Shaper: Alistair Hughes

Show aired on 20th December 2014

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Cantaloupe Island from Herby Hancock; good morning, thank you very much for joining me here on Jazz FM, it’s Jazz Shapers the place where you can hear as you well know I hope, the people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul alongside their equivalents in the world of business; a business shaper. My business shaper today is Mr Alistair Hughes, he is the co-founder of Savoir Beds, for those of you in the know you will know that they are probably the best bed in the world, the ones that were originally supplied to the Savoy in the early twentieth century. You will be hearing lots from Alistair about him and his brilliant business. In addition to hearing from him, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that, yes you know what it’s going to be, brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, including Aretha Franklin, the New Century Jazz Quintet and this from The Grip, formerly I guess or rather informally known as a bit of a super group in the Jazz world, Tom Skinner on drums, Oran Marshall on tuber and Finn Peters on the flute and the sax.

The sound of Acorn and The Grip, fantastic stuff. Alistair Hughes is my business shaper as I promised earlier here on Jazz Shapers; Alistair is the co-found of Savoir Beds and they are as I said the best beds in the world and I am saying that, he can’t say that I am sure because someone will come along.

Alistair Hughes
Oh I can, they are the best beds in the world.

Elliott Moss
There you go, they are the best beds in the world, amazing things and I will confess that I have been seduced and I have one and then there is one the most extraordinary luxuries I have ever, ever indulged myself in. Alistair thank you so much for joining me. For those people who don’t know, what is Savoir Beds and how did you come to become the proud owner of this fantastic brand?

Alistair Hughes
Savoir Beds are the makers as we have said of the most fabulous mattresses. We come from the Savoy Hotel. The Savoy Hotel back in 1889 set out to be the most luxurious fantastic hotel in the world and they decided in 1905 they wanted to create their own bed. What’s more important to a hotel than a great nights’ sleep. So they set out and created their own bed, they owned the brand for many many years as the Savoy Bed Works and then come 1997 things had changed and I saw the opportunity to buy the business from them.

Elliot Moss
Now going back a little bit, 1989 you graduate with an economics degree?

Alistair Hughes
Correct.

Elliot Moss
I believe you go into the world of consultancy as so many clever people seem to do?

Alistair Hughes
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
Travelled the world a bit, Australia, the Philippines, you are in the UK again. It sounded like from a very early point in your career though you though ‘I kind of want to run my own thing’. Do you know when you started to feel that or did you know that even when you began in your consultancy career?

Alistair Hughes
I knew definitely when I started my consultancy career but before that also. I always had an interest in business and how things worked and I thought consulting was a way into that and it was. However ultimately you are giving a lot of advice which is great and interesting but sometimes you just want to get your hands dirty and do something. So after you know four fabulous years at LEK I decided the time had come to look out for something, an opportunity.

Elliot Moss
Now the first opportunity that comes along isn’t always the one that works and like so many entrepreneurs, a few didn’t quite get off the starting blocks. Is that a fair enough thing to say?

Alistair Hughes
Absolutely. The very first thing I did was to try and set up just before the Internet age sort of burst upon us, as a competitor if you like with Autotrader or Exchange and Mart, used cars, via the telephone and a database. Autodial we called ourselves and what I did meet through that was my current business partner, Steven Winston, some great investors who saw me through that but ultimately it didn’t work and after that experience I thought ‘do I want to go and get a real job again’ and frankly no I didn’t and so I did small bits of consulting and looked out for the next project.

Elliot Moss
Find out how Alistair bumped into the next project which was to become his project indeed for almost twenty years so far and lots more to come I am sure. Time for some music, this is Aretha Franklin and Chain Of Fools.

Aretha Franklin and the rather famous Chain Of Fools. Alistair Hughes is my business shaper today; he is the co-founder of Savoir Beds which if you were listening earlier you will know was founded actually a long long time ago and then bought because a man called Alistair Hughes found out that this company was for sale and like many thing Alistair, it wasn’t kind of planned but you knew you were looking for something. Tell me a little bit about how this potential opportunity came along and what made you grab it?

Alistair Hughes
Well it was totally unplanned but I had been doing some work helping raise some cash for Home House Private Members Club in Portman Square, a very beautiful Adam building and the guy who founded that, Brian Clevows had previously worked and was part of the Savoy Group at Simpsons on The Strand and it came across in conversation that the Savoy were looking to sell the Savoy Bed Works and I thought ‘wow that’s something we’ve got to find out about’. So Steven my business partner and myself went along, saw the FD of the Savoy and after a bit of a haggle and saw off a bit of bidding competition, we were able to buy the company.

