Kevin Johnston is the MD of Funky Chunky Furniture, a shelf and furniture manufacturer based in North East England which handcrafts “beautiful pieces that are designed and made to last a lifetime”.
How did you enter the trade?
I left school at 16 and went on to complete a joinery apprenticeship with South Tyneside Council. Afterwards I spent a couple of years doing agency work and alongside that I bought a property that needed renovating and spent time doing it up.
When I came to sell the property, I bought a van and started my own business, renovating properties for both myself and for clients.
The opportunity to start a furniture business really fell into my lap, in a sense. I’d always wanted to have a business which sold a product rather than a service, but renting a premise was the catching point. A local estate agent contacted me to do some joinery work on a property on Wapping Street they were selling that had been broken into. The property was a house with a pretty decent-sized workshop on the back.
It was too good an opportunity to ignore. So, I bought it. Then it was a case of building the business, one machine at a time, starting off first making and selling shelving and mantels, and then moving onto furniture too.
Who was your inspiration?
That’s a really tricky one, as I can’t really pinpoint one inspirational person that has led me, career-wise. But property renovation was really what started me off on my career and business, and I used to spend my evenings watching shows like Property Ladder.
So, Sarah Beeny and Property Ladder were definitely a source of ideas, advice and inspiration for me in the early years. It always amazed me when the renovators didn’t listen to her advice!
What was your career high point?
So far, there’s been quite a few. But one that’s definitely stuck in my mind was when Funky Chunky Furniture went over £1m turnover. It was a big milestone for us.
… and low point?
It would’ve been towards the end of my apprenticeship, when I realised the path I was heading down wasn’t going to be challenging enough for me.
It was a great apprenticeship, I learnt a wide range of skills, from first and second fix joinery to repairs and maintenance. But, once I had those skills, I knew I needed to do more with them than what was on offer.
… and the turning point?
Wapping Street, the house with the workshop attached to it. It was a total gamechanger in that it enabled me to set up Funky Chunky Furniture. It was such a massive opportunity, a home and a business rolled into one. A workshop that we could grow the business in without huge overheads and rental commitments on business premises.
Describe a typical working day
It’s a cliche, but there really are no two days the same. In a nutshell, it’s constantly looking around the corner, predicting what’s going to happen next, being prepared and having a solution for it.
Right now, we’re in a very fortunate position, in that Funky Chunky Furniture is growing really rapidly. But the upshot of that is that I’m having to predict where the next bottleneck is going to be and solve that – whether it’s through recruitment of new team members, IT solutions or introducing new processes to the business.
But I also like to spend time in the workshop, getting involved in new product development, or solving manufacturing issues. I can’t ever see a point where I wouldn’t want to get into the workshop and get involved. I’m not cut out to be behind a desk all the time.
If you had to start over, which career would you pursue?
It would have to be something similar. Something where I can be creative, but also see the results and get involved practically. I could’ve carried on down the property development route.
What date on the business calendar do you most look forward to?
I’m probably the only one in the business who feels this way, but it’s the run-up to Christmas, because it’s our busiest time, and while it causes the most stress, it’s a great time of year to be in. Then, of course the 24th December, when it’s all done, and we can have few days off to spend time with the family.
What is the most important issue affecting your business right now?
Right now, it’s capacity. It’s finding and putting solutions in place to relieve the pressure and ensure we can continue to manufacture exceptional products for our customers.
We’ve seen dramatic growth since April 2020, due to a number of factors, not least the increase in the home improvements and DIY retail sector as a result of Covid and lockdown.
Which company do you look up to?
I really like companies that are disruptors, that challenge the status quo of their sector and are innovative.
A good example of that would be BrewDog. They disrupted the UK beer market with a brand that demands to be noticed, and along the way they’ve been bold with their business choices, and very tongue-in-cheek with their PR stunts. Their Barnard Castle Eye Test beer was just brilliant, and a perfect retort from their brand!
What would you most like to change about yourself?
To have more wisdom, be more organised, and get to do this all again with the knowledge I’ve gained along the way.
What do you enjoy most about working in the trade?
Honestly, the fact that I’m not behind the desk all day. It’s the practical side of the work. Hands-on problem solving. It’s why I annoy everyone! I’m always striving for the best solution and constantly changing things.
Can you leave us with an industry anecdote?
Not an industry anecdote, but maybe a behind-the-scenes at Funky Chunky Furniture one. We work hard, and this time of year in particular, it’s really stressful. So, to give us all a good launch, we play practical jokes on each other.
There’s a few that stick in my head as being particularly funny from the last year: I placed an airhorn under the chair of our production manager, Jordan – he nearly jumped out of his skin when he sat down!; somehow, we ended up with a soft toy rat in the offices, and it ended up lurking in various places – we always knew when it was found because of the screams;
similarly, we have a few fake spiders around the place – with a timber store the size of ours, there’s some big real ones around, but the fake ones always seem to end up eyeballing you when you least expect it; finally, one of our team was given an inflatable dinosaur costume as his Secret Santa present, and he rampaged around for a while, scaring everyone!