About Art of Living: the Whole Story
In 1972 my parents Paul and Averil bought an ailing gift shop in Reigate High Street. It was called “Art of Living”. What a great name …!
My father had decided that he wanted to retire and would just help Mum out if and when necessary and Mum had wanted to have her own shop for a long time and when the business came up for sale, this seemed like a good opportunity. In the event they both worked full time in the business pretty well from the start and found that in fact they’d never worked harder or such long hours. My overriding impression however was that they enjoyed, if not every moment, then the majority of what it flung at them. They hadn’t it was true, ever run a business together before, but both of them were steeped in retail from their previous lives in the photographic trade. It seemed to me that they took to it like ducks to water! I was 16 at the time and sometimes helped Dad in the shop on Sundays doing displays or putting up extra shelves; generally trying to maximise the space available.
The shop itself was tiny when they first bought it (about 300sq feet) and so as time passed they decided to build an extension on at the rear(1976) and since then we’ve extended the shop twice more which now covers about 750sq’…still pretty wee!
In 1982 I joined my parents in the business and three years later opened the Cobham shop managed ably by a very good friend, Francis Benson. Like Reigate this became a great success.
Four years later however I wanted to expand still further with a new shop in Guildford in the Friary centre. This didn’t work for us and almost took us under. We really only just survived by the skin of our teeth. I had not realised how much more challenging it is to control 3 outlets, compared with one or two. Suddenly there was the need for systems and processes that previously had worked by word of mouth and my setting examples. This approach just didn’t work when I couldn’t be everywhere. As a result, problems started arising in all parts of the business, not just the new shop, as I raced round trying to cope. So we suffered badly. Our sales not just in Guildford, but in Reigate and Cobham also dropped as people were not being looked after properly. In short we were in trouble and as an inexperienced manager I didn’t properly understand the reason for our predicament. I had little idea of what to do, so in the end I did the only thing that was obvious to me.
I shut the Guildford shop which was losing more money, with its high rent and high borrowings, than the other two shops were making. We managed, in this process to only have to make one person redundant, which I am proud of. However there was a huge overdraft to pay off and it took the next 7 or 8 years to get us back on our feet, in the meanwhile living rather hand to mouth! A few months after we closed Guildford my father died in December 1991. It was a pretty miserable and trying time.
Over the next 7 or 8 years I looked at what had happened, trying to understand the reasons for the failure and to learn from our experiences. We put in place more controls to enable us to foresee financial problems arising. We computerised our accounts system which helped a little.
During this time I met (or rather re-met, we’d known each other since my Habitat days) my wife Babette, who found, slightly to her surprise that she thoroughly enjoyed working in the shops. She had thought that all retailers were sales people who’d sell their mother if it suited them. She found that in fact we were in it for the long haul and wanted our customers to return to us. This she loved and embraced wholeheartedly. I will always remember her coming home one Saturday evening boasting of how she had talked to a customer who had come in for a stove top coffee maker. After talking with her for some time he wanted to take an electrical one at 10 times the price. She refused to let him buy one as she wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for him. The story still makes me chuckle when I hear it. I remember being very proud of her for taking such a stance and although we have other ways now of safe guarding our customers purchases against making poor decisions (two rather unusually generous guarantees), it does make a definite statement that says quite clearly we want our customers to buy the right thing for them, and not just the item with the highest price tag.
In 1994 we then introduced a computerised stock control system (EPOS) which had a huge impact on my understanding of the profitability of the business and enabled us to properly control the biggest expense in the company, that of the stock.
At some point in 1997 Babette found a book by John Cleese and his shrink Robin Skinner called “Life and how to survive it”. It was the sequel to their book of ten years earlier called “Families and how to survive them” which I’d read years before and thoroughly enjoyed. Life and how to survive started to give us both ideas of how bigger businesses worked and why they could be so much more successful than a typical family run business.
Then, by chance, I met a chap from Surrey Business Link, who intrigued me. He wanted to talk to me about a thing called “Investors in People”. He did so with stories of what the “Investors in People Standard” had done for business of all sizes who adopted it. I remember being fascinated by what he said but having the awful feeling that it was simply too much work for a small struggling retailer with about 12 staff (at the time) with very meager resources. He talked of looking after our people (I thought we were! But perhaps not as well as I’d thought…) he talked of developing them, appraising them, reviewing them, training them. Letting them have a say in the business direction….radical stuff. Both Babette and I were hooked
In 1999 the two of us started an IIP training course that would help us to implement the Standard and gradually over the next two years we put in place some of the key things expected of an investor in people. This started, I remember, by opening an hour late (every Tuesday in Reigate and Friday in Cobham) to enable me to go in and do staff training which I did religiously every week. Radical or what! Well maybe not, but it was for us at the time. Would our sales fall off a cliff I wondered if we dared to not open for an hour one morning a week. Well no they didn’t but I felt it was a pretty daring thing to do at the time!