Elliot Moss
And did it just feel right, I mean beyond the numbers and beyond the fact that you knew how much it would cost you and therefore what the possible opportunity was and no one can ever really know – what was it that convinced you this was the right opportunity for you?

Alistair Hughes
I think two things really. One actually was the price. I mean I had blown my savings on my first business venture I wasn’t flush with cash and I saw it as a relatively low risk thing to do, manufacturing is that low risk, well it was a product, it seemed to have some people buying it and it was a very small business, very low overhead but what I really liked was just this fantastic story. You know this back story. I mean if you are going to sell a bed you want the most famous people in the world to have slept on it. You know Savoir Beds have been slept on everywhere by everyone through the ages and you know, whether it was Monet sleeping on one, painting pictures of the Thames, you know whether it is Marilyn Monroe, whether it’s Frank Sinatra who refused to sleep on anything else when he was in London, you know Savoir Beds had this amazing back story and I just thought with that heritage and then when I went to see it, the guys making the product, making the beds, the craftsmanship that went into it. I just thought it was amazing. I thought ‘wow this is great’. The funny thing is it is one of those things the craftsmanship that put the other bidders off because they didn’t want to make the bed in the same way and we were lucky that the Savoy said ‘no no we want the same product’. So despite not making the highest offer, we got the company.

Elliot Moss
And that point you made, or the two points rather, heritage and craftsmanship and I guess underpinned by story, in a way they must still be at the very very centre of what it is that you do. You have incredible heritage, you have a wonderful story and stories to tell and most importantly and this is kind of at the centre of the renaissance if you like in manufacturing, there is real artisanship, there’s a real craftsmanship. Does that – which of those three kinds of turns you on the most or is it the ingredients, all of them put together?

Alistair Hughes
It’s the mix, it’s the mix. Its more than the sum of the parts and I think you know what we set out to do as a very small business was we thought the only we could compete is to be at the very top end and if you look at what a luxury product needs to have it needs those things, it needs a back story, it needs heritage, it needs craft and quality and it needs to be exclusive and unique and bespoke, special, that’s why people want it. So we were confident we could create the best night’s sleep available, that’s what it’s about. For me it was just a question of how do we tell people about it, how do we get this across that we’ve got two guys making these beds. How do we, how do we make that happen.

Elliot Moss
And find out how they made it happen very very shortly. Stay with me for more from my business shaper, Alistair Hughes, co-founder of Savoir Beds. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for your business from our program partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers here on Saturday morning on Jazz FM and if you are still slumbering around in your bed, well why not it’s not that late yet. If you haven’t been able to listen to some of the previous programs you can of course go into iTunes and you will find a whole lot over there. Next time you are travelling on British Airways you can always put on BA Highlife and you will find some of the best of the Shapers programs in there as well and Cityam.com is another destination for you if you want to catch some of my phenomenal guests over the last few years. Alistair Hughes is my phenomenal guest today and he is the co-founder of Savoir Beds, heritage we were talking about, a story we were talking about, a craftsmanship and making stuff really and all of that and Alistair you took that business over for a few thousand pounds then and all the other liabilities that would have come with it. Your business is now I think you know, in the millions and you I believe you make around a thousand beds a year?

Alistair Hughes
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
What does it feel like looking back now. Could you have imagined you would be where you are now or does it feel like you’ve got so much more to go you don’t think about it like that?

Alistair Hughes
We’ve got a long way to go still. I still think we are the beginning but certainly if you look back to when we had the two guys you know making these beds, no real clients and thinking you know, where does the next sale come from, it’s a big shift from there certainly and that journey has been incredibly exciting and you know, a bit of luck and hopefully a bit of skill gone into making it happen.

Elliot Moss
Now you were talking about your earlier ventures and the thoughts around you know, some kind of the pre-dot.com boom stuff happening. You’ve gone and made stuff. I mean you actually physically build things and now you’ve got these amazing beds. Just give me a little insight into what goes into it because there is mass manufacturing and then there is bespoke manufacturing. You are definitely at the bespoke end. Just tell me a little bit about how these beds are made?

Alistair Hughes
Absolutely. If you can imagine each bed is made by one person. They are at a bench and they make the whole thing through. So the same person will make your mattress from start to finish. They will use the best natural ingredients, horse tail, wool, cashmere and so forth and they will take between forty and a hundred and fifty hours to produce that bed. The person who makes your mattress or your box spring or headboard will then sign it off. It is a real labour of love. People love to come and see – we don’t call it a factory we call it a bed works – West London come and see us. But it is just amazing to see but the amazing thing is people might think ‘well how can you do that, how can that work’ but the fact is people want quality and if they see there is quality they are willing to pay for it and if we can genuinely show we can provide the best nights’ sleep then they will look you up for a Savoir which is what they are doing.

