The following interview took place close to the end of April when Charles Vernon was at his home in High Wycombe, England, about 25 miles west of London. Now seven months into his retirement, Charles was his usual effervescent self, and gladly discussed his experience coming to America, and his history with Gloster Furniture.
Hearth & Home: It’s easy to imagine High Wycombe as a place with rolling hills, lush greenery and a pastoral elegance. Are we close?
Charles Vernon: “Well, it’s called the Chiltern Hills, and High Wycombe was where the British furniture industry was originally based; it grew up here from about 1790 until 1990. It began here because of the hills and the beechwood. All the hills around here used to be covered by beech forests, so it became the center of chair making in the UK. That’s how I got into the furniture industry. It was the industry in this town, but now the industry has all gone elsewhere.”
Now, we have you down as starting in the furniture business in 1977 with Parker Knoll and, in 1991, moving on to Gloster Furniture.
Vernon: “That’s right. Paul Wallevik started his furniture company in 1960 in Ghana in West Africa. There he made indoor furniture that went into Europe, and he moved from Ghana to Asia to Singapore in 1974, and got into outdoor furniture around 1980 or so. He bought the Gloster brand name in 1992 from a small company in the UK.
“I had known Paul for a long time; in the previous company that I ran he was a supplier of mine and we became friends. He enticed me to join him when I was in my late 30s and it was just a fantastic opportunity because it was a small company with huge potential. I wanted a different challenge and what Paul had in his company was a fantastic international opportunity. So I jumped at it, and my wife thought I was mad, but it proved to be a most satisfying 22 years.”
In what year did you bring Gloster to the U.S. market?
Vernon: “I think we came in 1993. We were a small company and we didn’t know much about America, but we were going to learn. We built a very competent American team. We had a situation where Gloster really took off in Europe in 1994, and it took off in America about 12 months later. So we had big growth and all the problems that come with that, on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time.”
Obviously, you continued to open more and more countries. Gloster has been a worldwide company for a while now.
Vernon: “We are worldwide. Our mentality was not that we were a British company going to America, but we started thinking we were an international company. We did think of the world as our market rather than us being an English company and exporting. I think that was a critical point in our success. It wasn’t us having to – now don’t take this wrong – teach the Americans how to do it, which was often what exporting companies do. It was us having to learn how the market works in North America, understand it and see how we could then change our business to be able to satisfy it.”
For decades, we’ve watched European companies come to the U.S. and believe they could just exhibit their products at Market and retailers would line up to become dealers. They might struggle a bit for the next few years, then they would go back home. Companies never seemed to learn from the mistakes of others, nor did they take the time to study this market.
Vernon: “I have seen that, and it’s amazing how many people have asked me, ‘What’s the secret?’ I would say, ‘There is no secret at all. No one is hiding anything on how to do business in America.’ But you have to get on a plane; you have to go there; you have to create relationships; you have to meet people.
“You have to have a product that will sell, and you have to establish relationships with people so that you can understand what the market is about. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the American market. In fact it’s probably easier for Europeans to understand the United States market than it is for an American to understand the German market.
“When I was running Gloster, most of the time I found it a most thrilling and exciting experience, and one that I had a passion for. I think passion is an essential ingredient in achieving things. So it was huge fun for most of the time.”
What was your travel schedule like once Gloster was off and running? I always envisioned you on a plane with your iPad, zipping from one place to the other. You’ve had so many countries to attend to.
Vernon: “Not during the last two or three years, because I was consciously trying to slow down, but if we go back five years ago then I probably traveled 200,000 miles a year.”
Where and how did you pick up trends in the various countries you served?
Vernon: “The supply side of the product is really interesting. In the States, it was much harder to find a place to pick up trends. We didn’t try that hard because we had always seen ourselves as being an international company with a European flavor to it coming to America. So in America it wasn’t so much fashion trends that we needed. It was more the furniture trends – the size of the furniture or the functionality of the furniture. Is it a swivel rocker? A swivel glider? Are the seats getting deeper, or cushions getting softer?
“We also relied very heavily on the fabric companies to show us the trends in fabrics. We didn’t go out and look at all the fabric houses in New York. We would go and talk to Brand X, or Sunbrella and/or the others on what was happening with fabrics.”
Am I correct that at Gloster you tried at one point to sell one product throughout all countries and it didn’t really work well?
