It was more by accident than design that John Slatter started his own business.  The result has been another instance of selling a quality product for a niche market.  Stephen Taylor reports.

When John Slatter graduated from university in 2000, he had a degree in agriculture and land management but no definite idea of what he wanted to do.  ‘I applied for various jobs, but nothing came of them’, he recalls.  Frustrated at the way the situation was going, he opted for what many graduates choose to do: he spent a  year travelling abroad.

It was on his return to East Anglia that fate intervened.  A tenant of a  Suffolk warehouse that his family owned sought his help in selling a quantity of garden furniture.  In addition to finding buyers, he made two important discoveries.  By dealing direct with suppliers and cutting out the middleman, it was possible to be price competitive while achieving attractive profit margins.  ‘The system cuts out agents and middlemen and allows us to pass the savings onto our customers’, he said.

This has been the basis on which he has managed Chairs and Tables Ltd, the new company’s self-descriptive name.  It started trading September 2002 from offices and a warehouse near Beccles, in Suffolk.  It reached its first customers by using e-bay.

Like many entrepreneurs new to a specialised industry, he saw opportunities that others had neglected.  Coming new to the sector, his view of it wasn’t obstructed by traditional methods or thinking.  It was in this unexpected fashion that John Slatter found himself importing quality garden furniture, first from Indonesia and more recently from Brazil.

Indonesian Teak

Although Indonesia’s economy has been oil led for the last 35 years, its timber exports have also been substantial.   Timber and oil are the country’s principal natural resources.  One consequence has been the sideways development of a buoyant export-driven furniture industry.  The Indonesians have acquired a reputation for designing stylish furniture including garden furniture, using the finest teak.  This has proved to be a very durable wood for chairs, tables and benches that are often left exposed to a European climate year round.

The Indonesian furniture manufacturers from which Chairs and Tables imports are able to supply in small as well as large quantities, which the use of containers facilitates.  The supplier will use a 20ft or 40ft container according to the volume involved.  Last year, the company imported four container loads of garden furniture.  Modern packaging materials combined with packing expertise results in minimal damage to the furniture while in transit.  Garden furniture needs only to be stored in dry conditions.  There is no necessity for it to be held in a temperature-controlled warehouse.

As one of Asia Pacific’s burgeoning economies, the company’s suppliers can choose from a range of regular containership sailings to Felixstowe.  At the Suffolk port, PSA Transport handles customs clearance and distribution to the Beccles warehouse, which is barely 40 miles away.  Similarly, there are regular container sailings to Felixstowe from southern Brazil ports.

Use of e-bay and the Internet

Initially, he used e-bay and later the internet to grow the company’s sales.  A total of 95% of his sales are through the Internet, with customers paying by credit card.  Interestingly, his website attracts 200 hits daily from ‘unique’ computers.  He found early on that there was a potential market for good quality garden furniture that wasn’t being exploited.  Selling via the Internet and e-bay enabled him to gain steady market penetration while holding down the cost of the furniture to his customers.  In short, the Internet gave him a valuable low-cost entry into the market. 

Meeting the twin criteria of quality and cost competitiveness gave Chairs and Tables a basis on which to build.  The product range was widened and the business firmly launched.  As sales began to increase, items such as benches, parasols, loungers, steamers and trolleys were added to the product range.  

John Slatter’s entry into this sector was well timed, coinciding with the fact that so many new houses, particularly in the larger residential areas, are being built with small gardens.   These days, many houses have no garden as such.  Instead, they have a patio for which garden furniture is a natural enhancement as well as having a practical use.  Garden furniture is starting to acquire the accolade of a status symbol.   The popularity of summer barbecue parties has also stimulated garden furniture sales.  The company stocks barbecue ovens, as its website explains.

Brazilian source

An important addition to its product range has been eucalyptus garden furniture that the company buys from suppliers in Brazil.  He now makes a yearly visit to Brazil as well as to meet suppliers in Indonesia.  Alongside the teak and eucalyptus products are some aluminium garden furniture, such as chairs and tables.  These have the merit of being light, durable and attractively designed.  All of the furniture which the company imports comes from managed plantations in Indonesia and Brazil, a fact which he emphasises.

As John Slatter points out, garden furniture sales are weather-dependent.  A summer of rain is bad news; days of prolonged sunshine are welcome.  As a small, entrepreneurially driven company, Chairs and Tables has played to its strengths of being able to hold down costs while offering customers attractively designed quality products.  An area of expansion that he is considering would involve hiring garden furniture for weddings and parties in the summer.  ‘This is a possibility I’m considering.  It could give the company useful additional business’, he said.

Taken from Trade International Digest Vol 49 / Issue 2 February 2006

Chairs and Tables Limited are proud to supply only teak garden furniture made using legally sourced teakwood  from sustainable Indonesian plantations

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