Profile - Adam Black: A touch of humility that’s helped put boss on the road to success

Furniture retailers have suffered in the downturn but Feather and Black is growing. Adam Black tells Lizzie Murphy why.

To be a good retailer, according to Adam Black, you have to be humble and obsessed with details.

“Insecurity is a good thing and arrogance is a cardinal sin,” he says. “I would rather know if we’re having a bad day because if we have a bad day, I’m in a bad mood. If we have two bad days I do something different.

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“I look at our sales figures a number of times a day and I get texts from the stores when I’m not in the office.”

Black’s thorough approach appears to be working. Furniture retailers have been hit badly in the downturn as customers shy away from discretionary spending.

High profile casualties include Habitat and Walmsleys. However, Feather and Black, which has 36 stores including in Harrogate and Batley, is bucking the trend with a five per cent like-for-like sales increase since last October. The company now has a £26.5m turnover and 170 staff,

The figure follows a stellar performance in 2010. In the year to October 3, sales rose 38 per cent to £18.6m, achieved without the benefit of opening additional store space. In addition, the business made a pre-tax profit of £0.37m, compared to a £1.28m pre-tax loss in 2008/9.

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Growth came from all parts of the business, though multichannel sales performed particularly well, with a 50 per cent increase in online sales through the year.

“We have the right model now so we are probably out-performing everyone else in our sector,” he says. “We’re just not doing as well as I’d like to do because of the economy. I always want everything yesterday. It’s a frustration because we’re having to bide our time.”

Black, 43, is part of the well-known Black family in Yorkshire. Keighley-based Peter Black Holdings, which was founded by and named after his grandfather in the 1940s, became one of the UK’s largest suppliers of shoes, handbags and gift packs to Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Next.

Black’s father, Thomas, and uncle, Gordon, subsequently took over the firm, which was sold by Leeds-based fund Endless to Chinese trading giant Li & Fung in 2007.

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Black, the only one of four brothers to enter the business, worked for the family firm from the age of 21 following stints at Marks and Spencer, an advertising agency and a bank after leaving school.

He worked for the cosmetics and toiletries side of the business for three years before moving into the footwear division. By the age of 30, he was managing director of footwear and accessories, a £60m-£70m business within Peter Black, supplying one customer, Marks and Spencer.

“If you go and work for your family business and it’s a big business, you’ve got to be 20 per cent better than anybody else to stand still because otherwise people say ‘he’s the boss’s son’ and it’s nepotism and all that goes with it,” he says.

“Some people were guarded with me but it didn’t feel like my business and perhaps it should have done. I had to force myself to do things whereas in this business (Feather and Black) I love it. I eat, sleep and breathe it. I couldn’t do that at Peter Black so I left.”

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In 2000, after 10 years in the business, Black made his escape when Peter Black went public-to-private. He took a year’s gardening leave and began looking for a business to buy.

“It wasn’t difficult telling (Gordon Black) I wanted to leave. I’d tried to do it a couple of times before and my uncle wasn’t very supportive. My brothers weren’t in the business and this was our exit. The family sold the majority of its shares.”

His next opportunity came when he joined forces with childhood friend Robbie Feather who was trying to turn around a failing furniture business he had bought in Otley, called CJ Furniture. Black bought half of the business.

He says: “My father said ‘you’re mad going into furniture’ – and he was probably right because it’s much harder than fashion. When trading becomes tougher, it’s a discretionary purchase and therefore the numbers come off much faster.”

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In the early days of the business, a recently-married Black was living in London and commuting up to Yorkshire three days a week.

The firm grew to four shops and a £3m turnover before merging with the Iron Bed Company, a struggling furniture business based in Chichester, which had 20 shops, in 2004.

The pair rebranded the company Feather and Black and moved the company’s headquarters to Chichester. “My father and uncle said: ‘You’re from Yorkshire – humility, low key, modesty. Don’t put your names above the shop’. But we were going into bedrooms and one of the blokes was called Feather, so it’s quite difficult not to.”

The pair began turning the company into a successful business with 20 stores, 80 staff and a £10m turnover. But in 2005 the bank pulled the plug on their funding following the demise of rivals Allders, Courts and Furniture Land.

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Feather and Black went into administration and was subsequently bought by Wade Furniture Group, headed by Charles Wade. “It was a steep learning curve,” says Black of the experience.

Both Feather and Black stayed to run the company but in 2009 Feather left to join John Lewis and Black took the helm. “Now I probably have as big a stake in the business as I would have had if we hadn’t gone into administration because although Charles is still the major shareholder, I run the business,” he says.

Now the business is doing better than ever. “Some of it was down to the way I did things but some of it was good timing,” he says. “We’ve strengthened the brand, we’ve shortened the lead times, created new products and fast track delivery. We’ve done 100 things a little bit better and made a big difference.”

Feather and Black has diversified from just selling beds. Children’s bedrooms is now 18 per cent of the business and the firm also sells sofa beds, bathroom accessories and home office furniture.

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Black, who has four sons with his wife, Louise, is ambitious for the company’s future.

He opened four new shops this year and is planning another two next year. Although he sees potential in Yorkshire cities such as York and Hull, most of the expansion will concentrate on the South East.

“Our business has room to be a £100m business now,” he says. “We’ve called it a name which means we don’t have to stay in the bedroom. We’re a lifestyle brand, not a furniture retailer.

“We’re multi-channel. Our business is brilliantly placed for what happens next.”

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He puts his work ethic down to good parenting. “My parents did a good job,” he says. “My three brothers and I are all motivated to do well. We had a good start but we couldn’t have put our feet up.”

Adam Black Factfile

Title: Managing director, Feather and Black

Date of birth: July 2, 1968

Education: Uppingham School, Rutland

First job: Trainee merchandiser at Marks & Spencer

Favourite song: Your Song, by Elton John

Car driven: Audi S5

Favourite Film: The Legend of Bagger Vance

Favourite holiday destination: Florence

Last book read: How They Blew It: The CEOs and Entrepreneurs Behind Some of the World’s Most Catastrophic Business Failures, by Jamie Oliver and Tony Goodwin

What I am most proud of: My family

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