Nick Williams is the national sales manager at Sweet Dreams, one of the UK’s largest bed and mattress manufacturers and suppliers. With growing bedroom cabinet and upholstery divisions, the turnover of this family-run business is around £25m. Furniture News talks to Nick about his life and loves in the furniture industry …
How did you enter the trade?
My first job in the industry was as European sales manager for a ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturer based in the US who were looking to expand into new markets. My original background saw me developing and implanting modular accounting systems. I was contracted to O’Sullivan, and when the position came up I successfully applied and took the decision to leave my job as a computer consultant! It proved a very good move.
Who was your inspiration?
Tom Hopkins. He is a sales guru in America and produces books, films and seminars that – especially when I was in the early days of my career – really spoke to me. I wouldn’t say he taught me everything I know, but he was certainly a big influence and I don’t think I’d have achieved the success I have over the years without this grounding.
More personally, Phil Nesbit, who was the MD of Gautier in the UK in the 2000s, has always been someone I’ve looked up to, and whose style and passion I’ve aimed to emulate.
What was your career high point?
Creating a brand new market in the UK for Bush Europe and their flat-pack furniture. I was appointed MD and their UK sales went from zero to €9m in three years. It was a very enjoyable time and justified my decision to move into furniture sales. It proved my worth to current and future employers and did wonders for my self-confidence (which was never particularly low!)
… and low point?
Ah, that would be a couple of years afterwards when I’d been appointed sales director, MD designate at Gautier UK. Sadly, Phil Nesbit got seriously ill and the business was sold back to the French company, and it no longer suited me to continue in the role.
… and the turning point?
Joining Sweet Dreams. After five years as a consultant, even though I’d done extremely well, gained a lot of diverse experience and made a lot of contacts that have stood me in good stead since, it was terrific to enjoy the stability of employee status again – and, what’s more, working for a highly reputable family business with huge potential. They liked my enthusiasm, they said …
Describe a typical working day
I’m an early bird and work from my home office in Worcestershire, so customers and colleagues are no longer surprised to get emails from me at 4am. I monitor emails at all hours, but much of the day I spend on the road. Listening to audiobooks and a comfortable car help to make that bearable.
I visit our key account customers, and independent stores nationwide in the company of our agents, as well as attending meetings at head office in Burnley. Jackie [McGarvey, general manager] and I spend a lot of time on day-to-day matters as well as considering wider strategy. In the run-up to trade shows it gets particularly busy as I oversee our exhibitions, from selecting product to directing our marketing plans.
I aim to stop working at around 5.30pm but respond to emails into the evening – it’s never nine-to-five, but that’s the nature of worthwhile jobs today.
If you had to start over, which career would you pursue?
Professional cricketer. To be honest, I would have gone down this route anyway, but it wasn’t open to me (not good enough!) As it is, I have played at a good amateur level and am now chairman of the Gentlemen of Worcestershire Cricket Club – the oldest cricket club in the county, and quite renowned. I try not to spend time wistfully thinking of what might have been …
What date on the business calendar do you most look forward to?
September and the NBF Bed Show in Telford. It’s great fun meeting up once more with colleagues and customers, as well as being key to our sales offer – in some ways it’s like school all over again, as it marks the start of the year for us, with the publication of our annual beds catalogue – another high point.
What is the most important issue affecting your business right now?
Rogue traders. Everyone suffers from them, not only the poor customer. They give reputable companies like ours a bad name, impugn the standing of the industry in the eyes of the consumer and drive down prices.
It’s very pleasing that the NBF are now discouraging rogue practices at a practical level through rigorous enhancements to their accreditation policy, and by raising awareness of these rogues and so steering bed buyers away from them. It’s also nice to know that we have recently been audited by the NBF and achieved the coveted A grade!
Which company do you look up to?
I prefer not to name names, but any company striving to improve and move forward ethically yet dynamically in today’s challenging market gets my vote. I respect companies that see opportunities and are willing to diversify beyond what might be seen as their traditional sectors, and those that are willing to embrace new platforms of selling, too.
What would you most like to change about yourself?
First, I’d like to listen more (I’m always telling myself this, but …). Second, I’d like to learn to say “no” more often. Third, inevitably – lose some weight.
What do you enjoy most about working in the trade?
The relationships with customers and colleagues, and the trade press too. The furniture industry in general and the bed industry in particular are very nice places to be, and frankly if you’re not spending your work time alongside kind, fun and interesting people then your life loses a lot of colour. It’s easy to be enthusiastic and retain your passion for your work when you’re surrounded by people who you respect and whose company you enjoy.