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Featured Business: Italian Tile and Stone Studio
Name: Luke Sweeney, Director, Italian Tile and Stone Studio
When the Italian Tile and Stone Studio was set up in 2000, it operated out of the back of a van catering to commercial and trade professionals such as builders, developers and architects.
In the initial stages, business was relatively slow, knocking on doors explaining what this new trade-only business was about. Once he got one or two customers, founder Luke Sweeney recalls, it was like a snowball — they opened doors to others.
The Italian Tile and Stone Studio provided tiles to every type of commercial project, including office blocks and pubs, mainly through architectural firms; to developers, and sites for multiple houses such as Durkan New Homes, as well as projects like the Shelbourne Hotel. When this end of the business “fell off a cliff” (as Luke describes it) in 2008, they had the consumer retail end of the business to fall back on.
The retail side was established in 2002 and closed in 2009 due to a combination of the downturn and Luke being in hospital. He reopened in 2010 and concentrated exclusively on the retail end. Luke says he couldn’t turn on a computer then but did see that the web was a huge tool in letting people understand what they company was about. He started going to courses at The LINK Research Institute, based at Dublin City University Business School, and got someone to develop a company website. It’s gone through various iterations and he maintains it himself. He doesn’t sell online to consumers; the website Tiles.ie is used to drive people into the retail outlet to see the tiles in person.
The choice in tiles is huge. 90% of the time, large format warehouse tile stores have very similar, generic ranges, says Luke. Offering choice differentiated Italian Tile and Stone Studio from competitors. When the recession hit, a lot of tile companies tried to reduce their offering to a very small amount of options. His company went the opposite way — feeling that people had been starved of choice. Luke flew out to Italy to find manufacturers that were doing something different and wanted to bring it to the Irish customer. There are 300-400 manufacturers between Spain and Italy, and Luke makes it is his business to visit factories to see what is coming down the line.
Once the crash hit, Luke believes, the prevalent mentality of moving house after a couple of years went out the window. People decided they were going to stay in their house for life, they wanted to make it look and feel like a home again, he says. “Customers became an awful lot more choosy. I think people are now getting stuff they really, really want.”
The focus on quality and range of offering has brought the trade end of the business around to Luke’s door again. Tech multinationals are investing in their commercial offices and are spending money on fit-outs. Quality materials are part of giving staff a great place to work. The next step is a stand-alone website to cater for the trade market he first started catering for in 2000.
The Italian Tile and Stone Studio was highly commended in the Outstanding Small Business category of the SFA National Small Business Awards 2015.
Interview with Luke Sweeney
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I started off in the tile business working in a warehouse for a tile company in 1991. I went on to work in all ends of the tile business, from warehouse to sales to running shops to running a wholesalers for the next nine years. When it came to setting up, I was the same as everybody else; I thought I could do it better. I saw a gap in the market for quality products for the trade end — we felt there was no one else doing that. It was dedicated to what they were doing as opposed to being a branch in a retail outlet. It was purely thinking “what were an architect’s requirements” or “a developer’s requirements” and catering for them. We were often offering a more bespoke solution than they could get from walking into a general tile store.
How did you initially fund your business?
It was funded through savings or resources. To a large extent, the fact we didn’t have a retail premises meant that all we had to do was put a van under me to go knocking on doors and to fund a phone. For the first year or so it was a case of not going out and enjoying yourself. It didn’t require an investment and, once we were established, any money we were making was being put back into the business.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
The retail was the first diversification. When the crash hit, we ultimately went back to retail and learned how to become proper retailers. I would look at them as being two separate businesses; the first between 2000 and 2008 and the second from 2010 onwards. In our initial retail offering we would have been very much local based. We found, as we did more online, that we broadened our selection of work in all 32 counties, in the UK, and Europe — and we’ve even sold tiles into Italy itself. We’ve supplied material as far away as Singapore and America. People do like to have choice. The service required and the breadth of the offering is the reason we’re successful. Motorways have helped in that if people see something they like online they’ll get into the car and make an effort to come up to Dublin. A lot of our business is done on the West coast.
What have been the highlights to date?
The highlight is that people keep on coming back. We’re in business nearly 15 years and tiles are an unusual thing; they’re something you’ll buy once, twice, a maximum of three times in a lifetime. People keep coming back and we’re getting more and more referrals. To see someone coming back in means we’re doing it right and it resonates with them.
What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?
