Small Business: Woodwork is good work: How the rich and famous found a furniture maker toiling in his father's garage

Chris Arnot
Saturday 09 April 1994 23:02

A BUSINESS park in an old bicycle factory outside Coventry seems an unlikely place to find a furniture maker, especially one whose work is attracting the attention of top interior designers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Neil Stevenson's client base contains some high-profile names, but he is too discreet to reveal most of them.

Under pressure, he will concede that it includes members of the Royal Family. The 15 screens in English oak he produced for the Old Masters Gallery survived the fire at Windsor Castle. And he has just landed a contract from the UK branch of Shimizu, the world's largest construction company.

On the face of it, Mr Stevenson was not ideally equipped to start his own business 10 years ago. True, he had a natural talent for the job itself and an A-level in woodwork to prove it. But he was only 21 and had no knowledge of marketing or what to charge for his work.

'I was so naive that it never occurred to me that it would be a problem,' he says.

So naive was he that he had allowed the firm he worked for before going solo to send him to Indonesia as a design consultant with a one-way ticket and a tourist visa.

'I was within three days of being thrown in jail when my girlfriend (now his wife) flew out to see me. We used her credit card to get me a ticket, and even then we had to bribe the airport officials to let me through. And of course I never received a penny when I got home, because the firm had gone bust.'

Luckily, he had supportive parents. His father, Alan, gave him a pounds 1,000 loan and allowed him to set up a workshop in his garage at his home in Kingston, Staffordshire. 'We had to take the machinery out every night to get the car in,' his father recalls.

Ten years later, Alan Stevenson has taken early retirement to work for his son's company. His previous experience as purchasing manager for a large company is proving invaluable.

Turnover at NEJ Stevenson was up 38 per cent last year to pounds 118,000, and Mr Stevenson now employs seven staff.

'My first three years were a waste of time,' he says. 'But since I stopped playing and went out looking for clients, I've taken on one worker every year and I haven't had to lay anybody off yet.

'The recession was like a war in which I decided to attack rather than retreat. Having low overheads helped. We still haven't got a showroom, because that would be too expensive. Because we can manufacture and supply direct, there's no mark-up.

'We can compete on price with top-quality mass-produced furniture. But our customers are those who have looked around the shops and found nothing that they like. All I ever wanted to do was to make one-off furniture for people who appreciate it.'

He discovered those people by pestering interior designers and architects with letters and telephone calls. Eventually he managed to build up a network of contacts and the word has spread.

And where does he find the workers capable of meeting the standards he demands?

'I ring the technical colleges and ask who they recommend. And when they come for interview, you can tell by their attitude. If the first question is about how much they're going to be paid and how long the holidays are, then you know they're not going to be much use. But if you show them the quality of what you're doing and they get excited, that's a good sign. You have to love making furniture. You don't get rich on it.'

He pays himself less than his workers. 'And if they have to be in at five in the morning to meet an order, then so will I. That's how you build team spirit.'

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