Tom Howley: the face behind the luxury kitchen brand

He remortgaged his house to start his business, telling Kate Nicholson it was 'the maddest thing I ever did'

Tuesday 30 July 2019 18:04 BST
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(Tom Howley)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Kitchens have become the heart within the family home, and nobody understands that more than designer Tom Howley, who set up his own luxury kitchen company in 2004, now owned by BHID Group. He now fits over a hundred kitchens a month, has 17 UK branches and a multitude of high-profile (yet mostly anonymous) clients saved on his phone. So just how did he get here? He says, with slight bewilderment caught up in his soft Irish accent: “How I’ve ended up here - I don’t know.”

Kitchens bring normality
Kitchens bring normality (Tom Howley)

Fifty-year-old Tom is a husband and a father who appreciates a simple life and says he doesn’t want a champagne lifestyle, but he puts success down to gambles in his early career. He continues: “Maybe it was when I decided to remortgage my house, sell the car and put the whole lot on the line for the business. That was a huge risk - but everyone used to be talking about it. But none of them ever took that risk - I did.”

There’s a pause and, in a tone of confidentiality, Tom says: “When I look back it was the maddest thing I ever did. To think I was going to open a factory, I was going to employ people - I had no money, I had a bit of equity in the bank. I had no business knowledge, I had no financial knowledge, no marketing knowledge - all I could do was design and make kitchens.”

While the business was born out of a risk, Tom resists the idea of ever putting his whole life on the line again - “No! No - I wouldn’t do that now”.

He also believes kitchens have a universal appeal in their ordinariness as “kitchens bring normality. Nothing more than that.”

He explains: “You look at Noel Gallagher, who is an absolute rockstar, and he did an interview and said he was doing the dishes. My sister said - can you believe he does the dishes? You don’t expect that, but everyone has a kitchen.”

While that may be true, not everyone wants the same thing. So what is his secret to appealing to a wide audience?

“Every kitchen is a one-off creation. We make one kitchen at a time and we have great flexibility, and I think that’s the jewel in the crown.”

Most other companies produce cabinets in bulk, with 600 units at a time, but Tom says it is the company’s attention to detail which puts them ahead in the kitchen market, creating kitchens which are both functional - “nothing complicated”.

“We custom build every cabinet that we make so we can make it look right.”

Having grown up in a little village called Balla in County Mayo, Ireland, Tom says with bewilderment that he has no idea where his talents came from. Always keen on the practical side of school life, he found himself a job as a kitchen designer for Magnet when he first moved to England, designing cabinets en masse.

Summerville collection in Tansy
Summerville collection in Tansy (Tom Howley)

Keen to return to individualised designs that characterised the beginning of his career in Ireland, he moved to a small bespoke kitchen firm before creating his own kitchen company.

“I’m proud of every element of the business: these are things that nobody else has. There is nothing complicated about what we do, but what we do, we do very, very well.”

The Hartford collection in moonstone
The Hartford collection in moonstone (Tom Howley)

So well in fact, David Gandy - supermodel - walked into one of Tom’s showrooms and said he loved Tom Howley Kitchens and wanted one of them in his house. A fact that Tom is quite rightly proud of. Now part of the Bespoke Home Interior Design Group, Tom is able to focus on his design team as Design Director.

The kavanagh collection in avocado
The kavanagh collection in avocado (Tom Howley)

The brand attempts to stay ahead of the curve, while sticking to its trademark classical furniture.

“We make traditional furniture. It hasn’t changed since Thomas Chippendale in the 1700s, yeah? So that’s what we are still making - a lot of the mouldings are still from that era. Nothing has really changed in hundreds of years.”

But, of course, they must keep up with more subtle changes in style.

“Handles, finishes, paint colours, appliances have changed immensely - even just over the last 20 years. 15 years ago, people wanted granite worktops. Now it’s quartz.”

So tradition may still be pulling in the clients, but what about the thing that has absolutely revolutionised our kitchens over the last few decades, and promises to continue doing so for years to come - technology?

Handles, finishes, paint colours, appliances have changed immensely - even just over the last 20 years. 15 years ago, people wanted granite worktops. Now it’s quartz

Tom Howley

“Well, when I was using a computer for the first time - It was a nightmare, I nearly cried! And that was when it was a really primitive type of computer.

“30 years ago there was no internet and phone, and if people told me how we behave with our smartphones now I’d probably think they were mad. But here we are, you know? It didn’t come easy to me you know but I spent hours and hours trying to understand it. Eventually it clicked, but in my days at Magnet, I had to work seven days a week to understand it and it was hard, hard going.”

He has just returned from a launch of a new range of appliances which have integrated wifi into all of their appliances, and excitedly recounts all the new technological delights he saw.

“You can be baking your bread in your bread oven and you can have an app inside your oven and you can look at your phone to see if it is cooked or not.

“Then there’s a new induction hob, where you can put the pan anywhere on the hob and it will recognise it.

“Wifi in the oven means people can log onto your oven and identify the problem, then repair the problem remotely. That’s going to be a huge gain, although it will take five to ten years for that to take hold. When it does, it will be a huge benefit to the kitchen industry.

“There’s an oven that recognises what food is being put in your oven - cooks it the way it should be cooked. I’m not convinced myself on that, because it has probably gone too far.

“But, who am I to say what is going to happen in the future with the kitchen industry?”

So, with all these options to move the kitchen world forward and radicalise the most stable room in the house, it is this sentiment that summarises Tom Howley and his classical style: “The nicest pieces I’ve designed are the simple ones. I just did a nice double pantry with two nice glass dressers either side painted in dark grey and matt gold knobs and all the cabinets were accessorised.

“I walked in and I just thought; that looks absolutely gorgeous, you know?”

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