppliers I wanted to work with, so I got in contact and went with the ones that offered me good terms or displays. After I opened, suppliers started approaching me and that’s when I really saw the difference in what they were offering and how they were introducing products to me. Some seemed really unsure and I thought ‘I don’t know much about you, you’re not selling it to me and how can I sell something that I don’t know about?’ I can’t open up an email in front of a customer and read from it. I need to know how I would explain it to them. 

Q: You’re a one-woman band at the moment but you’re going to need a team eventually. How do you feel about delegation?

AK: I did actually think about employing people and put some adverts out. But then when I had candidates coming in it just didn’t make sense. It didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know if I could trust them. What was on their CV was not necessarily right and I need someone I can trust and leave in the showroom when I’m not there. I know how it is working for someone compared to working for yourself. You can see how different it is and to trust someone with your business, you need to have total faith in them. If I’m capable of doing, for example, a design from start to finish in a week, I expect the same from them – and if they say they’ve been in the industry for, say, 10 years, then they should be doing it much faster than me. 

Q: Paul, do you share Angelika’s trust issues with recruitment?

PR: I think 99% of people actually want to do a good job so if you sell the story of the business right, you’ll get somebody that may want to grow it with you, who could end up being your right-hand man or woman. Please don’t be cynical about recruitment. You will know in your heart of hearts when you’ve got somebody and even though you’re young, I can tell you’re a pretty good judge of character – and you have to be if you’re in sales. But don’t be a cynic about it: recruit hard and manage easy is the mantra. It’s going to be really interesting to follow your story. 

Q: Paul, the advantage of a long tenure is that you have experience of running a business through every possible state of the market. What’s your view on being able to manage businesses for the long term? 

PR: While I don’t think you can really see market-changing events like Ukraine, Covid, or Brexit coming down the track, you can be certain they happen every seven years or so and the downturn is much faster than coming out the other side. So yes, you want to invest and you want to grow, but always make sure you’ve got cash reserves to be able to get through a period when sales are not coming in. They say you’ve got to work really hard during a downturn but I think when things are good you should work twice as hard. You can really take your competition on and make sure that your share of the market is maximised. It’s all about using the good times to squirrel away and prepare for winter.

Q: Angelika, since your business opened, the market’s been flat at best and horrible at worst. How easy has it been to learn what ‘normal’ is? 

AK: When I started it was up and down and I found myself thinking ‘oh my God, am I even doing the right thing?’. I had loads of enquiries but wasn’t always making the sale because the price wasn’t right or they were finding things cheaper online. I just try to push as much as I can and whenever you see an advantage just grab it. I would go out on building sites looking for business and it either paid off or it didn’t. And when it did, that’s when I thought ‘OK, I’m doing something right’. 

PR: I’m really pleased to hear that because I believe that when times are tough, the majority of retailers stare at their front door hoping it will go bing bong… and it doesn’t. And if you do nothing, you get nothing. If you go out to building sites and network with designers and architects, you’ll drive business. So I think what you’re doing is absolutely fantastic.

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