Turnkey talent

Turnkey talent

Richard Grafton believes his new interiors business is a step change from the companies he has been running for the past two decades. He tells Peter Baber why.

Grafton insetThere may be many a successful Yorkshire entrepreneur who, having reached the point where they can take a step back from their business, feels they can finally enjoy the finer things in life.

That enjoyment might include at least getting involved in doing up their pad – more than likely with the help of their partner.

And they or their partner might even employ the services of an interior designer, someone well spoken who will show up at their house weighed down with swatches and wallpaper sample books and spend many an hour discussing the finer points of William Morris versus Coloroll (well, perhaps).

Richard Grafton, managing director of Richard Grafton Interiors, which opened in Harrogate earlier this year, knows such a person all too well. “The trouble is that soloists like that usually only have a library,” he says.

“Working like that is actually quite a dull experience. You can have the best library, but if you don’t have knowledge and skill of how to use the books, the recipe is not complete.”

The shop he has opened, he insists, is quite different. Customers who come into it will, of course, get the full interior design service, but they will also be able to have some idea of how the finished project will actually look, because the upper floors have been turned into sample rooms.

On the day BQ visited there was a comfortable living room decked out in classic country style but with modern additions such as a glass side table. There was a kitchen fitted with all mod cons in a tone of wood chosen to match the upholstery. And there was a wet room bathroom of the kind that most of us can only dream of.

(It is no surprise to discover that Grafton is currently helping a client fit out a new bathroom to a budget of £70,000). I say the rooms were like this because there is every chance, dear reader, should you wish to visit, that by the time you come the look will have changed again.

The showrooms have already been through one refurbishment in their first nine months, a refurbishment which saw the original pink check of the sofa, perfect for a spring season, turn into something more autumnal.

“We have turned our rooms into real life rooms,” says Grafton, who insists his new shop is pretty much unique in the Harrogate area, if not in Yorkshire. Other retailers might disagree, but Grafton explains further.

“Other shops might do interiors, but they would not get into kitchens and bathrooms, at least not to the extent that we do. You might find this kind of operation in London, but it is very unique here. That’s the feeling we are getting from customers anyway.”

He should in any case know, because Grafton, now 46, is not exactly new to this game. He says he has been interested in property and doing it up since he was in his teens. Having left school at 17, he went to work for the family’s curtain business based not in genteel Harrogate but in much more “where there’s muck there’s brass” Castleford.

He ended up managing it for seven years. “Castleford may be a different town,” he says, “but they are still very houseproud there. They were a great bunch of people. They tell you what they think, and don’t think about what they are going to tell you, so a spade is definitely a spade.”

He then came back to Harrogate to run a similar family business in the town. “That business was more of a gift and accessories shop, with an interior service, but one that would never have got involved with fireplaces and sound, like we do now,” he says.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this he also managed to find time to work on individual projects both in the UK and further afield that included fitting out two Michelin-starred restaurants. The turning point came last year. “I decided that everybody has ideas about what they want to do,” he says.

“Somebody wants to turn right, I want to turn left, so the most obvious thing to do was to set up on my own. I wanted to have a go and see what I could do, because I had worked under the umbrella of a family, but really with all the experience and knowledge that I had gathered I wanted to see if there was a market for what I was doing.”

So far, it seems, so good. The economy may still be in trouble, and the weather on a day like the day we met may be most unlikely to encourage anyone to come out and peruse, but Grafton says that he is already 46% of where he planned to be in turnover terms by this time, and has every confidence that by the end of his year the business will be doing £1m.

One thing that’s good about moving to the turnkey-style service that he is now offering, he says, is that business keeps the company busy throughout the year.

“Historically in retail the last three months of the year were always big,” he says, “and that was the difference between having cream or no cream.”

And he already has plans for further expansion. He says his ultimate aim, even if it is some years off, is to develop a Richard Grafton brand, initially with furniture but gradually extending to other areas as well.

Although his store includes some top names within the world of interior furnishings, such as Mulberry and Colefax & Fowler, he says he has no worries about what his suppliers might think about such a plan.

“Many of them have actually been incredibly supportive,” he says. “And when it comes to the cloth and textiles suppliers, there are many other things to do first before we would be any threat to them. We might use their cloth for upholstery, but it’s the shape and the build quality that would make our brand.”

The more immediate future includes launching a joint venture known as Grafton Freestone with Andrew Freestone, a Leeds-based designer who has also worked for a bespoke staircase company based in Helmsley.