Elliot Moss
And all the things that go into ensuring that the best quality materials are there, that the design aesthetic is right, that you get the right craftsman – I imagine people stay with you for a number of years.

Alistair Hughes
Absolutely.

Elliot Moss
You need to build up all that. That’s also a lot of, you know it wasn’t fashionable to start making stuff back in the nineties I mean people were going the other way. What made you think that making things could be good for you and from a financial perspective as well because surely a lot of your contemporaries were saying, ‘Alistair I don’t know what you are doing you’re making beds, I’m building an empire on line’.

Alistair Hughes
Absolutely, I don’t know many of my contemporaries who are involved in manufacturing at all but it just struck me that if you can be at the top end of any market you can make it work and you know the idea that Britain can manufacture, you look at the country today and you see whether it is automotive industry or great hotels or great services, if you are at the top end of it you can do very well and that is exactly what I saw, I saw – I shouldn’t think of myself as a provider of beds, I am a provider of luxury goods, I am bringing something to people.

Elliot Moss
More coming up from Alistair who is my business shaper. Time for some music now this is London Town from the lovely New Century Jazz Quintet.

That was London Town from the New Century Jazz Quintet, you should be feeling very relaxed now talking about beds and listening to great music. Alistair Hughes is my business shaper and we have been talking about all sorts of stuff. The trials and tribulations of running your own business and you seem like a very upbeat kind of guy and I think most people who I have met on this programme have been upbeat – there must have been some dark moments when you’ve gone ‘you know what, they were right, I shouldn’t be manufacturing stuff, it’s all going wrong’. Where there? And if there were how you did get through them?

Alistair Hughes
Look there have been tough times there is absolutely no question about it, getting our name out there in the first place was difficult, people just didn’t know about us. We had a little bit of luck, Emma Thompson was kind enough to say we got rid of her insomnia – we cured it. She was quoted as saying that, we got a fantastic piece in the Telegraph and the business began to take off but before that I was thinking ‘I am making these beds, I’ve got no customers’. So there are difficult times but even as we have expanded, I mean just two years ago I went to New Deli for the opening of our showroom and looked up in horror to see our brand name spelt incorrectly – Saviour Bed. That is not what I wanted to see.

Elliot Moss
It’s not a bad idea though, Saviour. There’s something in it.

Alistair Hughes
It is not what I wanted to see if you can imagine.

Elliot Moss
So what did you do? It was about to open… did you then….

Alistair Hughes
It was the day before and there was nothing we could do about the sign, absolutely nothing we could do about the sign – we just went ahead and smiled and got on with it and you know, so there have been frustrations and setbacks along the way there is absolutely no doubt about it but on the whole we have had more successes than failures. The key thing is keep pushing on for us.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of you talked about your co-founder who it sounds like there’s a less day-to-day role for him in the business – who do you turn to though on a day-to-day basis to kind of go ‘I am thinking about this’ or ‘there’s an issue over here’ – is there someone you go to?

Alistair Hughes
Well actually probably Steven you know, the co-founder is, I speak to him most days because he is not involved day-to-day in the business he is a great person to go to and seek some advice.

Elliot Moss
Is there ever a time when you think ‘I didn’t do the right thing’. Ever, ever ever?

Alistair Hughes
Of course. I mean everyone has doubt and you know, you go to some alumni function and you think ‘goodness I could have done that or done that’. What is amazing to me is the grass is always greener, the number of people say ‘I wish I was doing that, how do I do that?’ it’s amazing. People always want to do something different but on the whole I love my work, I love what I do, I love the product. You know we have got a great bunch of people and we sell something that is fantastic. People smile because of it. The delivery guys say it is fantastic, we deliver a great night’s sleep. People love it.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with Alistair today plus play a track from James Brown – that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

The inimitable Mr James Brown and I Feel Good. Alistair Hughes is with me just for a few more precious minutes. Your business has grown Alistair from the small beginnings even though you had a brand name you didn’t really have any customers as you said and had only ever supplied the Savoy. What have been the key things along the way that have precipitated that growth? PR I imagine is kind of in there isn’t it, you mentioned the Emma Thompson thing, Gone Girl very recently featured your beds and all your friends and family rang you up and said ‘oh have you seen the bed’ but is that a key component? If it is not just that what would be the other ones?

Alistair Hughes
I think absolutely the PR has helped, it is amazing as getting press is incredibly important but actually now the most important source of customers is referral. People talking about us. That’s what it is all about. In the UK now over fifty percent of our business comes from referrals by existing clients. It is amazingly important to us. The number of people who tell a friend over dinner ‘I bought this crazy bed, I did this, I did that’ and if they are happy they will buy and that of course is the cheapest form of getting to people but also the most successful so that I would say is the key – referral.

