Curtain call: New owners plan to double Harvey Furnishings’ $30m turnover

Business partners Wade Glass and Paul Southam met at an Auckland cafe six years ago and now own sawmills, forestry assets and their latest acquisition, soft furnishing stores Harvey Furnishings. They tell Jane Phare how they plan to double the company’s $30 million turnover within three years.

Auckland businessmen Wade Glass and Paul Southam didn’t know too much about curtains and blinds when they bought decades-old Harvey Furnishings in 2019.

But they liked the look of the company, its solid reputation and “old economy” history built up over generations of Kiwis buying ready-mades, blinds and curtaining fabric.

For years co-founder Jan Harvey ran the company after her husband Max died, adding another 10 North island stores to its flagship store in Remuera Rd. In 2019, Harvey put the business up for sale, and sold the Remuera building.

Enter Glass, 43, and Southam, 35, who – at the same Tower Bakers cafe in St Heliers where they first met – decided to buy Harveys, a business ripe for modernisation.

With the Remuera branch shut, Glass and Southam took over the remaining stores, five of them in Auckland, as far south as Palmerston North. In June, 2020 they added Christchurch soft furnishings firm Millers, a company with a 95-year history in Canterbury. They’ve now got 160 staff and plan to open a sixth Auckland store this year in Mt Wellington’s Lunn Ave, and a store in Petone.

The Wellington store is considered a key part of the company’s contract with state housing provider Kainga Ora to provide curtains and blinds for state housing and affordable homes nationwide.

Since the buy-out it’s been a steep learning curve for the two business partners, learning to keep the old customers happy while bringing on new ones – a couple of decades younger. They’re aware that the days of homeowners buying curtaining from a roll of fabric and sewing curtains at home are rapidly disappearing.

Instead, they’ve invested in new technology, knowing that online buying will be an increasing share of their sales. Last month they launched a new app, WindoWise, whichenables customers to photograph and accurately measure their windows at home and order online from sample fabrics. No more tape measures, no more wrong measurements.

It’s cutting-edge technology they started developing a month after buying the business last September.

“We’re really excited about this thing (WindoWise), Glass says. “We think our app will change the way people buy curtains.”

People are time poor and businesses like Harveys need to adapt, he says.

“It’s just convenience. Younger people like to do stuff on their phones. They don’t want to drive anywhere.”

Stage two of the app development will enable customers to overlay a selection of Harveys’ curtains and blinds on their window to decide what looks best, all on their mobile phone.

The problem is the small size of the fabric sample. The app needs to be smart enough to join the pattern in the absence of a roll of fabric, technology development that is a major investment. But it’s an investment that Glass and Southam believe will pay off, one that will show consumers the company is ahead of the curve, not behind.

Initially Glass and Southam had planned to raise venture capital to launch the app in the US on a much larger market. But Covid-19 waylaid those plans and now they’re staying closer to home, using New Zealand as a test market instead.

In the meantime, Glass and Southam are turning their attention to the “bricks and mortar” part of the business. They inherited stores, a fleet of vehicles and an IT system that served their purpose but were run down.

The website’s got a new upmarket look, the old burnt orange Harveys logo has been replaced, store interiors have had a makeover and the layouts redesigned. Items like table decorations that don’t fit with soft furnishings will disappear.

Rows of fabric rolls will gradually be reduced, replaced by sample swatch books. They’relooking to expand the range to include a few “fun” fabrics like hemp and material made from recycled plastic.

Ready-made curtains and blinds will remain an important part of the business, and the range of choice and colour will be extended. But Glass and Southam also hope to make use of the factory at the back of their Mt Eden store, a facility of which they’re “enormously proud”.

Out there they’ve got 50 staff making everything from beige-coloured curtains for state housing to upmarket drapes and blinds in fabrics that would hold their own in any home. It’s that down-market perception they aim to change.

While doubling the turnover plan from $30m to $60m has a two-to-three-year time frame, they know changing the perception might take a little longer.

Glass: “We’ve got a five-year fight to fix all that. We’re slowly getting there.”

Part of that fight is to make sure clients know there is more to Harveys than ready-mades in three different shades of beige.

At their light-and-bright Mt Eden store, there’s a table and chairs in the showroom now. The idea is to encourage clients to sit down with the sample books and a consultant to look at all the options, rather than buy off the shelf.

“If you come into our store you should be offered every option,” Glass says.That will include consultants who will make home visits and the ability of the factory staff to make made-to measure curtains and blinds. Harveys will even hem their ready-mades if they’re too long.

The next step will be to introduce floor coverings and they’re already working with a carpet manufacturer.

There are encouraging signs that their plan is working. In the factory business is brisk, with staff handling four times the orders compared with the same time last year. Online sales are up between 200 per cent and four hundred per cent week on week.

It’s good news on the back of Covid-19 when business just stopped and the factory went quiet. But Southam says because they carry around $4m worth of fabric in stock they were still able to deliver Kainga Ora orders when China shut down in February.

“We proved that we are very reliable in that commercial government space.”

Both Glass and Southam acknowledge their unlikely partnership works well. Wade had been a chartered accountant for 20 years before getting into business, saying he “got tired of moving paper around and not really making much of a difference that was tangible”.

He still holds a quarter share in an accountancy practice but turned his attention to forestry and saw mills. He’s now the controlling shareholder in a forestry business and sawmills in Te Kuiti and Wanganui.

Southam was running Total Property Worx, a building company specialising in commercial fit outs in which he still has a half share. He and Glass have now invested in Claymark Group, a large group of sawmills, with five sites in Rotorua, Katikati and Thames, and the 10 Harvey Furnishings stores.

Apart from turning a profit, their sideline is to have fun – either when working at Harveys around or zooming down to Rotorua to visit a sawmill. The younger Southam jokingly introduces Glass as his father, and Glass teases the ginger-haired Southam that his new buzz cut makes him look like a Scottish football hooligan.

Their CEO David Boshier shares the same sense of humour so that lockdown Zoom meetings were peppered with laughter “even when things turned to custard,” Glass says.

There are still have a few legacies to iron out at Harveys. We stand in the factory watching an intricate, and no doubt expensive, Eton roof conveyor belt snake its way around the room, transferring a cut length of fabric from one worker to another.

I ask: “Why can’t that woman walk across and hand it to that woman?”

“Exactly,” they both say.

Despite the modernisation and the rebranding, the partners never considered getting rid of the Harveys name.

Southam: “It’s trusted. It’s a good brand with good quality products so why would you change it? It just needed a tickle up.”

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