High flier: Iain Forsythe

High flier: Iain Forsythe 1 2 3

When Premier Kitchens’ key supplier of cabinets went out of business during the recession – leaving the £6 million business unable to sell to customers – Managing Director Iain Forsythe took a bold step. He set up a factory and started making them himself. Now, Premier Kitchens and Bedrooms is one of the largest independent kitchen and bedroom retailers, with all its cabinets made in-house, and in Britain. Toby Venables talked to him about his journey to success, and how he weathered those storms

I started work at the age of 12, on the markets in Peterborough. I would go in the mornings and evenings, set the stall up, take the stall away. I got used to money very early, and I liked money! I enjoyed what money could bring me. During that period I left school and went into a job. Everyone wanted me to take an apprenticeship – and I got an apprenticeship offered at Brotherhoods and at Newalls – but by this time I was working in a supermarket, pushing trolleys, earning a little bit more money, still doing the market in the mornings. I fancied the supermarket life, so I went into retail and did a cadet trainee managers’ course. I came off the rails a little bit at the age of 17-18 – didn’t want to be inside, wanted an outdoor life, and went into building and did various jobs – but got brought back into retail sales with a carpet company in ’85: Harris Carpets, on Bridge Street.

By this time I’m 22 years of age, my son’s been born the year before, and I looked at things and thought: ‘Where am I going? How am I going to get to where I want to be?’ Then they promoted me to a manager in Cambridge. It was really exciting – I was the youngest manager in the Harris Queensway chain, which had over 300 stores, but the next level was dead man’s shoes. I was never going to go anywhere. I might have gone to a bigger store, but that would involve moving, and I wasn’t keen on that. My wife was working in the evenings, and I was working in the daytime. She was running a telesales operation, and the company had an anniversary do in Manchester, and I went and met these guys who were involved in a kitchen sales business. And they said to me: ‘Why don’t you come and work for us?’ It was self-employed – commission-only sales – and there I am, a manager of a carpet shop with a son who’s three years old. But I just thought ‘I’ve got to do it…’ So I left a secure job, took a two-week holiday, and went straight to a sales training course. Everybody thought I was strange, but I had a work ethic. I wanted to go to work. That’s how, in 1987, I started selling kitchens. And I did that for almost four years, working my way up to become the northern sales director, covering an area from Luton to Glasgow.

I found myself away from home a lot. My son was growing up – and I was missing it. I missed his first day at school, things like that. And I just decided in the early 90s that it was time to come home, and time to do something for myself. The company I was working for had a fantastic sales and marketing machine, but the end product and customer service was lacking. I just kind of thought if I could repeat the sales and marketing, and get a quality product with a quality offer, then we’d have every chance of delivering. So I started in a bedroom at home in April 1992. A year later, I found premises in Fengate, which had previously been a kitchen showroom, and managed to get into the building. It was massive – 5,000 square feet. I made an approach for it, got the unit, and within 30 days we’d signed the lease and opened it as a showroom. But I couldn’t afford the rent! So what I did was I brought three tenants in: Premier Home Security, SPF Paving and Hereward Windows – and those three companies were paying 70% of my rent. But I had 70% of the floor space. So, it was a little bit of horse-trading to make it work – but all done properly. Premier Home Improvement Centre was the name of the business, and we were covering four aspects: kitchens and bedrooms, alarms, paving and windows, so it was a perfect synergy.

Over the years, the tenants fell away, so we ended up with the whole building ourselves. I felt that Fengate was getting a bit tired around that time – they’d changed the road layout – but Hampton was beginning to sparkle. Things were happening here, Mercedes had just moved in. But this was just a field. By then we’d grown to about £4.5-£5 million, fitting 500-600 kitchens a year, with nine stores, and Peterborough as the head office with warehouse facilities. In addition there was Lincoln, Bedford, Cambridge, Wellingborough, Northampton, Wisbech and King’s Lynn, with a small place in Corby. We decided we needed more, and better facilities. We had a building that was like a warren because we’d kept adding another office here and another office there, and I always felt that from a staff retention point of view, we were turning people over because they could find better places to work. But I thought if I put a building here it would serve us in two ways: one, I would expect to make more sales here, and two, I would expect staff retention to be better. So this was the… [cont]

High flier: Iain Forsythe 1 2 3

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