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Growing a worldwide brand from Burnopfield

Ben Staerck, Managing Director of Furniture Clinic and Handbag Clinic explains how the internet has helped the growth of both brands.

Furniture Clinic manufactures a unique range of leather cleaning, repair and restoration products used in many industries including furniture, automotive, clothing, handbags, luggage and many more.

It was founded in 2004 on the knowledge and experience of Keith Staerck, Ben’s father, who worked for over 20 years in the leather industry.

Ben Staerck explains how he got into the business. “My dad had a business buying and selling wood cleaning products. He went to exhibitions, like Ideal Home, classic car and agricultural shows all over the country. In 2004, whilst still at school, I designed his first website and my job was also to package the orders and post them on my way to school!”

However in 2005, Ben made the brave decision not to go to university to read business and economics, but to go into the business with his father and they incorporated Furniture Clinic into a limited company.

“I kept refining the website and we soon reached a point where enough orders came directly to us so dad didn’t have to tour round the exhibitions. The products were extremely good and customers were finding us on the website, but with the influence of shops like Ikea there was a change in house interiors from real wood to a minimalistic trend and a shift to leather furniture.

“The trend for leather furniture meant that people needed products to remove scuffs and marks and we looked at how leather was treated in the tanneries to remove natural stains and marks. When we started we were working out of our garage at home, buying old furniture and practising with our new products until they were perfected, but it didn’t take long to grow to a size where we needed more space and so in 2007 we decided to rent a unit on the Team Valley and set up Furniture Clinic. We listened to our customers and realised they would like a service where they could send their furniture to us for repair rather than doing it themselves.

“As the business grew so did the product range. It initially comprised of cleaning and care products for leather and wood but has since expanded to include a full range of dyes, paints, fillers, glues and many other specialist products used to repair and restore leather.

“Car dealers and manufacturers became regular customers as it can take two days to fit the leather interior of a car. If it is marked or damaged in the process, they have to refit so productivity slows down, but we provided a cost efficient solution with our products that could easily remove these marks.

“To expand we decided to franchise the brand across the UK, however the trouble with having 20 franchises was that although they could repair to the quality we wanted, their customer service and values often didn’t match our own and we would have to step in to sort out problems for their customers, which was a drain on our resources so we decided franchising was not the way forward for us.”

The business was continuing to grow from their rented Team Valley base, but in March 2010 Ben and his father decided to purchase the current 16,000 sqft factory at Burnopfield.

“By this stage we had customers all over the world and the factory gave us twice as much space and lower overheads. It was also a great commute for me as I live in Whickham!”

In 2012, Furniture Clinic was trading to 50 countries across the world and Ben’s father, Keith, decided to retire.

“Having taken over as Managing Director, 2013 was a defining year for me,” said Ben. “Many of the Furniture Clinic customers were asking me if I could also repair their designer handbags and I could see this could be a real opportunity to use our skills and products in a new market. Handbag Clinic was therefore set up as an additional business under the Furniture Clinic brand.

“We used the internet for blog posts to attract people to both the Furniture Clinic and Handbag Clinic brands and our website analytics showed a strong demand from the USA – we were sending over £3,000 of products there each month. I thought if the products were so popular, there could be a real opportunity to open a Furniture Clinic in New York State and offer the full range of products and services.”

In October 2013 Ben decided to rent a warehouse on Long Island and employ a small sales team under the name Furniture Clinic Inc.

“I really like doing business with Americans,” said Ben, “they are happy to be sold to, want the best and are prepared to pay for good quality.

“We have six people in the New York operation and our sales team achieve an 85% conversion rate, compared to 30% in the UK. I go out two or three times a year and the rest of the time we use conference calls.

“We’ve established a good platform and I believe the USA has the potential to be five times the size of our UK business, however although we were greatly encouraged when we did $40,000 of business in our first month, it has taken time to establish the Furniture Clinic brand. We set it up with £50,000 but have had to invest a further £300,000 and three years on we are now seeing a return on our investment.

Ben continues: “If I was asked to give any advice to new entrepreneurs, I would say nothing grows as fast as you would hope and it may take years of hard work before you realise its potential, so you need patience and help and support from good advisers.

“What I like about Square One Law is that they are very easy to work with and extremely commercial rather than just my legal advisers. I can ring up any time and get advice on any area concerning the business. Whether it’s James Bryce in corporate or Helen Warren in property, the whole team is reliable and acts quickly. Consequently, I’ve built up a really good working relationship with them.”

In February 2015 Ben decided the Handbag Clinic brand would be more credible if it had a presence on the high street. They’d had a great deal of enquires from London, but were only converting about 50% of them. Ben knew if they had a shop it would attract more customers and referrals, so he opened the first shop on the Kings Road in Chelsea.

“Helen has helped me with my premises and we now have three other shops: Mosley Street, Newcastle; Queen’s Arcade, Leeds and Angel, Islington. Not only do we repair bags but we also buy and sell quality handbags that range from brand new with their sales tags still on, to designer bags with minor damage, through to vintage bags like an Hermes Kelly bag from 1947.”

Helen Warren, senior property associate said: “I have really enjoyed getting to know Ben and his property manager, David Pitt whilst working with them on the Handbag Clinic leases in Newcastle, Leeds and London. We have developed a great working relationship throughout these transactions and being involved in the company’s property work from such an early stage means that I have been fortunate enough to witness first-hand how Ben’s business is going from strength-to-strength.”

Ben continues: “As with any business there are always ups and downs. The Handbag Clinic shops always start well with a great deal of interest, but we have to grow them to ensure we have good sales every month, not just in the run up to Christmas.

“Trading worldwide has also brought challenges. At an early stage we acquired a large number of relevant domain names and trademarks, but found when looking to do business in China that the Furniture Clinic trademark was already being used for cleaning products. Fortunately I have the trademarks for servicing repairs and for dyes and paint products, so we are going to trade the cleaning products in China with the name Leather Clinic. We have the Handbag Clinic trademark so foresee no problems for that brand.”

Looking to the future Ben said: “I would really like to open a Handbag Clinic shop in Manhattan and I’m currently exploring the feasibility of that project. However, my main focus for the business is to continue to build both brands and attract further investment. The team at Square One Law is helping me with growth into new international markets and premises. None of this would have been possible without the internet and we’ve come a long way since I built that first website in 2004!”

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