Some 12 years ago we sat and chatted with Colin Mustoe, Chairman of The Senator Group. Back in 2004 the company was vying for the number one slot in the UK furniture market, with a turnover touching £50 million.
Today we’ve returned to Lancashire to talk with Robert Mustoe,the Group’s Managing Director (and Colin’s son, of course). It’s no exaggeration to say that we’ve been looking forward to chatting with Robert on-the-record for the best part of a decade now!
The Senator Group is no longer vying for that number one position. Vying doesn’t even come into it. With a turnover in excess of £130 million in 2015, there is no doubt who’s top of the table.
The Senator story started in 1976, when Colin began designing and manufacturing office furniture. Some 40 years on the company remains an independent, family owned business –although Robert didn’t originally expect things to work out quite the way they have.
“Our job is to give the best product with the best price and the best service. We’re still about service and doing what we say we’re going to do.”
‘I never presumed that I was coming into this industry,’ he reveals. ‘I was 18 and I went to work at Wetherby Office Chairs – a small wholesaler my dad owned. After the first week I came home and told my dad that I thought it wasn’t being run properly! After a month I was sticking my nose into things. I never went back to college. It all grew from there. I was in the business!
‘I’ve always had the advantage that I’ve got my father there. He’s not involved in the business on a daily basis now – but he’s there if I want him to be. I’ve got a great relationship with him – and he’s still the best ambassador we’ve got. He’s great at what he does.
To be fair, whatever I’ve done in this business there’s always been money in the bank and I’ve never had to take the risks that dad had to. If I want to spend money on new machinery and believe it’s the right thing to do – then I can go and do it. Dad started in his garage with £250 in his pocket! I think he had it a lot harder than I’ve ever had it.’
We’re at the Group’s awesome Altham headquarters, which today boasts state-of-the-art manufacturing, company offices and impressive showspaces for the Senator and Allermuir brands – although Robert tells us that there are even more grand plans in the offing. Before that, however, we ask about those ever increasing numbers. ‘We’re doing alright,’ Robert modestly tells us. ‘We had a record year last year. We’ve been growing in most markets we’ve been playing in. We’ve had particular growth in the US – where we’ve put in a lot of money and a lot of effort. We’ve got two showrooms in Chicago now, we’ve got a showroom in New York – just off 5th Avenue – and a big thing for last year was that we bought 27 acres of prime land and built a new production facility in Michigan which is about 45 minutes out of Detroit. We’ve got just short of 100,000 sq ft there – including k manufacturing, showroom and office space. It is now our US hub – previously we were using rented space.
‘I think the US really likes European designs when it comes to soft seating and loose furniture – they don’t particularly want European design when it comes to task chairs. This, however, is European design, made in America, which you can have in six weeks! It is a different market, but I think our job is to cater for different needs and different demands. It’s easy to over complicate things – when you cut through everything, it’s still relatively simple – if you like something you buy it, if you don’t, you don’t!
‘Our job is to give the best product with the best price and the best service. We’re still about service and doing what we say we’re going to do. I think, consistently across the industry, we still give the best service and the best reliability.’
This reminds us of a quote Colin gave 12 years ago, where he proclaimed that ‘Design is the absolute key to our future. Service and support is a given’.
‘That’s exactly what we’ve tried to do,’ Robert agrees. ‘Our background is the ‘me-too’ market, so the best way of differentiating yourself was to provide better service and better reliability. That’s still the cornerstone of the business.’
You only have to walk into one of the Group’s showrooms or onto an exhibition stand to see just how much time, effort, expertise and serious investment has also been put into design. The Senator and Allermuir portfolios boast innovative products from a number of Europe’s leading design protagonists, with an unashamed leaning towards UK designers. PearsonLloyd, Pengelly, Gabbertas, Brooks, Kolberg, Ballendat…the list goes on.
Despite this enviable array of talent and of course the mind-boggling numbers that this collection of products has helped the business achieve, there is very little shouting or showing off from the Managing Director. ‘The way my father brought me up was to play down what we do,’ Robert considers. ‘We’d rather over-deliver than under-promise. As a business we’re now around 1,300 people. I’m not really into doing things like this – into doing profiles. We’re about the business, not the individual. We’re about the people who work here – from the people in the canteen through to the salespeople out on the street.
‘We also enjoy being a manufacturer. A lot of people want to outsource more and more. We want to buy more equipment, buy more machines, build more factories – it feels much more tangible. We take real pride in what we do. We like the hassle! If it’s hard to do something, then it becomes even more rewarding to do it. We like employing people – we want to do things ourselves. As a business, we’re control freaks! We want to control as much as we possibly can. We don’t sit around tables talking for hours on end – we just get on with it. This is the only way you can achieve those levels of service and reliability.
‘You have to have your own garage and your own transport, for example. You have to be able to control where and when you deliver. We might be a bit quirky, but we’ve got eight mechanics here!’
This (and please excuse the pun) drive will see further significant developments in 2016, starting with the aforementioned garage. ‘One of our biggest investments this year will be a brand new 15,000 sq ft garage with eight pits,’ Robert reveals.
‘We’re planning on doing quite a bit of building work this year. We’ve got a second facility just up the road from here and we’ve just extended that facility to help with exports – we’ve added approximately 25,000 sq ft over two floors. We’re also going to build a new recycling centre on that site – and that’s going to be another 25,000 sq ft. Recycling is a major thing for us.
We don’t do it because we have to do it or as a sales tool. We do it because we think it’s the right thing to do. It should be very important to any company – and it is a very important thing for us. The centre is also going to have a new waste boiler to power the whole site. It is a £4-5 million investment – but it feels like the right thing to do.’
We’re very aware that we have to get ourselves back to Manchester shortly and we’ve hardly mentioned the furniture itself.
So what can we expect on that front for 2016? ‘Another of our big developments this year is to separate our brands a little more,’ Robert continues. ‘We’ve done a big push with our literature to differentiate the brands – and we’ve also now got a dedicated Allermuir showroom in Clerkenwell, which will stand alone from the Senator space in Euston. Allermuir and Senator are very different propositions and I think we just needed to reinforce that.
‘This fits in with how the market is evolving – there are an awful lot more specification-led projects out there right now. The need for individuality is there. We’ve got a number of very important seating launches and a new desking launch this year for Senator – which we’ll be launching around NeoCon. Then we have six new ranges for Allermuir, which we’ll launch at Clerkenwell Design Week.
We’ve always got a lot of stuff going on – but on the product side we’ve made a conscious decision to do slightly fewer things and make sure we do them better.’