Interview: Charlie Harrison, commercial director at Furniture Village
As news comes of Furniture Village becoming 100% family owned following a successful exit deal with shareholders, here we interview Charlie Harrison about his journey from a 16 year-old with a summer holiday job in the business to his current role of commercial director.
Some of our readers may not know that Furniture Village is a family business. Can tell us about the history of the company?
My father, Peter Harrison, started the business back in 1989 with his original business partner David Imrie. The first store was in Abingdon, Oxfordshire and legend has it that the first order was placed within half an hour of the store opening! Good old fashioned face-to-face selling has always been at the heart of the business, and I’ve definitely inherited a love of this from my father.
I joined the business full time in September 2002, having cut my teeth in the warehouse from the age of 16 during the summer holidays. Fast forward to 2022 and I’ve just celebrated my 20th anniversary in the business. Today, I still work shoulder to shoulder with dad, which is one of the greatest privileges of my career. My brother-in-law Nick also works with us as our company photographer.
The notion of family runs deep within Furniture Village and not just in the Harrison family. Seeing our teams welcoming their own sons, daughters and families to the business makes me feel incredibly proud, there’s really no finer tribute. As well as this, 20% of our workforce has received long service awards, which is testament to the culture that we’ve created. Ours is one big family business with the right people upholding the right values.
We notice that like many people in family businesses, you worked your way up to your current role of commercial director. Can you tell us more about your journey and what you learned along the way?
My first job was in the warehouse on Croydon’s Purley Way. I was only 16 and it was a summer holiday job, but it made me realise that I wanted to go straight into the business, rather than going to university. I started my first full time role at 18 as a visual merchandiser. In this role I travelled the country, setting up new stores, meeting colleagues and customers and really getting under the skin of what made for a great in-store experience.
From there I moved into marketing as a visual marketing exec where I focused on enhancing our customer’s in-store journey. My next stop was online. In 2010 we launched our first transactional website which today turns over £50m+. A promotion to head of ecommerce followed where I scaled up the team, bringing on some excellent thinkers and doers who really pushed the digital marketing agenda.
From 2017 to 2020 as director of multichannel, my remit expanded to include all 54 stores. It was at this point that we took a more contemporary approach and broadened our offer to appeal to a wider base. Walk into a store today and you’ll see there’s something for everyone from traditional high back, scroll arm sofas to luxury Italian leather recliners.
My journey through each area the business over the last 20 years enabled me to learn an incredible amount, and today I sit on the board as commercial director.
What have I learned along the way? Two key things: 1) without great people and, ultimately, customers, you don’t have a business and, 2) most importantly, you have to earn everything, nothing in life is given for free.
What are your main areas of focus in your role?
Mine is a broad remit and I couldn’t do it without the support of a strong and talented exec team. We’re good friends and good work colleagues – on and off the pitch.
I oversee four key areas of the business. Retail: making sure the principles of ‘perfect productivity’ apply to every square metre. Buying: steering product selection and direction. Ecommerce: growing the platform and converting more customers to Furniture Village advocates. HR, learning and development: our people are the heart and smart of our business. We have a founding principle that remains as strong today as it did 33 years ago: “I want to be here, I want to do well, I want to be heard and I want to be appreciated.” These words underpin everything we are and do.
In fact, we’ve just been named one of the Top 100 Large Companies to work for in 2022 by Best Companies, which is further testament to this principle.
How do you engage with your customers to build loyalty?
Communication is critical. From a friendly greeting at the store door to the post-delivery survey, engaging customers is the key to fostering loyalty. Postal mailers work well for us, as do our email flows with subscriber-exclusive perks.
In store, our café bars have been a real win. Customers naturally gravitate towards them and tell us that a freshly brewed coffee elevates their visit. Kids love the freshly baked cookies, as do I!
Our store managers have built up incredible relationships with customers, relationships that go beyond any transaction. With the pressures of Covid, lack of raw materials and transport, there have been inevitable delays to some orders. Picking up the phone and being honest and transparent with customers goes a long way to easing frustrations.
We’re active in the charity space which definitely resonates with our customers. With bed sales accounting for over 20% of our business, the issue of sleep – or lack thereof – is close to our hearts. We recently launched the UK’s first National Sleep Helpline in partnership with The Sleep Charity. Trained sleep advisors are on hand offering free, confidential, one-to-one support to anyone struggling to sleep. It’s a wonderful initiative with heart-warming feedback.
Can you tell us about any customer trends at Furniture Village?
The Covid effect has definitely focused attention on the value of our homes and everything they can offer us. Customers tell us they love being able to furnish their whole home – and garden – all under one roof. Corner sofas remain popular, as do space-saving bar tables with high stools. Garden firepits sell well for year-round enjoyment of the great outdoors. We’re fortunate to serve a wide range of ages and demographics and see different trends emerging among different audiences.
How do you source your furniture ranges?
We source globally. Our buyers and quality control teams travel the world looking for inspiration, trends and beautiful new products. We deal with many suppliers in the UK as well as Germany, Holland, Italy, India, Vietnam, Thailand and China.
How has supply disruption and the pandemic affected the business?
Undoubtedly the pandemic caused disruption with shipping issues, staff shortages, raw material availability and rising costs. But with every challenge comes opportunity. During the lockdowns, we rolled out a series of virtual L&D programmes to upskill our teams and keep them motivated and engaged. And we were ruthless in our interrogation of systems to improve customer pinch points.
Furniture Village has 54 stores across the country. Do you see the potential for more store openings in the next few years?
We definitely see the opportunity to grow to around 60 stores, but the right location is everything, so when the time is right, we’ll look to add to our store portfolio.
Can you tell us about any future plans for Furniture Village and what do you see as being the biggest challenges and opportunities over the next two years?
It’s an interesting time for retail right now. With inflation, energy prices and the cost of living all increasing, it will inevitably pressurise some verticals. But the survivors will always be the ones upholding the fundamentals of good shopkeeping: great product, service and price. Over the next two years I’ll be focusing my energies on a world-class omnichannel experience from first interaction to the final mile.
The company was recently named as ‘Supreme Champion Family Business of the Year’ at the Family Business of the Year Awards. How has being a family-owned company been beneficial to the business?
As a family-owned company we have a unique bond, not just between myself, my father and my brother-in-law but within the very fabric of the business. It creates an amazing internal brand halo. It is, quite simply, priceless.
We also hear that you’ve just been awarded a Next Generation Award by Family Business United. What does it mean to you to be recognised as a future leader?
It’s an honour to steer the business into the next generation, doing right by our customers, our suppliers, our partners and our planet.
Having my own family has brought a new dimension to my work and given me a greater insight into my own father’s life and the sacrifices he made to grow the business to what it is today. Fatherhood gives me an even deeper respect for the unique bonds that tie a family business together. It’s my hope that my two daughters, Isla and Isabella, and my nephews and nieces will work in the business one day, carrying the torch for future generations.
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