Many books about business are at least three times longer than they should be. They are repetitive, dull and full of impenetrable, meaningless corporate jargon. There are rare exceptions and Matthew Ingle’ s newly published book is one of them. Kitchens, Or Sink tells the story of the building of the hugely successful UK trade kitchen and joinery firm Howdens, founded by proud Yorkshireman Matthew.
It is part memoir and part manual on how best to run a company and make it profitable while keeping both staff and customers happy. More than that it’s an inspiration for those who don’t fit the mould.
It begins with his childhood at boarding school. While he was privileged in that his father’s family had a tannery business and his mother’s family pioneered mass production joinery and founded Magnet, Matthew was also disadvantaged.
He has what we now know as dyslexia and dyspraxia and left school in 1971 still undiagnosed and feeling like a failure, with four O-levels and no chance of going to university. His headteacher realised he had difficulties and when he was struggling with lessons he often suggested that Matthew give them a miss to walk his dogs.
“Walking the headmaster’s dogs was the best thing that happened to me at school and I’ve loved dogs ever since,” says Matthew, who now knows that those with dyslexia are often intelligent and creative with a gift for problem solving and innovating because they think differently.
Add charm, a good sense of humour and a head for figures and Matthew had all the attributes for success, though he didn’t know it when his classmates went into higher education and he started his first job labouring in a timber yard.
He was, he jokes, “bottom of the wood pile” but learned a huge amount about joinery and customer relations from the yard’s manager. His journey from the yard to founding a multi-million pound business and the lessons he learned are charted in the book.
After joining the management training programme at Magnet and climbing the career ladder there, he was made redundant in 1994 and was head hunted by Jewson only for HR to tell him he couldn’t have the job because he didn’t have a degree.
Those setbacks sparked the idea for Howdens kitchens and joinery and led to his greatest success underpinned by his “Ingleisms” which include identifying problems, exploring possibilities and simplifying. “I was very down when I was made redundant but it did me a huge favour because I then came up with the idea for Howdens,” he says.
Having seen issues that resulted from manufacturing in China, the plan was to make the products in their own British factories and set up a network of depots selling good quality, affordable, well designed kitchens and doors to trade i.e. joiners and small builders.
“It’s a mistake to buy goods cheaply abroad for practical reasons. You have no means of communicating quickly with the manufacturers and you are going to run into serious problems. That’s why Howdens factories are the backbone of the business.”
When he asked for financial backing, Derek Hunt, then the MD of MFI, took a punt, adding: ”If this works it’s going to be bigger than Brinks Mat.” Nine months after conception, Matthew had the whole operation up and running in 1995.
The depots, he decreed, had to be on the edge of town with parking and a burger van, which he knew his customers would welcome. He also insisted on offering tradespeople free coffee while they were waiting because, says Matthew: “It’s the little things that make a difference. “Team that with good credit terms, a good profit margin for kitchen fitters, orders available on the day and no quibble returns and replacements available immediately and everyone is happy,” he says.
He thought long and hard about the company name because he wanted it to sound like a family firm that had been around for generations. It was inspired by a vintage print featuring a Houdan chicken and that’s why the firm’s logo is a hen.
Setting up was one thing, making Howdens a long-term success was another but again Matthew had his own distinct agenda. Business speak was banished as were pointless meetings and middle management. Instead, he made each depot a small business with its own manager and a generous bonus structure on sales for all employees.
“It is all about treating staff well and rewarding them properly. One of my proudest achievements is that Howdens is regularly featured in the top businesses to work for,” he says.
Matthew, 67, lives near Skipton and the town’s popular open market also played its part in Howden’s success via what he calls “Skipton Market Rules”. “The point is to do what you are good at, don’t be tempted to do anything else or copy anyone else and if you look at Skipton market that’s what traders there do,” he says.
He retired in 2018 with the title Life President of Howdens and left the firm with 718 depots, two manufacturing plants, 10,000 staff, a £1.5bn turnover, a royal warrant and a FTSE 250 listing.
“It was time to go, not least because I’m not of the digital age and the business is doing brilliantly,” says Matthew, who now devotes more time to sailing and country pursuits. He adds: “That’s my final piece of advice. Know when it’s time to go.”
*Kitchens, Or Sink by Natthew Ingle, the founder of Howdens, is out now and published by Head of Zeus, £20. The book weaves memoir with business insight, thereby revealing much about manufacturing in the UK and how Matthew learned how to turn setbacks into opportunities and established the standards he set for himself and his workforce. His no-nonsense approach to business will have many cheering.