I think it was staying in business. We spent two years in the courts trying to get money out of people. You can have all the judgments you want but if people don’t have money or they don’t want to pay you, they’re not going to pay you. We were down from five or six staff to me being on my own. I was in hospital at one point and I looked at possibly turning the shop into a food business or something else. I kept at it when financially and everything else it should have closed. The retail business was closed for a period because I was in hospital and we didn’t have somebody to open the doors. When I came out of hospital the advice was not to work full time and we had to set it up on an appointment basis. It was a case of needs must and having to keep going. I’m fit as a fiddle now.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
My favourite part is the change. It’s a fashion business — things change on a daily basis, customer needs change, their tastes change, fashion changes. To go forwards, you have to keep improving and refining the offer. I find the challenge in that very rewarding. The breadth of the offering we can bring to the Irish market is challenging. We like to change, update and keep things fresh the whole time.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
There has not been a work-life balance for the past six or seven years. To get the website working meant working till 2 or 3am. I had to learn all that stuff. I have three kids that are seven, nine and 12, and I am slowly but surely trying to get a work-life balance so when I come home in the evening I won’t do any work until the kids are gone to bed, and whatever activities they have at the weekend I will be at.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
One company I think is fantastic is O’Brien’s Wines. They go for the quality end of the market, they go for choice, they haven’t been afraid to introduce more unusual stuff to the market. If they weren’t here, the choice of wines in this country would be a lot more limited. I think their stores are excellent and their staff are extremely well trained and educated.
What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?
Our website is a huge part of it. Everything to an extent is technology based. Everything we do is cloud based. We don’t keep anything on a PC, we use Gmail, Google Drive and we’re putting in a CRM system at the moment. Our website is the main thing to benefit our customers because they can download a catalogue and arm themselves with enough information to decide that a trip to our showroom is worth their time.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
That is the challenge of retail and the challenge is to give them as much choice as we can. We go to the two biggest trade fairs in Spain and Italy every year. Every six months we visit factories to see what is coming down the road. We are members of trade organisations in the UK and Ireland. It is a huge part of our business to keep ahead of trends. We would like to have something six months before anybody else would have it. You get early movers in the market that are very fashion conscious. It’s a huge part of our business to constantly source new material. People are on Houzz and on Pinterest and other international websites, meaning tastes are no longer local but global. There are tiles for different types of people now as opposed to national markets. The choices out there are huge and it’s a matter of us collating them and getting the right ones to cater for as many people in the Irish market as we can. The fact that Irish society has become much more multicultural also means that we have to cater for people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
It was operating when I was unwell.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I’m quite good at making decisions and trusting myself; doing stuff and taking the plunge. I wouldn’t sit on the fence. You have to make a decision and base it on as much information as you can possibly have at that time and back yourself on it 100%. That comes naturally to me.
How did you scale/grow your business?
The retail business is doing extremely well. Our focus for the next couple of years will be to tailor our offering again for the architectural and commercial end of it. We are also looking at launching a sister brand online for the trade. With the trade, they know what they want as opposed to the customer wanting to come and touch it and feel it. Once they’ve had it once, it’s a matter of reordering it online.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
My problem isn’t ideas. My problem is getting enough time to do something with them. I go into any shop and see how they’re doing something. You can read something online. I go to courses and conferences. I’d see ideas in anything — it’s the translation and how to apply them to your business that counts.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
It’s only in the last 12 months we’ve been able to plan to grow the business rather than plan to stay in business. The motivation was to have an income to support my family. The motivation now is to create not necessarily the biggest, but certainly the best tile company in the country and to keep people coming back. I want it to be a really good company, I want us to be recognised as being very competent and a market leader in what we do.
What’s your vision for the future?
That the business will grow. At our busiest we had six staff, we went down to zero, we’re back to three at the moment. To provide a good company where people are happy to come to work and customers are happy to buy from.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
When I was setting up the company in 2000 I was working with another company and the opportunity came to buy it at the time. It would have cost me a huge amount of money and debt. My uncle, who’s an accountant, sat me down and said: “If you can do all this, why are you saddling yourself with a rake of debt, why don’t you just go and do it?” The only way we got through the hard times was because we were debt free and had retained profit.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
If you feel you can do it, do it — rather than refining something until it’s ready for market it’s the Nike idea “just do it”. I think you can over think things. If you have an idea, back yourself and go for it. Once you are up and running you can then develop, refine and tailor for your customers.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
It’s more a philosophy quote. “Quality is not an act, it’s a habit.” There’s always room to do things well. There’s a huge reward in doing what you believe in.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
Nothing. Everything. Making mistakes is the only way you learn anything. If we hadn’t had the bad times, we wouldn’t be anywhere near as good a business as we are now. We’re certainly an awful lot better through adversity and mistakes. We weren’t doing things as well as we should have been. We certainly learned how to do them an awful lot better.
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