The Big CEO interview
PUBLISHED: 17:20 11 November 2013 | UPDATED: 17:20 11 November 2013
Meet Stewart Woodruff, owner of MBK Design Studio and principal sponsor in the Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink Awards
He started his working life as ‘the man from the Pru’ when he discovered that selling was a lot more interesting than being an accountant, has been self employed for 40 years and for the last 27 Stewart Woodruff has headed up a specialist kitchen and bathroom that’s gone from strength to strength.
Originally based in Staplehurst, MBK Design Studio moved to the present site in Coxheath 20 years ago, gradually rented extra spaces and now owns the whole building it’s based in – apart from ‘Frank upstairs,’ who has an upholstery business.
Tucked away down a long country drive on a farm site, it’s not the easiest place in the world to find, but that suits Stewart. “We we don’t get passing trade, this is a destination visit – people want to buy something if they come here because they’ve made an effort to come here.”
And the proof is in the order book. “We’re busy, booked up until the end of November – which is very good in this industry – and we finish our last job on 16 December, although I guarantee we’ll be working the following week too. We always are. We’ve worked on Christmas Eve before,” says Stewart a tad ruefully.
“I wish customers would start thinking about whether they want a new kitchen in time for Christmas in July rather than November, but that’s life and the nature of the business. We accept that.”
Customer service is MBK’s guiding principle and is the main reason Stewart was interested in supporting the Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink Awards.
“Sponsoring the whole event rather than one category sits well with us because it all comes down to customer service and customer recommendation – which is so crucial,” he tells me.
“It isn’t about who’s the best this or that; they are all service industries and everyone who entered will learn something.”
When I point out that a kitchen is actually at the heart of each category, Stewart looks even more pleased and says thank you very much, he’ll use that in his speech at the awards ceremony on 14 November (you read it here first).
So what is the secret of a business that’s off the beaten track rather than on a busy industrial estate, yet will come back after the two-week Christmas shutdown to a full order book in traditionally the quietest time for their industry?
“The main thing is not that we’re well placed, it’s that other businesses are dropping like flies – and we’re not,” says Stewart. “I think it’s a case of if you don’t organise your Christmas rush well enough then you’ll suffer. I come in and do some paperwork but otherwise we’re shut – it’s only the sheds that will stay open.”
“Generally in the industry January is a poor time, which is why the likes of Magnet and so on have massive sales to generate business. But In January we have already got three kitchens and five bathrooms, which is a great start to the New Year.”
While business has been largely local for the past 27 years, in a really quite small 10-mile catchment area, the internet has inevitably broadened MBK’s work and jobs have come in from as far afield as Scotland, Ireland, London and Portsmouth.
While MBK has always been known for its bathrooms, kitchens have really taken off too. “We do more bathrooms in number because they’re quite quick to turn around, but kitchens are a larger individual value.”
A typical kitchen takes three weeks, a bathroom just two, as long as there isn’t a great deal of building or structural work to do. But there are always variants; a job in Sevenoaks being done at the time of my visit involving four bathrooms was expected to take four weeks, another being done in Matfield just four days.
“We always allow two weeks so the team aren’t anxious they’ve got to move onto the next job before they’re perfectly happy with the current one, although with bathrooms we’re usually out within six working days. It’s what people want.”
MBK uses Elliott Installations in Sittingbourne then will call on tried and tested specialists such as electricians, gas engineers and decorators as required.
“It’s much simpler just dealing with one installation company, as we can keep them busy every week and Carl (Elliott) can still can fit in other work around us,” he adds.
And Stewart loves a challenge. “The more complicated it is the better. Standard bathrooms are fun, but when I get one that has marble walls and inset basins and different shower combinations, it adds interest,” says Stewart, whose last project in London is being rented for £5,500 a week and involved five or six bathrooms.
“But we also love doing small bathrooms because it’s quick and easy work and with the new products available you can transform a 1990’s bathroom into something very special. People want the new gadgets, they want remote-control power showers, special shaped baths and stone basins.”
Does he have a typical customer? “Our ideal target range has always been middle to late retired or retiring age – the grey market if you like,” he says. “Because they aren’t moving, they are spending some of their retirement money on getting their house exactly how they want it to be.”
Stewart’s ‘wife in the office’ (his own wife Jan’s description) is Jeanette Willy, who project manages all the jobs. The two have known each other for 25 years, Jeanette has worked here for 17 and they are indeed like an old married couple, with lots of friendly banter across the showroom.
“Jeanette only came in to do a bit of part-time work and never left,” laughs Stewart. “She gets on very well with customers – she’s got the gift of the gab – but you can only help people who want to be helped. They’re buying from me or Jeanette, that’s why we get up every morning. We both love what we do.”>>
They both use CAD systems to create designs based on what their customers want – but do customers always know what they want? “Some come in and know exactly what they want and we can crystallise that for them, others haven’t got a clue as to what products are available or what prices are likely to be,” he admits.
“You have to make people quickly realise that it’s not cheap to have your bathroom or kitchen replaced and that the TV programmes about 24-hour fixes are not completely real. We are not going to be in your house 24 hours, we like taking our time, there are building regs, gas safe rules, Part P electrical work to take into account.
“A lot of people come to us because they know we will combine their ideas and our ideas to come up with something they want. Every single job is different: in 27 years we’ve never done a duplicate.”
Do customers ever have completely unrealistic ideas? Stewart nods agreement. “We often have to say ‘no, you can’t have that’ when we see their homes. That’s the advantage of my installation background, I can look at a job and know immediately what’s possible and what’s not possible.
“It puts us above the Wickes of this world where rather than selling a kitchen you’re selling boxes on walls – there’s no personal connection. Every job our fitters do they know that the next job is reliant on how well they’ve done the last one.”
One important principal Stewart has always stuck to is that he never goes out to a job on spec – if someone rings up and says they want him to visit, he will insist they actually come into the showroom first.
“It’s important to meet, talk to them so they’re comfortable with what I can offer, then I’ll go and see them. If they don’t understand where we’re coming from, theirs is probably not business we want.”
MBK is a partnership retailer for Bosch appliances, an Aqualisa dealer and an elite retailer for Herne Bay-based Crown Imperial. “Crown is the best kitchen company we’ve worked with and the fact that we’re both in Kent is great,” he says.
“We generally sell Crown as our starting kitchen because it’s easy to get hold of, it’s quick and it’s quality. I’m in business to make money, but I have to make sure that every customer is satisfied because the best form of advertising is word of mouth, so we have to make sure the product lives up to how it is described.”
He adds: “That’s the most radical change in the business and why it’s taking so long to revamp our showroom because we are looking at every single product we put in and asking, can we make money on this, is this a product we can sell and put in for the customers who come in through the door?
“We only we built a reception area 13 months ago to have somewhere to sit down with customers. Here we look like we’re working, we rarely have a tidy showroom.”
I ask Stewart if he can sum up the staying power of MBK over nearly three decades. “Our success and longevity is based on us being honest, keeping customers happy, doing what is says on the box and if we can’t beat a price we’ll tell you,” he says.
A Kentish boy living in Marden, Stewart is one of his own best customers as he has had three different kitchens and bathrooms in the time he’s been in business. These days MBK is quite a family affair: one of his two daughters does the company accounts, a granddaughter works as a Saturday girl and his wife does the leaflet dropping.
And at the Food & Drink Awards the MBK table of 10 will consist of Stewart and Jan, their three children and their spouses, plus Jeanette and her husband. We wish them all a very happy evening. n
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The Oast, Clockhouse Farm, Heath Road, Coxheath ME17 4PB
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