Industry: Christopher Guy talks about Starting his Multi-million Dollar Furniture Business
On today’s episode, we listen as the tables (er, mic) get turned and Phyllis interviews Nick. Then Nick interviews industry giant Christopher Guy Harrison, the owner and founder of the Christopher Guy furniture line. Christopher explains how he started the company, how it grew, what challenges face the industry, and why it is so hard for designers to compete in the furniture business. .
As many listeners know, Nick recently assembled an advisory panel to give him feedback on the podcast. And one topic that kept coming up was Nick’s story. Who is this paint contractor taking the Interior Design industry by storm!?! So without further ado, the scoop on your podcast host…
Nick May gets Interviewed
“It was kind of inbred in me, I guess. My dad worked for himself and my father-in-law owned a car wash outside of Chicago so I saw that modeled for me. My godfather owned his own business… I’ve just had all these people around me growing up that had their own business so I guess that’s just what I always wanted.”
As for painting, after Nick’s freshman year at the University of South Carolina, he answered an ad to be a manager for a local paint company. He learned a ton that summer and, entrepreneur that he is, decided to spend his next four summers in business for himself.
Every summer when he came home to rev up the painting business again, his dad would remind him that he was going to school so that he wouldn’t have to be a painter for the rest of his life. In many ways, he was right. Later Nick explains that he very rarely does any painting these days. In fact, this year he even transitioned out of the sales and project management. Two of his employees worked their way up and now manage their own territories in Denver. “So now I get to focus my energy on the marketing and big-picture stuff for the business.”
Speaking of owning a business, Nick talks about the nitty gritty. He likes to joke that, “As a business owner, I get to work any 80 hours of the week I want!” He’s usually at the computer by 6am, but that also means he can go to the gym at 10am and, despite the long hours, he loves the flexibility. He also loves meeting people, problem solving, and building systems and processes. In fact, he attributes much of his success to the latter. Building good systems means he doesn’t have to micromanage people and that means happier employees and happier customers.
Nick on Owning a Business
Running a business is a risky endeavor and Phyllis probes Nick on what scares him most as a business owner. “I wonder if we won’t be able to fill the schedule. Even during the times when we are busy, I wonder if the phone will stop ringing. What if 2008 happens again?”
He also talks about a fear that he hears from many small business owners that just doesn’t keep him up at night. “I know some people are afraid of hiring more people, but for me, I actually feel safer as we get bigger because I know that I can reschedule things easier, and more leads are coming in as I have more people out in the field.”
Tell us about an embarrassing Nick May moment: “I was on a job site and asked a new-ish employee if it was his first day and he reminded me that he’d been working for me for 3 weeks and had met me before… Yikes.”
“A more serious one, one that has helped shape me… A long time ago, I decided to expand the business into flooring/light remodel jobs in addition to painting and I took on a business partner to do that. That did not go well. A year and a half in, it wasn’t working out and I had to buy him out. I didn’t do enough legal due diligence so it led to me walking away with $380,000 of personal debt and I almost had to file bankruptcy. Luckily, I was able to turn it around and avoid that. Eventually, we paid off all the loans. So that was a tough lesson to learn, but it taught me a lot about focus. Now we just do painting. And, in fact, we just do Interior painting, nearly entirely residential. On top of that, we don’t do any faux finishing or even staining anymore.”
And now for a few fun questions!
Favorite Podcast memory: Interviewing Tom Felicia in High Point felt a bit surreal. Even though he’s super approachable, I just felt like maybe I wasn’t qualified to be talking to him…And Eric Haydel – He has become a friend now. I originally met him at ADAC in Atlanta and he just got super specific with me in the interview, which is so helpful.
What is the one piece of technology you can’t live without: I feel like I’m cheating, but I would say my iPhone. I’m constantly in awe of how many tools it has replaced for me. And also just having everything in the cloud, usually in Dropbox or Google Drive, especially since my office manager is in Chicago and the rest of my team is out on projects in Denver. We also use Google spreadsheets for scheduling.