The joint venture will deliver all the bedroom, bathroom and wet room installations for Richard Grafton Interiors. But by offering his service, isn’t he depriving his customers of some of the joys they may find in putting together such interior schemes themselves?

After all, in the market he is operating in, there are bound to be people who think their background, not to mention their wallet, entitles them to be as discerning and choosy as he is likely to be. Grafton agrees that there is a delicate balance to be weighed up. That’s why he thinks what his business does is more akin to advising than selling.

“It’s just creating passion, and if people like what you are doing they generally want to buy it,” he says. He uses a recent transaction to illustrate the point. “A lady came in earlier today, who like many customers was tending to look at things in isolation.

She was effectively trying to choose a wallpaper, but you can’t choose a wallpaper if you don’t know what colour the stone floor you are intending to use is, and vice versa.

We offer a full design service, so we have now arranged an appointment to go and visit her. My analogy with her is that she was looking at the top left hand part of the jigsaw, but had forgotten about the other three quarters.

You really need a vision for the house from the front door. If she likes what we proposed hopefully she’ll then come back in and revisit. And by that time we may have a presentation ready, we may be able to say: ‘Look at the kitchen we propose, and the wall colour, chairs, accessories.’ That creates a visual sense. “When it comes to interiors, people tend to look at elements, rather than the whole, because if fazes them,” he says.

“But here we have an absolute process that works. It sounds totally stupid at the beginning, but at the end it works. It’s a similar situation with the glassware we supply. To my mind, glassware is glassware. A lot of it is down to presentation.

"You could have all these components and have it done badly. What we do is create room sets with items within them that look beautiful.

"The skills needed to do this is one reason why he favours a more vertical expansion – through creating his own brand, running spin-off companies and eventually taking some control over manufacturing – than a geographical expansion. He can see that his business model would work in other towns and cities – “Bath, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, say, towns with spas, say, or places like them” – but he says the really crucial issue in a business like his is recruiting the right people. You can’t, he says, just walk in to an interior design business straight after leaving school.

“You can’t do this job at 19,” he says. “You can do a course, but that doesn’t mean to say that from a communications and knowledge point of view that you can do the job. It’s almost like actors trying to get an Equity card: you can’t get the card without the experience, and you can’t get the experience without the card.

“This business is really a permanent learn. You start out as an office junior.” That’s one reason why he finds that being in your mid to late 40s is not too late to start thinking about starting out on your own.

“What happens in this business is that you still have to serve an apprenticeship. You almost have to learn for 20 years to get the knowledge and skills which create confidence to see the opportunity.” Nor is he really convinced that good interior design is really a skill that can be taught, despite the publication of many books that seem designed to tell you otherwise.

“I think you either can or you can’t,” he adds. “It’s just like your job as a journalist. It’s just like what you are doing. I wouldn’t presume to be able to do it.” Nevertheless, he has managed to recruit a select few like-minded people to work with him, to the point where his staff now numbers seven. The newest recruit is Janet Sandles, who had been running her own interior design business since 2009.

“Janet really has a wealth of experience,” he says. He insists that, despite what he might say about getting the right staff, the business is not elitist. He is actually a fan of IKEA. “Their marketing is fantastic,” he says.

His shop, he says, has “something for everybody”. “Our ideal customers are the As and Bs, but with this shop you can come into what appears to be a grand environment and spend” – he stops to check the price of a candle on a nearby table – “just £4. We want to be aspirational, but I have always had idea of affordable luxury. We are dealing with some fabrics that are over £100 per metre, but you can use them just for the cushion, rather than the whole sofa.

“For example, when we came to recover this sofa for this autumn, we backed the cushions in a different fabric to make it affordable. In fact all we have done is recover the sofa and change the accent colours in this room, but it still looks like a new room.”

And on the contracting side, unlike many in his industry, he is interested in projects that may bring in as little as £100. It is precisely by doing that, he says, that word spreads about his business.

“We get loads of repeat business. I always think that if you are served very well for coffee, you might want to go back for the meal. In our terms that means a customer might want us to come and look at their holiday home in Northumberland, which we have done.”

As for his wider family, he says he hasn’t asked them directly, but “would like to think they are proud”. Overall, he says, he views the business at the moment as an “education hub”.

“It sounds philanthropic,” he says, “but I like the idea of helping people. I want eventually to get to £10m turnover. “But in the past I have often got involved in five year plans, and they change. Here we can make decisions really quickly.”