The Rug Company’s Christopher Sharp: “Invest in people, achieve growth”

Why finding the right team is key and paid off for The Rug Company


Sex in the City star Sarah Jessica Parker was the The Rug Company’s first celebrity customer in New York and there have been many more since. The company, though, had its roots not in Hollywood, but in the Middle East and Southern Europe, where couple Christopher and Suzanne Sharp had spent living.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s they collected rugs – old and new – from exotic lands. Upon their return Christopher Sharp was dismayed to see what was available in the UK. Detecting a gap in the market for luxury, hand-made rugs, in 1997, The Rug Company was born. It opened the doors to its first store in Chelsea and a year later hired 10 of London’s hottest interior designers to design one rug each, giving it a unique collection. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength.
The Sharps took investment from Piper Private Equity in 2008 to fund international expansion and build on its burgeoning reputation as a retailer of hand-crafted, contemporary rugs. Recently, prime minister and happy customer David Cameron commissioned a bespoke tapestry for Barack and Michelle Obama as a state gift from Britain to the US. The Rug Company now works with some of the world’s leading designers, such as Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood and has stores in Toronto, Canada and Hong Kong.
Here, Christopher Sharp explains why people are at the heart of everything good about the company – and will prove crucial to achieving its growth strategy.

One of the keys to the success of The Rug Company’s shops is the people who manage and staff them. While the location is obviously an important factor, getting the personnel right is crucial. We’ve learnt that being extremely diligent in the selection process and being prepared to change the staff if they are not absolutely perfect are essential. The mantra has to be: ‘Look after whatever is best for the business and the business will look after the staff.’ It’s easy to focus too much on individual and personal staff issues and then make excuses for ineffectual employees who will then pull the whole company down.

We have at times paid the price for selecting the wrong managers and there are examples of individuals who have convinced us that they have the relevant attributes, but are quite simply, destructive for the business. There was one particular lady who we employed to run one of our American stores who interviewed extremely well, her references were positively glowing, (they had a common thread of ‘brilliant’, ‘visionary’ and ‘hard work’), she showed unbridled energy, enthusiasm and professed to be desperate to start immediately; such was her passion and determination to succeed. I was extremely pleased with my shrewd selection.

 

We rushed to hire her at a salary that reflected her obvious attributes – sales dipped and within two months it was clear she was an utter disaster. She would be out of the shop all day, apparently hounding interior designers for business but in reality, hanging out with her husband and taking the kids to the park.

We moved on quickly but it confirmed to me how important it is to get the right people onboard and if you do make a mistake, easy to do, act quickly. The difference in sales potential, between an excellent and poor manager and sales staff, will be the difference between success and failure. It’s that simple.

You also want to employ people who bring experience and raise the level of professionalism in the company. We were very focused on home grown talent but you need a mix. Everyone should be able to do their jobs better than I could. (Sadly, in many cases this is not difficult!). It makes me nervous when people always agree with me, they are either extremely unimaginative, insincere or at best, afraid. The only thing worse is never agreeing with me. A good way to get the chop!

Once you’ve made the investment of putting the right people in place, you should do everything you can to look after them. I’ve found that the most effective way of ensuring loyalty is with information. People who feel informed are more engaged and have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility.

Ever since we began the business in 1997, we’ve had the majority of our rugs made in Nepal – despite the fact that the country has been embroiled in civil war. We now employ more than 2,000 people there and have stuck with the same group of weavers and managers. This is partly because we think they make the finest products but also because we have a great relationship with them and they have never let us down. We have invested both financially and emotionally in each other and we have a common respect built on 14 years of business.

A few years ago there was a power cut in Katmandu and the level of unrest had gridlocked the telecommunication services. It lasted a fortnight and we couldn’t make contact with anyone – I was becoming increasingly concerned until one of the guys called. I was surprised because everything was still down.

‘Chris, Chris, I’m phoning from India,’ he said. ‘I’ve just got here on a bus. Don’t worry, we’re all OK. And we’re still working – we’ve got kerosene lights.’

This is an extract from ’25 Years, 25 Insights’, published by Piper Private Equity to mark its 25th anniversary. A specialist in consumer brands, Piper founded Pitcher & Piano and has helped grow businesses such as Boden, Las Iguanas and Maximuscle. To order a free copy of the book go to www.piperprivateequity.com

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