A good eye, a good business

A good eye, a good business

Michael Stephenson’s craftsmanship is in demand at the highest level. He tells Brian Nicholls how he achieved his business success without paper qualifications.

What a morale boost it would be if Michael Stephenson’s inspiring feat in business could be told among some of the jobless young people presently eager for a career but lacking paper credits. Stephenson, a hands-on blue-jeaned boss who, at 48 looks nearer 30, wasn’t very academic at grammar school in Chester le Street, where he was born and raised. Good at art but not really interested otherwise.

“A good eye is my forte,” he explains. Schooling over, he journeyed south because then, as now, too few jobs for young people could be found locally. He entered the hotel trade at Torquay then for three years on Jersey. He returned to the North East thinking: “What the hell am I going to do?” He says: “I started working as a salesman and found, ‘phew, I can do this’. Then I got into the rental market and bought a few properties. I’d got no inspiration for my present business by working in hotels. That sort of thing didn’t come until probably when I was 21.

“You think then, ‘everyone’s got their niche but I haven’t got mine’. I took interest in architecture, found I had a good eye and could see why things were done the way they were, what values they had and what values were worth keeping.” Now he’s a talented and perceptive family business owner called upon by the affluent and noteworthy to put elegance, style and comfort into their homes.

Herrington Gate Furniture at Rainton Bridge, between Sunderland and Durham City, is where growing numbers of people are turning to for a home to look like no other.
Tom Maxfield, Sir Peter Vardy, Sir John Hall, and a rich line-up of professional footballers the latest of whom, Alan Shearer, is currently commissioning his furniture layouts, have all been among them. And, of course, Tony and Cherie Blair whose patronage carried Stephenson into the headlines.

It wasn’t the Blairs’ erstwhile home at Sedgefield that got the treatment. Nothing so modest. It was several rooms at 10 Downing Street while they occupied it; also their London home at Connaught Square and South Pavilion, their country home in Buckinghamshire. Downing Street was first.

“That came through an interior designer in the North East,” Stephenson says. “It was when the Blairs first moved into Number 10. It was felt they could get some good quality from the North East at non-exorbitant prices. Our name had popped up in conversation, and about six months later we were fitting out the first couple of rooms.

“We worked there in summer recess for a couple of years. I had to be there and took my entire workforce down at various times to fit out. I made sure we didn’t leave anyone out.
Even the trainees went down – great experience for them.”

So impressed, obviously, was Cherie Blair that when Stephenson’s new factory got up and running last summer she – openly praising Stephenson’s capabilities – volunteered to ope it officially and did so gratis, which may surprise some sections of media which have recently portrayed the Blairs as money grabbers.

Meticulous and Stephenson are words that fit comfortably together.
The factory, distinctive to the industrial estate where it stands, is a paragon of good planning and good housekeeping. Entering it brings immediate delight through the sight of craftsmen in this age of mass production applying manual skills to wood.

Yes, there’s machinery too – the best you can buy, Stephenson suggests – but craftsmanship is also essential in giving the firm’s work esoteric quality.
This new factory took three years to build, not through reluctance to leave the previous building nearby, unheated and requiring the work to be done on four different levels.

It was more Stephenson’s endless quest for perfection, here in the planning and fitting out of the building. It was designed and redesigned, with some touches included that had been employed for those luxury homes that bring in the business. And note the marriage of environment awareness and financial astuteness. Stephenson points out: “We installed a biomass boiler to burn all waste – no skips.

It heats the building free for us too. No mess. No landfill. No fuel bills. You can save £12,000 a year on skips. That was the outlay in our old factory on a normal turnover.” Of the previous factory he recalls: “For five years we’d had it working 23 hours a day to keep up with demand. Our efficiency is much higher here.

We also had to work much harder then to achieve good quality. Basically all our machines here are brand new, also the benches, hand tools, everything.” With that £2.5m investment, all told, the company will be able eventually to double capacity.

“The whole thing adds up easily,” he affirms, especially as it includes an additional rental revenue from partly sub-letting. In the 17,000sq ft footprint of the building, only 8,000sq ft of ground floor is given to furniture manufacture. But a first floor of 6,000sq ft more takes the total area of Herrington Gate’s activity to 14,000sq ft. Belief is widespread that people who are well off feel the pressure less in hard times. That’s not Stephenson’s finding. The relocation, in light of events, didn’t come at the best time. “In fact, people say we expanded completely at the wrong time and probably we did,” he admits.

“But there was no turning back. We project-managed this ourselves, so on the other hand our turnover during building and fitting out was likely to go down anyway. But last year we turned over 20% more than we ever did in our best year previously. This year we’ll break that record again.” Some £2m-plus is expected this year - satisfying, surely, to a firm of 20 whose emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.More jobs are coming too.

