A quarter of a century ago, Martin Holliday took a leap of faith by launching a bespoke cabinet-making business in Lincolnshire at a time of economic recession. Today, Chiselwood has awards galore under its belt and its high-end reputation is recognised well beyond the county’s borders and even abroad, but Martin remains committed to flying the flag for fine Lincolnshire craftsmanship.
When you consider the market served by this Saxilby business, which is headed by Martin (Design Director) and his wife Mel (Managing Director), you might be surprised to discover they haven’t been tempted to de-camp to the south of England.
But having lived a stone’s throw from London before Chiselwood was even a twinkle in Martin’s eye, he has never regretted returning to his home territory and he believes the county is a great base for a business.
“I love Lincolnshire people, the quality of life here and the fact that there’s still some level of privacy. There really is nothing nicer, when you’ve spent hours in London, to catch the Newark train from Kings Cross, and return to the tranquillity of this county,” he said.
The Hollidays’ home and business are a mere 20-minute drive from Newark station and – with the firm’s showrooms and workshops barely ten yards apart – Martin and Mel enjoy the bonus of being able to grab a quick coffee in their own kitchen or one in their showroom.
So what is it that has kept this business going through good, and more turbulent times, and where do the couple plan to take it from here?
“We launched Chiselwood when Mel and I returned to Lincolnshire after spending five years in Swindon, where I repaired luxury vehicles, while she went to university in London,” said Martin.
The couple, who have two sons George (21) and Jack (19), originally moved away after Martin completed an engineering (fabrication) apprenticeship with the former RGT in Lincoln, but declined to take up an offer of a time management job.
Swindon’s loss was Lincolnshire’s gain when he and Mel decided to swap the hectic pace of life in the south for Lincolnshire, where Martin ploughed his passion for woodwork and furniture-making into his new venture.
The first two years were tough, but an order for a bespoke kitchen proved to be a real turning point. Chiselwood swiftly became a name synonymous with top class kitchen design and fitting.
Once magazine and newspapers began following Chiselwood’s story, that fact became firmly imprinted in the public’s mind and was sealed when Martin and Mel started to win a string of confidence-boosting awards.
The business, which switched to Saxilby after seven years in Lincoln, was named Daily Express New Business of the Year in 1991 and Lincolnshire Business of the Year in 2001. Chiselwood won two national prizes in 2006 – at the Kitchen Designer Awards and KBSA Design Innovation Awards. In 2012, it was named the IoD’s Family Business of the Year (East Midlands).
Naturally, the company which has a £1 million turnover and employs 14 people, has evolved in line with changing trends, but getting people to realise that Chiselwood is now a multi-faceted architectural interiors design business, is one of Martin’s biggest challenges.
“Most people see us as a full-on kitchen company. They are surprised when we tell them that we design, supply and install everything from bedrooms to kitchens and bathrooms and, on the commercial front, carry out office, shopfitting and showroom commissions, offering full project-management services in each case.”
Diversifying has made sound sense for the business with a customer base which lies mainly within a one-and-a-half hour’s drive of Saxilby, but which also has clients in London, Ireland, Barbados and Portugal.
“Our typical client is in their mid-50s. Their kids have left university and they are looking to spend money on themselves. Until a few years ago, they would simply remortgage to fund a dream kitchen,” said Martin.
“Now, they can longer afford to do so. The lower end of the fitted kitchens market is doing fine, but the mid-market sector – where people might spend £30,000 or so – has disappeared.
“What we are seeing now is a lot more self-made professionals who are looking for more extensive home makeovers, as part of a lifestyle statement.”
Today’s “throwaway” trend has also had an impact. Martin said people have become used to buying cheap goods and tend to view quality products and services as expensive. However, he also believes the British have different priorities to their continental cousins.
“For instance, in Germany, people tend to spend more on the inside of their homes, whereas in this country they splash out on the exteriors and put less expensive fittings inside,” he said.
Staffing is also a major issue for small businesses. Martin said the recent recession had wrenched many skills from the labour force, but Chiselwood luckily has a low level of staff turnover. As a firm believer in training, Martin is now looking to recruit another apprentice cabinetmaker.
Whatever the changing trends and challenges that lie ahead, Martin and Mel are clear that it is vital to stay positive, continue investing in their business, and major on offering the personal touch.
Since they switched from Lincoln to Saxilby, initially revamping old buildings with the aid of a Rural Development Grant, Martin and Mel have extended their premises three times. They are now eight times bigger than originally.
“Over the past five years we have invested £100,000 in computerised manufacturing equipment to stay ahead of the game and spent a further £85,000 on a Biomass Pellet Boiler. It provides hot water and heating for the business, our home and a flat over our premises and should pay for itself within five to six years,” said Martin.
You have to be proactive in tough times. You cannot let periods of recession dumb you down. Not investing can prove to be a false economy. Businesses need to be thinking about one, two or even five years down the line.
This feature interview was first published in issue 5 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.