To my delight as the new training approach began to take effect we began to take more money every week because, of course, our team s were better trained, knew more about the products and were better placed to give good quality advice. In turn this increased job satisfaction significantly. Indeed this training is something that still happens in our shops today. So now, as then, everyone of our sales people gets a minimum of 1 hours training per week. Back to IIP we then started to appraise and review our people, to listen to their ideas of how we might improve our business. All this lead to much greater engagement from out teams and the business turnover almost doubled over the next 4 or 5 years.
My next a-hah moment came when I was given a book called “Good to Great” written by Jim Collins. This helped me focus on three important areas in our business.
Firstly Management style and responsibilities, that he refers to as Level 5 Management, secondly Recruitment and selection and its vital role in the company’s success and thirdly what Collins refers to as a company’s Hedgehog Concept ( what are you are really passionate about, what you can be best in the worlds at, and what drives your economic engine)
I find myself very tempted to write a lot about management style and responsibilities, but on this occasion I’ll satisfy that urge with just one quote from the author Simon Sinek. He interviewed the CEO of a large manufacturer who found himself seated in church, at the wedding of one of his employees. He looked around him at the sea of faces, so many of whom he knew. In a later conversation, Sinek said that as he sat there he realised that he was responsible to the parents of all those sons and daughters who worked for him, to look after them and nurture them. He concluded that a company is not like a family, it is a family. This may sound a bit folksy and unrealistic but I don’t believe it was meant in this way. For me, what I heard was realistic and had a deep sense of caring thrown in. That thought rang many bells for me and emphasised how important good, caring, open working relationships are not just for me but for everyone who works in Art of Living as well. Sinek’s words meant, and mean, a lot to me and reflect a corner stone of our management approach
Recruitment. Now here is another cornerstone of why Art of Living is different to many other places of work. Unusually, for a small retailer we employ an agency to find our new recruits. This is because we look for two or three main things in the people who apply to us. Firstly “do they love cooking?” secondly “what is their attitude like?” and thirdly “do we feel that they will fit in with our team”? If we can’t find the right person then we will wait and wait till the right person comes along. This isn’t easy and sometimes it can put a lot of strain on short staffed teams, but does mean that when we eventually find the right person they tend to stay and to be successful.
In 2005 we opened our first Art of Living website. It took a while to do much business and has really only come into its own in recent years. As I write this in September 2018 we are on our fourth incarnation and about to launch our fifth version of the website with a new and powerful software that should enable us to manage it more efficiently and I hope give better service to you our customer.
Our next big change happened in 2009 and it was to employ professional retail managers firstly for our shop in Cobham and then in Reigate. This was a big investment for a small company and not really an easy transition to make. I had to learn to manage these managers effectively and with little experience of what I might reasonably expect but I was pleasantly surprised and found as I developed as a manger so did they!
I think this step is what enabled us to consider opening a third shop in 2012 and that, of course, was in Banstead. It’s our biggest shop to date and the first one that I got professional help from an architect to design. He came up with simple and brilliant ideas and has given the shop a very bright airy feel, that is, at the same time, very inviting and colourful. I loved its look right from the start and wish we had this size and shape of unit for both Reigate and Cobham shops.
This brings us up to date, for now.
So lastly, I’ll just mention our three guarantees
Firstly, we believe that you shouldn’t walk out of the shop with the wrong item. No I’m not talking about shoplifting. It’s our job to understand what you need and give you good advice so you end up buying the right item for you. If we fail to do this our first guarantee covers you there. Because we will be happy to take back anything you are not happy with. Now that includes anything you’ve got home, used and then found it’s not right for any reason whatsoever. This is unusual, in that we take back used items, but of course that is the real value in this guarantee, and safeguards you against making a poor decision or us not asking you the right questions.
Our Second guarantee covers accidental breakage. If you break say a Riedel glass you bought from us less than to two years ago, then you may bring back the broken bits ( or a photo of the breakage will do) and you can buy a replacement for half price.
Thirdly we price match. Yes, any current price out on the internet so that you can be sure that anything you buy from us is great value. So whether it’s John Lewis, Amazon or another internet retailer, you know that the price you’ll pay will be a fair one, plus you’ll get our great customer care for free!