Entrepreneur Interview: with Ben Staerck, Furniture Clinic & Handbag Clinic
Posted on the 2 November 2016
Launching a website to promote his father’s small business put Ben Staerck on the path to entrepreneurial success. From the early days trading from the family’s garage, his companies Furniture Clinic and Handbag Clinic now trade globally and have ambitious plans for expansion.
How did you get into business?
It first started when I was at school, my dad has a business making a wood cleaning product, which he sold at trade shows and exhibitions. I made a website to sell his products online, which his existing customers used to re-order the products. I noticed no new customers were buying via the website, so I taught myself about Search Engine Optimisation and improved the site to drive traffic to it. Sales picked up and the business grew, then in 2005 we added more products to the range.
What was your first business premises?
At the risk of sounding clichéd, for the first year we traded from the garage. We leased a small unit on the Team Valley, when we outgrew that we leased the unit next door, and eventually the unit next door to that. In 2010 we’d outgrown those premises and bought the factory in Burnopfield, where we’re still based today.
How has your business grown?
After we increased our range of products customers started asking us to do repairs for them, so we started going to homes and business premises to do repairs on furniture and even classic cars. The business has grown year on year, with our rate of growth for the last three years being 30%.
Visiting people’s homes as Furniture Clinic gave us the idea for Handbag Clinic. When our team was repairing their furniture, some customers asked if we could repair their handbags while we were there. In August 2013 we decided to spin this out into a separate business.
We did it as mail order at first; people would send their handbags in the post and we would post them back after they were repaired. In the first month we doubled the number of bags we were repairing. This was going really well, but we noticed room for improvement in the number of inquiries we converted into sales. Almost 100% of inquiries that came in person to our head office became sales, but for people not visiting us it was much lower.
We identified that we had the most inquiries from South West London and decided to open a shop there, where customers could call in and have our processes explained first-hand. I walked around Chelsea and Kensington for three days before I found the right premises for us. In February 2015 our first shop, on the King’s Road in Chelsea, opened.
We now have a second London branch in Islington, one in Newcastle, one in Leeds and one in Qatar. The Newcastle store has been open for almost a year. The expansion to Qatar is a franchise; the staff from our partners over there came to the North East to train for three months in the run-up to the store opening.
How did the recession affect your business?
In one sense it’s hard to say, we started just before the recession and grew every year during it. It’s possible that we would have grown faster if there wasn’t a recession, but on the other hand it’s likely that we benefitted from the reduction in disposable incomes, meaning more people would chose to spend hundreds of pounds on us repairing their furniture rather than spends thousands on buying new.
How have the markets changed since you started?
For the Furniture Clinic we’ve seen demand increase year on year for our products, both in terms of the products we sell directly to customers and the ones we supply to other businesses. For the Handbag Clinic there wasn’t really a market before we created it. We’re now in a position where competitors have entered the market and are roughly where we were three years ago.
What would you say your USP is?
For the Handbag Clinic I would say it’s our stores. They drive sales by building customer confidence in a way that online-only and mail order retailers just can’t compete with. It has also taken relatively little time to build relationships with top stores like Harrods and Harvey Nichols, as well as high-end designers directly.
How do you handle internal motivation and staff rewards?
We’ve just completed the first month of a new bonus scheme for the team in our head office. Employees can get a £100 bonus if they meet a monthly target, and if every member of their team meets their target they all get a half day at the end of the month.
Because of the nature of our work, we have a constant flow of products going out and handbags coming in for repair, it can seem like your work is never done. By bringing in a target we have given everyone something tangible to work towards. The last Friday afternoon off is a team bonus to encourage people to work together and help each other, so far it is working really well. The results speak for themselves, we’ve seen a 30% increase in productivity.
How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?
I’m as motivated now as I was then, I suppose the difference is I am now able to prioritise ideas I have, so I know when to act. When I started out I’d try to do every good idea I had, now I’m much more selective. With experience comes the knowledge that you should concentrate on a few things and do them well.
How did your business structure come about?
The Furniture Clinic has grown organically every year. We make our products and sell them to businesses, both for them to use and to sell, and we sell them online. This isn’t just in the UK, we sell internationally. Our branch in the USA has just started to turn a profit, so we’ve invested in new business development personnel for it.
The Handbag Clinic does basic repairs in-store, but the vast majority of the work is done at our head office. The exception is Qatar, where the cost and complexity of international shipping makes it more economical to do the repairs in store.
Have you benefited from mentoring?
I haven’t had a formal mentor, but through the Entrepreneurs’ Forum and its events I’ve met a wide range of people who have given me some really good advice.
Any future plans you’d like to talk about?
We’ve got ambitious plans, though in general the plan is organic growth. I’d like to have a branch of Handbag Clinic in every major European City. We’ve got plans to open in Manhattan in 2017, which is very exciting. For Furniture Clinic global expansion is on the cards too, we already have a market in Hong Kong and could see growth in mainland China soon.