The Iron Bed Company: Simon Notley and Anne Notley

This husband and wife team has been helping the public to a more stylish bedtime since 1994

Name: Simon & Anne Notley Company: The Iron Bed Company Sector: Bed manufacturer Founded: 1994 Annual Turnover: £12 million

Simon and Anne Notley haven’t built a successful business by lying around – more by watching other people do so. The husband and wife team has been helping the public to a more stylish bedtime since 1994.

And clearly making a success of it: the Iron Bed Company was 50th in the Fast Track 100 listings for 2000. Between 1996 and 1999 its sales increased by 89% year from £1.2million to £8.1million.

The Iron Bed Company came into existence when the Notleys needed a change of direction for their existing furniture company. Sensing a gap in the market for an alternative to the traditional pine and divan beds, they got the idea for reproducing iron beds from their neighbour of the time who did original ones.

“Original iron beds were difficult to find but we felt that if we could produce a lovely looking bed it would be cheaper to sell to our customers,” explains Anne.

Chance meeting

The couple originally met 20 years ago when Simon was working on a chartered yacht that Anne’s parents hired in Greece. And despite claiming they didn’t have much of entrepreneurial streak they started several businesses over the intervening years – admittedly with varying degrees of success.

After spending a freezing winter renting a cottage and chopping down logs for a living, they ran a windsurfing school for four years. The Notley’s first furniture venture was buying up old pine furniture, which was at that time very fashionable, stripping it down and selling it. But old furniture was rare so they moved into reproduction and Simon opened a permanent business in Southampton – which wasn’t a success.

So during this period they felt the need for a more stable income. Anne, after A-level and a degree in English, trained to be a solicitor. She didn’t get a chance to use her newfound legal skills, however, as the next business idea turned out to be the big one, needing both their input.

Selling their home of 10 years and gambling it on the public’s enthusiasm for Victorian style beds was the first step towards making the Iron Bed Company a reality. Anne recalls their first manufacturing premises:

“We found some cheap chicken sheds near the house we’d rented. They were leaky and horrible and freezing.” Simon got on with putting together the prototypes and Anne with a flair for design took over on the ideas front.

A stroke of luck

They found themselves struggling for the best ways to cast and paint the iron with little experience and machinery that they quickly found wasn’t really up to the job. However they and their two staff learnt by their mistakes and the first stroke of luck came with another gamble, a high quality brochure as Simon says:

“We decided that the best route to take was to do a fantastic brochure. We ploughed our last money into a one page leaflet with photos taken by a top London photographer. As a result all the magazines took it up and printed it, giving us brilliant publicity from the word go.”

Anne exhibited her own designs at the ‘Country Living’ fair in London to an excellent response and that’s where the sales started to come in. The business started off as a mail order company but once this was established they were keen to extend into retail premises so customers could really look before buying.

Although Simon’s first instinct was to sell through other shops they realised rather than wait 30 days for businesses to pay up, they could get the money directly.

Starting in Guildford in an old post office, “We went on to open a number of shops and showrooms strategically across the country so that people can hopefully reach one within about an hour of travelling,” as Simon explains. “Most of our competitors don’t have shops but we definitely wanted to so people could go and see our beds.”

A quality product

There are now 17 UK outlets from Tunbridge Wells up to Glasgow – and including London, Bath, Nottingham, Newcastle and Manchester. And they’ve allowed an extension of the range into linen, duvets and bedroom furniture to compliment the beds. There are also four shops in Germany and franchises in Lanzarote and Malta.

Because the Notleys have a self-confessed quality product their beds do not come into the budget range. As such they have fallen victim to cheaper imitations of their designs and adverts. However they’ve made the decision to come back with a budget (originally Iron Beds Direct) and children’s range (The Bunk Bed Company) to prevent this erosion of what they see as their own market.

They are also making extensive use of their website both as a means for their customers to browse and buy but also to show some of the infrastructure of factory and delivery arrangements.

Apart from leaky chicken sheds, the Iron Bed Company has had its fair share of difficulties among the successes in its eight year lifetime. Many of them, Simon admits, come from inadequate financial controls in the business:

“In the first five years of the company, our financial controls were useless. I had great intentions and learned lessons from previous businesses and we did our best, but we didn’t have the right people managing the accounts. We were rapidly expanding and because we had reasonably good margins it wasn’t crucial to count every penny – they buffered us against inefficiencies in management.”

But now the Notleys are getting organised and have taken on a financial director and controller as well as designers. They are very much still at the centre of the business but now are learning to delegate a little to staff they really trust. “We’re now getting a four year plan together which for the first time ever means we’re planning where we’re going,” says Simon.

So to what would they ultimately attribute the success of the Iron Bed Company? One thing they are very keen on is getting the best staff they can afford. Their ambition is for people that will move the company forward and grow with it.

And the other: “Our success has come from delivering what and when we say we’re going to deliver, and invoicing what and when we says we’ll invoice. Being reliable, in other words – a really basic principle. But it seems there are so many people around that can’t deliver.”

The Iron Bed Company is sponsoring good night’s sleeps everywhere.

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