Elliot Moss
And the other thing I think just having as I alluded to earlier very luckily been a customer or I am a customer I guess of Savoir Beds.

Alistair Hughes
But how did you find out?

Elliot Moss
Well it was family you see. It was the in-laws saying ‘you’ve got to buy this bed’ and I said ‘yes one day’ and the one day seemed to come along rather sooner than I thought but the customer service, just the experience of being the customer, I would say that again I interact with many many businesses, yours is extraordinary and I imagine its back end sort of database stuff but it is also just that people, you don’t have hundreds of thousands of customers, you have thousands, your team really knew and they said ‘oh yes hello, we met you and your wife’ and so on and so forth. How have you created that consistency of customer service delivery? How have you done it?

Alistair Hughes
I think the key is having great people. You can have a database with all the information on of course but ultimately you need to have good people who remember things and just do the basics right and have the time. You know, don’t load things up too much. Don’t put too much on people, make sure the delivery guys have time to do what they are meant to do. You know make sure they are motivated to do the right thing. It’s about the people who you deal with, that’s what it is all about.

Elliot Moss
And just to pick up on one last thing before I ask you your son choice today. British manufacturing and especially the luxury. Good time for it? Better things ahead? Is this a good moment to be Savoir Beds and other similar luxury brands?

Alistair Hughes
Oh I think absolutely. The UK as seen from overseas is an amazing place you know there is no question the Chinese do not think about the Austin Allegro, they think about the Rolls Royce and …

Elliot Moss
Which is lucky.

Alistair Hughes
… which is very lucky yes and you know it is a fabulous time to be in Britain and manufacturing. The world wants our stuff we have just got to get it out there.

Elliot Moss
Where are you going to be in five years? You and the business what do you think?

Alistair Hughes
I think the business will be significantly larger both in the States and China and you know, I would like to think by then we will be doing twenty five million pounds without a problem.

Elliot Moss
Brilliant. I really really hope you do that. Thank you so much for joining me, just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Alistair Hughes
My song choice is Ice Cream by Chris Barber, essentially my dad was a massive Jazz nut and I remember as a kid when I was ten or eleven listening to that and on the old eight track and yeah. Fabulous memories so that’s the reason, it’s for my dad Steven Hughes.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic. Here it is for you, thank you so much for joining me.

That was the song choice of my business shaper today, Alistair Hughes. It was of course Chris Barber and Ice Cream. What an intelligent guy, full of positivity and someone who inherently believes in the power of making a luxury product and indeed creating a brand that would really really connect. Lovely stuff. Join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am for another edition of Jazz Shapers but in the meantime you know who it is coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams here on Jazz FM.

Alistair Hughes

Alistair Hughes is Managing Director and owner of Savoir Beds, a London- based company which creates bespoke beds that are widely regarded as the world’s most luxurious. Savoir’s heritage lies with the iconic Savoy hotel. The company was started in 1905 as the Savoy Bedworks with the aim of giving guests the best night’s sleep. Alistair purchased the brand back in 1997 with his business partner Stephen Winston and Savoir Beds was born. Previous to this Alistair graduated from Jesus College Cambridge with a degree in Economics and worked as a strategy consultant with LEK in the UK, Australia and the Philippines. Savoir’s tailor made beds have become almost as legendary as the stars who have slept in them and the brand now has 3 London showrooms and also exports worldwide with 9 showrooms internationally including New York, Berlin and Beijing.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

We come from the Savoy – in 1889 they decided they wanted to make their own bed. What’s more important to a hotel than a great night’s sleep?

I had blown my savings on my first business venture so I wasn’t flush with cash and I saw buying the Savoy Bed Works as a relatively low risk thing to do .

What I really liked was this fantastic story. If you are going to sell a bed, you want the most famous people in the world to have slept on it.

A luxury product needs a back story, it needs heritage, it needs crafts and quality and it needs to be exclusive and unique and bespoke. It needs to be special, that’s why people want it.

For me it was a question of how we tell people about it, how do we get it across that we’ve got two guys making these beds?

I don’t know many of my contemporaries who are involved in manufacturing, but it struck me that if you can be at the top end of any market you can make it work.

Emma Thompson was quoted saying we cured her insomnia. We got a fantastic piece in the Telegraph and the business began to take off.

We have a great bunch of people and we sell something fantastic.

The most important source of customers is referral. That’s what it is all about. In the UK, over fifty percent of our business comes from referrals by existing clients.

Don’t load things up too much.  Don’t put too much on people. Make sure your people are motivated to do the right thing.