19 May 2024, 14:31
By Furniture News Sept 08, 2016

Alan Bennett, Stuart Jones

Alan Bennett is the MD of Stuart Jones. Since its establishment in 1973 close to Arundel in West Sussex, Stuart Jones has earned a reputation for its high-quality hand-crafted furniture and upholstery. The business draws on a wealth of traditional skills to create affordable bedroom and occasional furnishings, in both contemporary and traditional designs. As part of its manufacturing service, Stuart Jones offers a client’s-own-material service to tailor the products to individual demand.

How did you enter the trade?
Completely by accident! I was working as a product engineer at a scientific instrumentation manufacturer when the general manager approached me and said: “Look, we are changing our control systems to digitally drive our molecular beam epitaxy machines. Go and design me a table with 19in racking inside – oh, and a tech chair to go with it.”

That piqued my interest, and within a year I was the design manager for Specialised Banking Furniture International (SBFI). I worked on some amazing projects in 17 countries during the financial boom, and kitted out the World Trade Centre and Canary Wharf, ending up as group design director.

Then I was headhunted by Carleton Furniture Group (part of Christie Tyler at the time) to run their design and operations. I moved over to Knightsbridge Furniture Productions as R&D director, and I now run Stuart Jones as MD.

Somehow, along the way I’ve been on the board of FIRA for nine years, am a visiting lecturer at York St John University for product design, and run my own furniture design consultancy …

Who was your inspiration?
Personally, my father. He had a big workshop at the bottom of our garden which I called his ‘inventing shed’. He made household furniture and boats in his spare time.
I used to make a mess! All my school holidays were spent either making or breaking things like go-carts, structures for camps, etc.

Professionally, it was my first real boss, a Dutch engineer called Bill Schilscher. He taught me so much, like using simple common sense to solve problems, and how to swear properly! Also, my first direct-reporting MD, Doug Strait, a Canadian ex-ice hockey player and the best salesperson I have ever met.

What was you career high point?
My first appointment as a director. The chairman and founder took me to one side and said “So you want this job then?” I boldly said “Yes I do,” he replied “Don’t mess up” – interview over.

… and low point?
Being made redundant from Knightsbridge Furniture Productions due to the recession. We had worked so hard to restructure the operations, design new products and improve the business.

… and the turning point?
Starting my own design consultancy and earning more in year two than I have ever done before. This is after a high-profile recruitment consultancy said to me “You cannot sell”!

Describe a typical working day
I like to lead, so in early. Check with the operations guys on the shop floor, coffee, customer service update and a quick chat with the FD.

Communication and approachability are key elements to my role. I was told some time ago that we are provided with two ears and one mouth for a reason – listen to your team, they are your business. I do generally lock the doors to the office at 7 or 8pm – it’s usually dark, anyway!

If you had to start over, you’d probably pursue which career?
Architecture and interiors.

What date on the business calendar do you most look forward to?
At present we tend to look towards the September NBF show as a platform for business, but this might change.

What is the most important issue affecting your business right now?
Trying to balance the customer’s perception of value. We handcraft each item as cost effectively as possible, but certain clients still imagine the products pour out of a container within two days, exactly to their specification, at half the price, and can be delivered for nothing.

What company do you most look up to?
I have two in mind. The first is easily recognisable today – Dyson, because James Dyson is an innovator and market maker.

My second is very personal and quite unknown. My good friend John Warburton runs a business called Energyline, who connect HV power systems to the national grid. This includes wind and wave farms – the company, although highly technical and regulated, do amazing things in wonderful wild locations, and they have fun. They have the best work/life balance I have ever come across, and John understands the value of keeping his company just the right size and investing in people.

What would you most like to change about yourself?
A lower BMI would help (it’s been a life-long struggle!).

What do you enjoy most about working in the trade?
Honestly, the people – sounds cheesy, but it is true. If you are honest and straight with colleagues and clients alike, people shine through.

Leave us with an industry anecdote please!
With only two days’ notice flying to New York, preparing to present to Nomura Bank and Gensler Associates on the 37th floor of the World Trade Center, my MD (Doug Strait) turned to me in the elevator and said: “Al, you take this one on your own.”

We got the job (a 700-position trading floor $1.5m contract) and I got an extra week off in New York in the company apartment in Greenwich Village!

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