Harvey Jones’ John Curwen

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By focusing on high-end bespoke products, handmade kitchen-maker Harvey Jones has survived recession, tripled turnover and is now doubling its store presence. Director meets chief executive John Curwen to talk strategy.

Fifty-five wooden panels of varying sizes lie stacked on top of each other on a dusty workshop floor. Drab, roughly hewn around the edges and eggshell white, they don’t look like much. But, within eight months, these prosaic panels – actually made of top-quality timber – will metamorphose into some of the most sumptuous kitchens in the UK, their images plastered in glossy interiors magazines and on Pinterest sites. They will be embellished with terracotta bread containers, have dovetail joints in the drawers and be tongued, grooved, screwed and pressure-glued to perfection.

Walk-in fridges, deluxe wine coolers – and should the customer desire it, luxury cat-flaps – could all feature. The price tag? Anything from £24,000 to £72,000, with an average of £30,000 per kitchen sold.

Such is the allure of the hand-crafted quality put into the gastro-domes made by bespoke kitchen specialists Harvey Jones. Having produced culinary-spaces from its Cambridgeshire Fens base since the 1980s (alongside a Worcester manufacturing site), the company has defied recessions to grow into a £15.6m turnover enterprise – a £10m increase from a decade ago – currently employing 186 staff. In August, it announced the next stage of its expansion masterplan: rolling out 30 new showrooms across the UK, doubling its portfolio to 60.

At the company’s Wisbech workshop, chief executive John Curwen leads Director around the factory, demonstrating the durability of his company’s worktops by fervently banging on a proto-worktop. “Everything we make is indestructible,” he booms. “You’ll be able to jump up and down on this thing… It’ll last for 20 years – you wouldn’t get that with Ikea!”

Everywhere you look, wood machinists wearing ear protectors delicately finesse worktops. Two cabinet-makers painstakingly sand the inside of a cupboard while another worker carefully planes a Belfast sink unit, so it has a “one-and-a-half-millimetre gap – nothing more, nothing less”. It’s easy to see how Harvey Jones estimates 130 man hours are invested into each kitchen.

Despite being a large local employer, there is no Harvey Jones showroom in Wisbech. Instead, you’re more likely to stumble across one in British spa towns such as Bath, Cheltenham, Harrogate and Leamington Spa. Or leafy family-centric enclaves such as London’s Wandsworth Common, Bristol’s Clifton Village and well-heeled towns such as Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

Aided by customer profiling software Mosaic UK, Curwen credits this careful geodemographic profiling and subsequent positioning of showrooms with a rise in sales. “Our customers are young professionals, aspirational homeworkers… meticulously researched beforehand,” he says. “Yes, we are in affluent places [boutique-lined ‘secondary’ high streets, for example] but we only need 700 to 1,000 sq ft for each showroom, so rentals are quite reasonable.”

Boosting market share
Given the target audience, it seems doubtful the company would have had the same cachet with the Mumsnet masses if the showrooms were emblazoned with the founder’s real name. No offence intended to Roy Griffiths, but assigning the made-up moniker ‘Harvey Jones’ to his company appears to have been pivotal. “We don’t know the exact derivation of Harvey Jones,” admits Curwen a little sheepishly, “but it probably relates to two department stores – Harvey Nichols and Peter Jones – which were admired 30 years ago.” Griffiths started making pine furniture in his Wisbech backyard in the 1980s, initially selling products to London stores. By the time Curwen joined in 2004 after a career in senior management at Manhattan Kitchens, Pilkington Mirrors and Welwyn Lighting, Harvey Jones boasted a smattering of south-east showrooms, a Wisbech workshop, 50 employees and a £6m turnover. When Griffiths retired in 2007, Curwen – by now de facto managing director – mounted a management buyout with two other employees.

“There were big opportunities to improve the business,” says Curwen. “The main plan was to expand geographically. The previous owner was happy to sit on eight to 10 showrooms and live off the proceeds. But… we wanted to catch more of the UK market because we’d established most business within 30 minutes’ drive of a showroom.”

The following year’s recession didn’t dampen Curwen’s expansion plans (“however, we were opening one showroom a year, instead of three or four”) but the company did “batten down the hatches”, making six staff redundant. However, Harvey Jones fared better than many other companies in the home furnishings sector. Home Retail Group, owners of Homebase, plunged into the red, while Moben Kitchens went into administration in 2011.

“We traded our way out of the recession,” says Curwen. “We’re a low-overhead operation and the volume market [Homebase, Moben et al] was more affected than the handmade, bespoke market, because there is more money at the top end of the market.”

The firm was also boosted by the addition of ex-Allied Carpets chief executive Geoff Brady as chairman in 2008, bringing “a wealth of experience and contacts”, recovery in the stagnant housing market – two-thirds of Europeans now make improvement changes to increase the value of their home – plus the odd societal factor (a growth in cookery shows meant wealthy customers needed more space for their recipe books).

The kitchen becoming the “hub of the home” is the biggest recent trend Curwen has witnessed. “We’re seeing kitchens extending into the garden, into conservatories and increasingly more [unattached counter] islands. There are more breakfast bars, and more storage for kids’ toys and wine coolers.”

Flexibility for customers
The fitted kitchen market in the UK is huge, estimated to be worth £3bn and dominated by behemoths such as Ikea, Magnet and B&Q. The handmade sector – where Harvey Jones operates – is comparatively small, but Curwen believes the geographical spread of his firm’s showrooms leaves them “miles ahead” of rivals. “I don’t knock competition but our big advantage is that we make high-quality furniture with handmade materials, with the customer having the flexibility of customising the product.”

Badly fitted kitchens are a particular bugbear of the British public with Citizens Advice receiving 4,947 complaints in the year to April 2013. Curwen attributes this to the kitchen being “the last thing customers buy in the house. They’re fraught because they’ve sat through several months of building work… We’re the last people down that line.”

Curwen believes Harvey Jones avoids such shoddy workmanship thanks to the company’s “cradle-to-grave” service. From the second customers step into a showroom and browse ideas on in-store iPads to the moment the last lick of paint is applied, customers are guided through their bespoke process by a singular ‘sales designer’, who both sells and designs the showy kitchens. The entire process can take anything up to eight months, with Curwen saying, “the customer who spends upwards of £20,000 wants to be confident that the person they’re dealing with can deliver care and knowledge. The same person who sells the kitchen is the one who’ll sign it off.”

At Harvey Jones’s draughty distribution warehouse, scores of Olympic-sized kitchens lie under lavender-coloured blankets (part of the firm’s bid to reduce wasteful packaging), ready to be shipped off in Luton vans across the country. “I’m not looking beyond five years at the moment,” says Curwen, running his fingers along a freshly burnished cabinet. “We have toyed with doing things like toys, home offices or entertainment systems. But we’ve decided to stick to what we’re good at. Until we have much greater penetration – 50 to 60 stores – then we’ll say, ‘Can we bolt more things onto this?’ Right now, our customers are demanding more than ever, and we have to provide that.”

www.harveyjones.com

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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