18 May 2024, 15:04
By Furniture News Apr 14, 2015

Minerva celebrates 25 years of unity

With a membership of over 130 retailers, the Minerva Furnishers Guild is one of the UK’s most powerful furniture buying groups – on the eve of its 25th anniversary celebrations in Telford next month, Paul Farley explains why Minerva’s star is very much in the ascendant …

For a group such as Minerva, reaching the 25-year milestone is no mean feat – drastically-changing economic circumstances will test the limits of any business partnership, and demand that they deliver value above and beyond the norm. Through it all, Minerva has endured and improved, evolving into a respected industry institution that reflects some of its very best aspects.

Minerva members enjoy benefits including a rebate scheme across a wide supplier base, and access to exclusive ranges via two annual exhibitions – all at relatively low cost to themselves. The associated perks, in the form of networking opportunities, professional support and the sharing of market knowledge, also help make a real difference for many retailers.

Minerva’s ability to strike a balance, providing a professional support network yet taking away none of its members’ independence, has ensured its continued success over the last 25 years.

When the Green Group collaboration collapsed in 1990, retailer Derek Hayes, of T R Hayes in Bath, responded to the lack of buying power and networking capabilities faced by many of the members – himself included – that were left stranded. Derek took it upon himself to pull these businesses together in the form of a new association. Within just a few months, membership of the group grew to 23, comprising many of the nation’s best-established furniture retailers. Helped immeasurably by the support of key members, Derek launched an exhibition in July 1990 at the National Motorcycle Museum.

“Joining Minerva was the best decision I made in 40 years as a furniture retailer”

The rapidly-established group was named Minerva, after the Roman goddess of healing – an apt monicker given Derek’s roots in the historic city of Bath, plus the distressing situation that prompted its creation.

The Minerva Furnishers Guild has gone on to become one of the industry’s principal buying groups, comprising over 130 members from the UK, Channel Islands and Ireland. Recent developments include opening a portion of its October exhibition to the wider trade – in the form of the Autumn Furniture Show – and the relocation of its headquarters from Bath to the North Wiltshire town of Corsham.

Next month marks the 25th anniversary of Minerva’s founding, a milestone which will be celebrated at the first of the buying group’s biannual exhibitions in Telford, in the form of a special commemorative dinner.

For Minerva’s founder and president Derek, the timing is auspicious, as he is also celebrating the 100th anniversary of his own store, T R Hayes, this month. A gathering at the city’s famous Roman baths on the 14th April will see the retailer – which employs 54 staff across a 65,000ft2 site, incorporating a new £1.5m showroom – reflect on its history and celebrate ongoing success.

For Derek – who has always asserted that “there is a place for a second buying group in the UK” – Minerva has been as much a labour of love as a business necessity, and he praises the buying group’s hard-working directors who, over the years, have helped it become a very meaningful trade entity. “I’m very proud of what it’s become,” says Derek, “and I’m sure Minerva will continue to provide a good place for the trade to do business.”

Current Minerva chairman Martin Lukehurst succeeded Derek two years ago. He too was one of the retailers left in the “void” when the Green Group was disbanded, and believes that Minerva’s key strength is that it has always adhered to its founding principals. “Minerva has been built upon solid, family-run businesses of an independent nature sharing ideas and information,” explains Martin, “and we resiliently maintain the presence of those independent furniture retailers still functioning.”

Chris Southon, another founding member and Minerva’s director since 1998, has also been impressed by the “dramatic increase of the number of members and the range of products offered” by Minerva, as well as the growth of its biannual exhibitions.

According to Chris, Minerva’s strengths are manifold. “We listen and try to ensure that members’ requirements are met,” he says. “We provide a platform for the exchange of marketing and product ideas, and, of course, offer the buying muscle that independent retailers might not otherwise have.”

Minerva’s exhibitions feature products from both UK and overseas suppliers – over 70 at the most recent event. “The independent retailer may not have the time and resources to visit the various furniture shows around the world,” adds Chris, “so Minerva visit many of these and try to bring the best of the new products on offer to its members.

“In short, Minerva allows its members to be able to compete with the larger, multi-site furniture retailers on product range and price. They also have access to new marketing innovations and products within the industry, and are able to meet other furniture retailers on a formal and informal basis to discuss experiences and what works and doesn’t, both from product and marketing points of view.”

Financial director and company secretary of Minerva for the last eight years, David Wood, was approached by Minerva’s business manager 15 years ago, and hasn’t looked back since. “Joining Minerva was the best decision I made in 40 years as a furniture retailer,” he enthuses.

“As the multiple furniture empires become stronger, Minerva has to provide greater exclusivity in the furniture ranges they offer members”

In that time, David has seen Minerva’s membership – and the range of services the members are offered – expand hugely, driven by the constant sourcing and reviewing of new products, and cemented by an ethos of fair play. “In 25 years, Minerva has always distributed to members the levy paid by the preferred supplier in full,” he states. “In the last financial year, this was over £1m – an all-time record.

“A huge amount of time and effort is given to selecting products from a global marketplace. We recently purchased a new 1000ft2 office in Corsham – this will give Minerva a strong base from which to expand our container service for members, as well as exclusive products and services.

“Minerva offers low-cost membership with huge benefits – plus, of course, retail intelligence is very important. At our meetings and shows we share information – and problems! – from across all aspects of the business. This is one of the best ways of hearing about successful new products – and we all need that kind of information if we’re going to grow our businesses.”

There’s no denying that the face of the independent retailer sector has changed dramatically, and Minerva’s principals believe that membership of the buying group offers a real lifeline for the smaller and medium-sized members of this community. To ensure its members’ ongoing prosperity, the group is aware it must continually evolve to meet consumer demand.

“We have worked with key suppliers over many years supplying quality furniture with excellent customer service to the demanding general public,” says Martin,” and we now face the challenge of maintaining our level of membership with the ongoing demise of the high street, coupled with the increase of internet trading.

“Minerva has been built upon solid, family-run businesses of an independent nature sharing ideas and information”

“However, most of our members are aware of the ever-changing retail market, and are facing up to the challenge of embracing the new methods of 21st-century furniture retailing.”

As well as increasing the association’s membership and the product range available to it – including the provision of more exclusives where possible – Minerva’s ongoing duty is to innovate and differentiate its offer, adds Chris. “As the multiple furniture empires become stronger, Minerva has to provide greater exclusivity in the furniture ranges they offer members,” he says. “As the high street evolves, it is important that the independent furniture retailer has a voice – Minerva can help ensure that this happens.

“Innovation in product range and the number of ranges offered to members in the future is of the utmost importance. It is also essential that these product ranges are relevant to the diversity of the Minerva membership.”

Accordingly, the team is striving to deliver an even more diverse complement of products at its members-only event on 19-20th May and the larger show from 6-7th October, both held at Telford International Centre. The latter event is the ideal place at which to see first-hand how much the group has grown in recent years, but the management team in Corsham is keen to hear from prospective members at any time of year. Indeed, a call to Minerva might be one of the best moves an independent retailer could make this year.

Alex Wyllie, previously a retailer and Minerva member, stopped me in the aisle at last year’s Autumn Furniture Show, and succinctly summed up Minerva’s unique appeal: “There’s a level of communication between retailers in Minerva that you don’t find anywhere else. With Minerva, the money goes in, and you see how it’s spent – there are no highly-paid directors or anything like that.

“Since its foundation in 1990, it’s been a slow burn – but Minerva is now going places.”

This article was published in the April issue of Furniture News magazine.

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