Alan Symonds are at the top of their field – a market leader in window treatments. They’re a perfect example of an organisation using Words and Pictures to tell their story.
Our Head of Words, Andrew Gibbs, sat down – albeit virtually with Ian, the director at Alan Symonds and interviewed him…as a good journalist should! The result was the following beautifully crafted, professional article. It will be used in many ways – in full on their website, in strategically placed bitesize chunks on their social media, and woven through their marketing strategy.
Find out how you could have a virtual coffee with Andrew to talk about your business… email email@example.com.
“What’s that behind you?” asks Ian Symonds as our conversation begins. Via Zoom, he peers past my left shoulder, looking at the calendar on the wall. “It looks like a white shirt…”
He is looking at my Luton Town FC 2021 calendar (midfielder Luke Berry is February’s player of the month). “Which team? I’m a Tottenham fan.”
When I tell him, he pauses. “I’m not sure who’s had the roughest deal in the last few years.”
Mmm… My team in the wilderness of non-League football, five years in the Conference, three years in League One and Two versus the Premiership football, a title challenge or two and a Champions League final enjoyed by Spurs supporters.
“I’ll swap you any day,” I say.
Luck plays a big part in life, whether it’s football, business or any other facet. Ian is the first to admit that.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, designer goods specialist Alan Symonds had evolved from a wholesale trader selling anything from ladders to toys, ladies tights to buckets and mops via net curtains to a range of quality interior accessories. Curtains, voiles, cushions, tie-backs, kitchenware… all sold online. A path down which Alan Symonds walked after the major retailers turned their back. Instead the company focused on the independent high street stores and, as the internet developed, followed the lead of the e-commerce pioneers as they traded via eBay and Amazon.
“We have been incredibly lucky,” says Ian, who now runs the family firm. “I really feel for people who have had their businesses and lives stopped through no fault of their own. It’s purely through luck that we have come out of it.”
Now he is looking to the future. “It felt like Armageddon but 2020 was our best year for five years because we had this portfolio of online customers. We now have a far better handle on where the future lies because we have been constantly changing, innovating and moving with e-commerce.”
For Ian, who now runs the family firm, London is where it all began. His father set up the business in 1979, selling anything and everything to get his cash and carry venture off the ground. He then moved to Peterborough, purchasing a wholesale business in the city centre. By chance, Alan moved into the sale of net curtains after being offered a bulk of material by a supplier. “He couldn’t fund it but decided to give it a go. His old contacts couldn’t get enough of it,” Ian recalls.
Such was the demand that Alan sought a regular supplier. Snubbed by UK manufacturers whose clients saw him as competition, he turned his attention to Europe eventually sourcing material aplenty behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, brought to the UK via a contact in Hamburg. “It involved some serious detective work but he found a supplier of original goods at even cheaper prices.” 10p a metre, sold at £1 a metre.
Competitive pricing meant good profits too, enabling Alan to employ agents in the UK as business boomed.
So much so that the business was able to buy a plot of land in Peterborough, by now a fast-expanding town, and sold the city centre site to a developer keen to build offices. “In return we got two new A-frame warehouse buildings on the outskirts of the town and concentrated on building up the textile business again.”
But UK manufacturers were struggling to compete with product from the Far East. It was in Asia that Alan Symonds found two factories to supply the business. It was becoming clear too that the demand for net curtains was weakening. “Factories were closing. It was seen as old fashioned,” says Ian. “The market was changing so we had to innovate and change with it.”
The net curtain, a staple in homes since the 1970s, was being replaced by a new fabric: voile, a soft sheer material of 100% cotton or blended with linen or polyester. Alan Symonds followed suit and the successful transition enabled further expansion of the business in 2005.
It bought a parcel of land on the A1 on the outskirts of Peterborough from English Partnerships, the national regeneration agency that was to become the Homes and Communities Agency. The plan was to build a 30,000 sq ft warehouse on the site, part of a small business park, that would be designed to accommodate the company’s future growth as it moved from nets to voiles.
“We were up against a different sort of competitor,” says Ian. “They had a longer history, a better brand name and we were only cutting our teeth in the market. We made a success of it but the route to market was changing.”
The Alan Symonds offer had been dismissed by the retail giants including Debenhams, M&S and Next. “We could not get into them so we were left with the high street independents,” says Ian. “We were also supplying increasing numbers of people who wanted to sell online through eBay and Amazon. Our competitors poo-pooed it and we scooped up all the online custom, people who had seen the opportunity but whose background was a small store or who had some connection with the textile industry already.
“They felt they could add to their business by selling online. Some of them got really quite big and shifted their focus away from the high street as conditions got harder and harder and internet sales got bigger and bigger.
“And that’s the way our business went. There was a real shift of power.”
Then came Covid. Like many other businesses, Alan Symonds shut for ten days. Then online retailer Wayfair came calling, looking to sell Alan Symonds cushions and cushion covers. They had grown rapidly in the USA and now were expanding in the UK.
“It built up into a considerable business and we realised that we must be able to deliver,” says Ian. “If we stopped the supply, it would hurt them and unless we keep customers going, there will be no customers to come back to. Our staff were slightly nervous about coming back to work so soon but they have been fantastic. Luckily, the building we built is large enough for it to be easy to socially distance. We do a lot of business in China and our clients there were sending regular boxes of face masks to us so we could keep going.”
Out of the calamity of Covid comes opportunity. Ian launched a summer range of products that flew off the online shelves. “We could have sold it four times over,” he says. A special Christmas range also sold well.
Ian expects the online boom to slow as restrictions ease and market conditions head back towards normal. “Everyone has been affected and it’s not easy. Some things won’t get back to normal but the market will always be changing and we have to change and innovate to go with it.”