The rise of the house of Usher
Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they've learnt in building their companies
Set up in 1978 by John Usher and now headed up by his son, Dermot, Sonas Bathrooms is Ireland's leading importer and distributor of bathrooms and accessories. Located in the North West Business Park, Ballycoolin, Dublin 15, the company employs 70 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €30m.
"We provide everything a customer will need when fitting out their bathroom," explains Dermot as he shows me around the company's extensive showroom. It is fitted out with everything from toilets and baths to showers, heated towel rails, mirrors and vanity cabinets.
"We don't sell directly to the public but rather access our customers through a network of nearly 400 retailers across the country - including all the major national building and plumbing merchants as well as independent bathroom retailers and smaller independent shops," explains Dermot.
"Our end customer, however, is anyone who's buying or installing a bathroom, from a home owner to a builder or plumbing contractor. Interior designers and architects too are important as they are key influencers in what products gets designed and specified into such fit-outs," he adds.
While the company services the residential market, it also has a customer base across the commercial sector.
Originally from Rathfarnham in Dublin, but now living in Straffan, Co Kildare, Dermot had been around the bathroom business sector from a young age. His late father, John, had worked as a sales rep with bathrooms supplies firm Twyford bathrooms, before setting up his own distribution business in 1978. When he became ill in 1991, Dermot joined the company to help his father out - and hasn't looked back since then.
"I've never been to university," says Dermot. "I did my Leaving Certificate and that was as far as I went. I have probably always struggled to apply myself academically and at the time wasn't really sure about what I wanted to do in life. It was personal circumstances that led to me getting involved in the business. Then when my father died of cancer a few years later, my brother, Gerard, a qualified plumber, and I took over the business. We started with very little but managed to achieve a turnover of the equivalent of €300,000 in our first year."
Only 23 years old at the time, Dermot found it a challenge at first to convince major suppliers and manufacturers to supply him with stock. Over time though, he made the strategic decision to create his own range of branded Sonas bathroom products.
"It gave us control of our own destiny as opposed to relying on other branded manufacturers, and today 75pc of what we sell is our own product range," explains Dermot.
In the early days too, Dermot struggled with certain aspects of the business. In particular, managing staff did not come naturally to him. Over time, however, he was able to build up a loyal and committed team and by learning to delegate, freed himself up to focus on his own key strengths.
"My strengths lie in strategy and long-term planning. I see my job now as helping keep the ship pointing in the right direction and keep everyone focused on key outcomes," insists Dermot. "I don't micro-manage any more. Instead, I let people get on with doing their work and reward positive behaviours. I have come to realise that the more control I've given up to trusted people, the more successful the business has become," he adds.
Other key strategies that proved successful included developing the Sonas catalogue, a most impressive resource that now helps both customers and sales staff in retail stores. Complete with accurate details and specific measurements, this makes the process easier for both sales and installation staff. The introduction of next-day delivery also helped increase the number of retail stores the company supplies.
Business grew steadily through the boom years. However, the downturn in the economy, and the near demise of the construction sector from 2007 onwards, saw the company's revenues fall from €21m previously to €10m in 2010. A combination of cost reduction and positive capital reserves saw them pull through.
"At the time, shops could no longer afford to tie up their cash in inventory, so we introduced next-day delivery to help in this regard. We also increased our emphasis on customer service and after-sales support, all of which helped," explains Dermot.
Employing 12 of their own sales reps to build and retain strong relationships with their customers also had a major impact and today their turnover, of €30m, has outstripped pre- recession levels.
There have been changes, too, in the structure of the business. In 2008, Dermot appointed a new managing director, Richard Sloan. Strong on interpersonal skills and focused on sales, his role has allowed Dermot focus even more on the future growth and strategic direction of the business. In 2017, the company received a private equity investment from MML Growth Capital Partners that allowed his brother, Gerard, to retire from the business.
"They really bought into the management team here and while they are very much hands-off, they offer a strong level of support to the business," Dermot adds. "With cranes now back on the horizon and new house building once again beginning to take off, the future looks bright," he says.
While Dermot Usher never set out to run a bathroom supplies business, fate intervened and led him in that direction. "While I didn't choose the path to begin with, I did chose the direction it has taken and thankfully I love it," insists Dermot. "I get more enjoyment out of it now than I've ever done and that's because the role that I have now suits me. It gives me the scope to take the business in the direction that I want it to go in.
"The fact that I can now delegate and choose people to do jobs that I'm not as good at allows me to do what I'm good at, which is strategy and marketing and growing the business."
Business: Bathrooms and accessories
Set up: 1978
Founder: John Usher
No of Employees: 70
Location: North West Business Park, Phase 3, Ballycoolin, Dublin 15.
Dermot's advice for other businesses
Follow up, follow up and follow up
Follow up on everything, from a sales lead to a customer complaint — everything. If you don’t follow up, you won’t get the sale. More importantly, you gain long-term respect and loyalty from developing a reputation for following up and sorting out your customers’ concerns.
Take control of your own destiny
Do not rely on others to bring in sales. Don’t sit around waiting for things to happen. You’ve got to take control of the situation yourself and go out and create demand for your product — yourself. It’s your business, your brand and it is up to you to make things happen.
Simplicity is the key to success
Business is ultimately all about people. Look at things from the customer’s viewpoint. Make it simple and easy for people to do business with your company as possible. Simplicity is the key.
Sunday Indo Business