Vernon: “When we started, yes. When I brought Gloster to America we brought the European range, and then realized we needed this thing called deep seating. So we introduced a chair and that took off hugely. We usually managed to sell a product from one side of the Atlantic on the other side, but at much lower quantities. So four years ago, if the range was 100, the overlap was only about 40. So 30 percent was exclusively European, 30 percent was exclusively American and 40 percent was on both sides. Something like that, which of course made the range quite large.”
When you mentioned the furniture designer John Caldwell in your article, you also said that you found a new way of working that produced spectacular results. Did that have to do particularly with John?
Vernon: “Yes it did. If I look back over the product development side of things, it was one of the highlights. I can’t remember what year it was. Maybe it was 1999 and I was in the States, and I visited a customer in California, a very good customer. The buyer had put out teak furniture and she had placed woven chairs around the teak table.
“At the time, we were very insistent that our dealers put all our Gloster products together. But she put woven chairs around the table and I found myself telling her she had to change her display, but at the same time I loved the look. I thought, ‘She is going to sell a lot of tables with this chair from a competitor.’ But I sincerely told her she had to change the display and she rather sincerely told me she wasn’t going to.
“Some time later, I was on the phone with a very good customer of mine in Belgium who said, ‘I see a trend. People are putting woven furniture with our teak tables.’ I told him, ‘I’ve just seen that in California.’ He was a very close customer and our distributor in Belgium, and he said, ‘You really should think about it.’
“I remember getting on a plane. It was one of those 22 seaters and I rang John (Caldwell) and said, ‘John, we’ve got to get into woven furniture and I need to launch it in August.’ He said, ‘That’s okay. What are your ideas?’ So we talked up until the point that the cabin attendant came and told me to turn my phone off. Five days later I had 14 ideas from him.
“That was a different way of working (laughs).
“Out of those ideas we went ahead with three. One was one of the most successful ranges we ever had. It was called Plantation. Once we got into the development end, we would work on something all day. I would send John pictures just as I went to bed. When I got up the next morning my drawings were available in the factory.
“Now, this may sound like a very ordinary way of working, but at the time it was speed and an understanding between the designer and a commercial organization of what was really needed. We launched it at Market in Chicago and within a year it was our best-selling range, and within two years woven was one-third of our turnover. That’s what business is about; once you get the idea being able to take it to market – rapidly.”
|Picollo umbrella by Woodline.
In a previous conversation, you mentioned you're now going to work with Fritz Walter in his company called Woodline in South Africa. Will you be bringing Woodline parasols into the U.S. market?
Vernon: “Well, I’ve been very clear with Fritz, who is an old friend of mine. Fritz is really special because we share a lot of things in common in terms of our attitudes; we are genuine friends. He’s got a small company, 25 years in existence, but he has huge potential and is open to debate and discussion and changing things.
“Our intention is not to revolutionize the shade business. Our intention is to make his company a really good company. If we create something that revolutionizes the industry, that would be great. However, we’re not setting out to do that. This is so similar to where Gloster was 22 years ago. He’s got a very good manufacturer in a very interesting country in South Africa; he’s German and so he has a world-view of things.
“We agreed when I joined him that it had to be fun. It had to be something that made us both feel good and we had to develop a passion for it; we also had to know we could achieve some results. So we will see.”
Doing a good job has its rewards.
Hearth & Home Technologies took top-performing customers and their guests to a resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, from April 27 to May 1.
|(L to R, Back to Front): Jeff & Becky Hanel (HHT); Rory Hamblin (Hearth & Home Distributors of Utah); Brad Determan (HHT); BJ Hogge, Gary Reuter, Jennie Hamblin, Summer Hogge and Katy Reuter (Hearth & Home Distributors of Utah)
Everyone on the trip was a winner, which included the top 25 dealer sales reps, top 15 builder sales reps, top 18 dealers by volume, top 10 dealers by growth, etc. That is an elite group, considering there are thousands of dealers in the HHT family.
|From a zip line, the scenery was spectacular.
In addition to enjoying the amenities of the all-inclusive resort, customers experienced catamaran sailing, ziplining, waterfall repelling, rounds of golf and spa treatments, as well as a private farewell dinner and entertainment on Las Caletas Island.
|Bob Ballard, HHT senior vice president of Marketing, addresses the group.