Each Friday, Furniture News puts five questions to a selected industry professional to explore their background and approach to business. Today, it's the turn of Neil Robinson, marketing director of Sealy UK …
How did you get into the trade?
Entirely by accident! Initially I just undertook a three months interim role after I had sold my shares in a small company that I had co-owned. Bizarrely, I do remember that I was about 12ft up a tree, trying to lop off branches, when the mobile rang and the then MD, Jim Harrower, asked me to come on board at Sealy. The initial three months have since morphed into nearly seven years, so nowadays I never take my mobile into the garden …
What was the turning point in your career?
Still waiting for it to happen really, but one decision I made very early on was not to pursue a career as a lawyer after I had qualified. I ended up on a graduate training scheme with Manor Bakeries – the manufacturers of Mr Kipling’s cakes – and started on the ground floor, driving a Mr Kipling delivery van around the highways and byways of Newcastle, Manchester and Dublin.
"I’m still amazed at some of the claims that some bed manufacturers make, both off the page and in store"
I lost nearly a stone in weight in the first six weeks, getting up at 4am, loading the van, making deliveries, merchandising in store and always being the last van salesman back to the depot … but it was a hell of an induction. My parents were mortified. They were convinced that I was going to be a future Master of the Rolls (that’s the head of the Appeal Court by the way … not a senior position at Mr Kipling!).
How will the industry evolve?
Like all industries, the current problems with the economy mean that we will continue to see casualties. Being of an age when I’ve seen and worked through this before, I think the upside will be that the ones who survive will be fitter, stronger and hungrier, and the companies who have invested the most in the lean times will do the best when things start to improve.
For me, it’s also not just a question of the big getting bigger. Post-recession, I’m sure we will see a huge resurgence in the specialist players – the ones who succeed on quality of product and/or service, as opposed to scale.
Despite the growth of the internet and the expansion of the multi-nationals we have also noted a trend back to buying locally – products with real heritage, provenance and care.
How can retailers increase sales and profitability?
I have worked in sales, marketing, distribution and the gloriously overrated legal profession. However, I have never worked in retail, and hence would not insult people who know far better than me what a tough job retailing is – in good times or bad – by suggesting what they should do. For all other disciplines I’ll happily pontificate all day long.
What brings a smile to your face in this industry?
Perhaps more a grimace than a smile. I have to say most of our competitors in the bed industry are professional, honest and ethical … but not all of them. Having worked in financial services and the food industry, where each and every claim made, be it in print, online or in advertising of any form, has to be checked, authenticated and validated, I’m still amazed at some of the claims that some bed manufacturers make, both off the page and in store.
It reminds me of some of the classic American pre-war cigarette ads extolling the benefits of smoking to improve your breathing and ward off coughs and colds! Some companies seem to be at liberty to make the wildest health claims about their mattresses with absolutely no substantiation or redress.
This is an extract from an article published previously in Furniture News magazine. For more stories like this, you can subscribe to receive a regular physical copy of the magazine, or sign up to have a free digital issue delivered to your inbox each month.