5 Minutes With Hamish Mansbridge, CEO, Heal’s

Established in 1810 and operating five stores in London, Sussex and Yorkshire, Heal‘s new Birmingham store - which opened last month - is also the brand's regional flagship for the Midlands. The Retail Gazette caught up with chief executive Hamish Mansbridge to gain his insight on the furniture sector.

Heal's CEO Hamish Mansbridge

Congrats on the new Birmingham store!

Thank you, we’re really excited! I think the Midlands has been underserved for quality home furnishings for a very long time, and as our second city, Birmingham is the obvious place to address that.

In the new store, how have you incorporated Heal’s themes and patterns to create a sense of luxury while maintaining the character of the heritage brand?

That’s a great question, because it is all about being relevant and contemporary but without losing sight of the history that makes Heal’s unique. We are bringing an edited collection of fabulous products to showcase what Heal’s stands for in a beautiful environment. I want it to be a joy to come and shop or just browse and be inspired at the new Heal’s store in the Mailbox Birmingham shopping precinct.

What has the public reaction to the store been like so far?

People are really pleased to see the Mailbox providing something new and exciting and we are at the very heart of that. Those who already know us are delighted to be getting their own showroom, and those who don’t are fascinated to see what we will bring and what makes us so special and innovative.

What does it feel like to be part of a heritage British business?

I am immensely proud to lead such an iconic business. I feel a real sense of responsibility not just to the current team and our owners, but also to the 200-plus years of history.

Heal’s was the first company to bring mattresses to the UK, and we were amongst the first to introduce electric lights. We converted our factory to make parachutes during the war, exhibited at the Festival of Britain, and we restored the Buckingham Palace banqueting table for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

We are very proud of our past but only if it helps make us even better in the future.

How is Heal’s addressing some of the challenges facing the UK retail sector on a broad scale?

The most obvious change in retail has been the huge growth online, and what this means for physical stores.

We see ourselves as an ecommerce business with showrooms, and consider our showrooms to be an incredibly important part of the shopping experience. Customers want to be able to touch and feel and try out a mattress or a sofa or even a chair before they buy it. They want to know that it won’t fall apart and they want to be able to see and understand the design detail. But then if they want to buy it online, the experience has to be just as fantastic so they can buy with real confidence.

Tell us a bit about your role as CEO of Heal’s.

Ha! It’s a bit of everything, but fortunately I have a great team of people who do most of the work. Ultimately, I decide what we do and don’t do.

I do like to get out on the shopfloor and talk to people, and I am fortunate that our offices are just behind our flagship store on Tottenham Court Road in London.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before Heal’s.

I’ve been really lucky with my career and learned my trade at two other great retailers, The White Company and the Snow & Rock Group. Both have a presence in Birmingham as it happens.

The highlight of my career is having been a part of The White Company’s growth – it had sales of £20 million when I joined and £120 million when I left.

I also find it incredibly satisfying when you are able to help people progress with their own careers and see them go on to do bigger and better things.

What got you into the retail sector in the first place?

I absolutely love being in retail, and without doubt the best thing about it is the immediacy of everything you do. A decision is made in a trading meeting on a Monday afternoon, and that will be in the shops on Tuesday. Or at least it should be!

The other thing I particularly enjoy is the fact that everyone has an opinion, and they are always happy to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

It’s no great secret to tell you that in common with a number of other furniture retailers, the last few years have been challenging for Heal’s. Like all businesses, financial discipline is paramount, and with my background in finance, I’m well placed to get us into a more sustainable position.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Just keeping on top of everything. There is so much going on, so trying to remember exactly where we are with everything is a real challenge. I have endless lists.

And the most rewarding?

Feedback from customers, particularly when they tell me that someone has done a great job or given them outstanding service. I won’t embarrass anyone by naming names but we have members of the team who get lovely comments all the time.

Can you talk about any other projects that you’re working on?

We have just moved our warehouse and changed our logistics provider so we are working really closely with them to ensure our customers get the best delivery service. I think we’re a bit different to their other retail partners.

What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?

Do it. It’s a fun, ever-changing environment and there is a world of opportunity if you like people and product. If you’re good you can make a real difference with immediate impact.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?

We have already seen a collapse in the value of the pound and that will undoubtedly add cost pressure. We are trying very hard not to pass this on to customers but inevitably there will be some price inflation in the whole retail sector.

Meanwhile, people will be feeling nervous, particularly if interest rates rise. It is important that we keep providing a fantastic service so people can see that proper furniture is still a great investment.

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