“About £1.3m worth of work is actually quoted for at the moment,” Stephenson says. “If it all goes ahead, as seems likely, we’ll need another four people at least.” One member of the workforce is retiring after serving more than 15 of the company’s 17 years.
Normally, replacement would not be easy.

“But just now we have a list of individuals who’ve had their eyes on us,” says Stephenson.
“They want to come here because they see ours is a good business, and some companies they are with are going down.” All furniture and interior features the company designs and provides are bespoke.

This hallmark dates back to his time in the property business. He explains: “I had built a small portfolio – about eight houses- and my most ambitious move was to buy Herrington Gate Lodge, a little two-up, two-down in its own grounds – the original lodge to Herrington Hall. I planned to double its size sympathetically then sell. After the building work we looked for quality fittings. We couldn’t find any. I took a drawing board out and started sketching some ideas. Back then, we were having them made by a company in Harrogate. Within a year we were manufacturing from a little garage ourselves.

I had bought three machines – a little planer, a little saw and a little hand router. I employed an old-timer and we made our first two jobs. Within a couple of months we needed larger premises.” For all its demerits otherwise, the unit chosen did enable the firm, ahead of moving to Rainton Bridge, to grow four times bigger.

The extended lodge was never sold. It is home today to Michael, his wife Ashley and their two children. A remarkable aspect of the business is its low-key marketing.
You won’t find its product in any retail outlet. Many orders come by word of mouth and through interior designers in many parts of the country. The firm did bring out a 110-page brochure at the launch of the new factory, and copies are going out to the designers and many other targeted individuals.

“You never know who you’re going to get a phone call from,” Stephenson says. Customers pay more for the Herrington Gate effect in their homes because of its obvious quality and uniqueness. Stephenson works alongside his designers on the computer screens. Sometimes commissions come in a cluster, for as he explains, a place like Ponteland can be a serial provider.

Residents there visit each other and admire. It compels the firm, however, to ensure that for fees to follow, each home will have an individual appearance. Customer input is encouraged since they have to feel comfortable with the outcome. Stephenson will visit them at home and they are equally welcome at the factory as plans are laid. Often they bring a photograph of something they fancy. Says Stephenson: “We’ll analyse it with them, and pick out the features they actually like, rather than just copy. We then design the furniture round their homes, their rooms, windows, doors and their own situations.” His own ideas are often sparked by magazine illustrations, but not the kitchen or bedroom magazines you might expect.

“All that stuff is a little old-fashioned, a little old hat,” he says. “I tend to study fashion magazines. Usually the high profile fashion industry is the one for me to watch. People there tend to have no budgets to fret about. They spend a lot on their backdrops for the models, and some are really great.

“Also we have some stunning new designs we found on Bond Street in London at Louis Vuitton, and Burberry. The Louis Vuitton store cost £30m to fit out. I imagine they must have had teams of fantastic designers, certainly a very famous architect I know of, Peter Marino. The result was stunning. I can take lots of inspiration from somewhere like that.” Modern is the style in demand. With traditional, cycles tend to happen like any fashion,” he explains.

“Traditional styles can be very overdone. You can buy that in the high street. The more cutting-edge, modern, up-to-the-minute ideas haven’t filtered down to the high street yet.”

One-off pieces are a rarity – Stephenson’s gift lies in giving room design a makeover appropriate to the furniture there. Doesn’t this trample on an architect’s toes? Stephenson reasons: “We’re working on a house at Darras Hall which is literally just coming up out of the ground. So far in four days we’ve completely changed the position of all the walls, all the doors, the shape of the staircase, the shape of the landing. Diagonal walls were originally planned. We’ve turned them into curved walls with curved doors and there are curved walls at the front of the house. This all follows the radius of the landing. Basically we’ve redesigned. The architect did ask important questions, but I instantly felt he warmed to the idea, and thought it might make his house look even better.”

The potential value of work like that for Herrington Gate could be £300,000 to £400,000.
Producing a kitchen like no other may bring in £200,000. Stephenson is anxious his company does not appear as being most expensive and stresses that value for money is always promised.

Panelling above a chimney breast may move to unveil a television screen. Panelled ceilings may have to work symmetrically with panelling below it. Hallway floors may have tiled inlays. Black walnut may feature, along with rarer timbers such as zebrano and macassar.

“It’s not just the furniture planned but everything,” Stephenson points out.
“From walls to furniture to timber used, and stone on the floor to materials for the staircase – everything must blend successfully. I think our clients realise they can’t get ideas like this anywhere else.”

A desk sure to make a statement about the managing director sitting at it may cost £12,000, so it’s understandable that commercial orders will tend to be restricted to his or her office, and the boardroom. But Herrington Gate’s artistry is evident also in hotels such as Wynyard Hall which, being “the most splendid 19th Century mansion in the country,” as Nikolaus Pevsner called it, had to be empathetic, and the Crab and Lobster at Asenby in North Yorkshire. Work may start soon also at an Edinburgh hotel.