(Phyllis also mentions that Microsoft Onedrive is easy to use if you’re in a Microsoft heavy office.)
What are your favorite podcasts: Startup—at least the earlier seasons.
Small Business, Big Marketing by Tim Reid in Australia
Super Agents Live—sort of the same format as The Chaise Lounge, but he interviews successful real estate agents. Phyllis also recommends this one.
What is your order at Starbucks:Soy Grande Latte—Either White Chocolate or Vanilla. My family teases me that I like to have a little bit of coffee with my cream and sugar. [P.S. Phyllis drinks a Grande Latte with Coconut milk if you’re ever looking to bribe her!]
Favorite Vacation spot: Vietnam and Italy. Next on the list is a riverboat tour! (Phyllis recommends Seabourn cruises).
What music do you listen to: Country + Top 40—I call my station “Nick’s Mix” on Pandora. I actually got to meet Darius Rucker back in South Carolina back before he was super famous so I’m a big fan of him.
Christopher grew up in the U.K. and even lived in Spain for a few years of his childhood. Eventually he landed in property and real estate in the U.K., getting into the furniture business quite a bit later—- not until he was about 32. It all began in 1989 when the interest rates in London shot up to 16%, collapsing the market, and eventually Christopher found his way back to Spain. Around that time, a coincidental meeting with a friend who owned a furniture reproduction company got him thinking about manufacturing high-end mirrors.
“I was a bit naïve. That’s the beauty of youth. I thought, four pieces of wood. How complex can it be?” So he set out for Jepara—a coffee village in Indonesia, charmingly described by Lonely Planet as “a dusty little village not worth visiting”—and spent 5 years there, learning everything he could about the trade.
Eventually, with a little bit of luck, traders began to catch on and carry his line. And then much later, in 2007, he expanded the company into a full furniture line and renamed it Christopher Guy.
Sort of like the early James Bond movies, Christopher wanted his furniture line to make people dream about a different lifestyle. In fact, he designed the line thinking about how Coco Chanel would decorate her home if she were still alive today. “Coco Chanel was both elegant and edgy. And that has become the slogan for the company. Elegance with Edge.”
Growing up in Europe, setting up business in Asia, and distributing his line worldwide has given Christopher unique insight on the differences from one market to another. “In Europe, manufacturing brands think of themselves as fashion houses, whereas in the U.S. they think of themselves as cabinet makers. There’s a difference in the way they market themselves. In Milan, people walk around in stilettos, At Highpoint, people walk around in Nikes. Highpoint is very productive. Milan is all about glamour. Our approach at Chris Guy is that you can’t have one without the other.”
It certainly hasn’t been easy, though. “It becomes a lot more complicated when you start getting into all furniture for sure. When you start getting into upholstery that means importing because the quality of the local supplies in Indonesia won’t do for national standards.” And that means customs and duties and all the challenges that come with that. “It’s much more challenging, but you expand your market.”
Industry Problems to Solve
It’s been so challenging, in fact, that Christopher began building a software platform to streamline the whole process. “The costs for an individual brand to distribute, market, and sell world wide are just prohibitive. This software will help bridge the gap in the communication between suppliers and distributors. It’s a problem I see all over the world—in each of our showrooms—and nobody else was doing anything about it.”
Another problem that he sees in the industry is the current model that many suppliers are tied to, selling directly to Interior Designers at a discount. This model makes the price points really inaccessible for the end-consumer if they were to shop directly with the supplier. And that means these brands can’t compete with direct to consumer suppliers like Restoration Hardware. And with the uptake in online shopping, not being able to list prices online just isn’t sustainable. “So I think the industry needs a total re-think. What should the discount be for Interior Designers so that the online price for consumers can be lowered?”
You can learn more about Christopher and the Christopher Guy line at ChristopherGuy.com
If you would like to hear more episodes, please visit us on iTunes or on our website at TheChaiseLoungePodcast.com. Lastly, find The Chaise Lounge on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter or post a review on iTunes, you may even hear your review read live on our next podcast. With that said keep dreaming big, and keep designing a great design business. See ya!