NatWest & Laura James - an interview into business & supply chain

March 08, 2024

NatWest & Laura James - an interview into business & supply chain

Laura James' very own Chief Operating Officer, Matthew Talbot was asked by NatWest to share his insights on managing supply chains and trade growth in today’s volatile world. You can read his insights into the workings of our supply chain and the challenges Laura James face and overcome day after day, ensuring our customers are at the heart of our business and we deliver products to their homes with efficiency, confidence and a smile!

Since May 2021, Laura James have been working with Tom & Adam, the Laura James founders to turn around the business, investing in new systems and building new supplier relationships in Vietnam. 

Carl Wood, NatWest's Trade Finance Director, says: “We’re proud to support Laura James on their evolving journey and are impressed with the turnaround the business has implemented. We understand the importance and challenges of international trade and make it our mission to support businesses to grow with ease. We’re delighted to support Laura James as they continue to innovate with their forward-thinking and creative furniture designs.”

Here, Matthew shares some of the solutions Laura James has used to mitigate risks and improve working capital:

Data is the foundation of any well-run business
To enable us to move the business forward we reviewed the ERP (enterprise resource planning software). Data enables you to see what's happening in the business and I’m a data-driven manager – that's helped me significantly improve efficiencies in every company I’ve worked for.

We chose Oracle NetSuite. We were a business of £15m at the time so this was a huge investment for the company to take on. We were getting ready for the future of the business, not for how the business was at the time.

Infrastructure and people are a key part of strategic growth
We reviewed every system and process in the business. We didn't have the right size facility, so we put the infrastructure in place to see us through growth plans for the next three years. And we decided to restructure the leadership team to accelerate the turnaround.

Understanding data can enable better business decisions
We had no cash flow in the business, no controls across many areas, no management accounts, no formal 1:1s. The supply chain shipping was not contracted, it was ad hoc. All those elements were having a significant impact on the business. We're putting controls and procedures in place to grow – the business grew 47% last year – and using the data to make the right decisions for the business.

Better inventory management helped us navigate a tricky time
In 2022, furniture businesses were going under or breaking covenants with banks. The sector was unloved. We used our data to reduce stockholding – which was 3.8 million during Covid – down to 1.8 million. I brought in a head of merchandising and we implemented merchandise and planning tools that the business will continue to use for the next 10-20 years.

It’s important to understand investing for the future
We have a flat structure, which is important because there are no barriers or blockers. I was keen to set out a culture of togetherness. There's no politics, everybody's informed. I have the support of the two founders. They know I’ve done it before at Neptune, where we went through phenomenal growth from £15m as a wholesale business to £100m as a retail group.

International supply is a big growth opportunity
We launched into Vietnam last year. Around 98% of our product was coming out of China, a little bit of Brazil, and a couple of containers out of Vietnam through an agent. In 2023, we had phenomenal success from the Vietnam products and they will be a big part of our growth in 2024. We've also just set up an office in India, which is an area I’ve worked in before. So, we've got new materials, new product types coming through. And that's where we're going to gain additional growth – through areas of the home we're not currently offering to customers.

Quick decisions can make a difference
When we identify an issue as a business, we find a solution and implement it quickly. For example, we had struggled to get quality customer service teams in Pangbourne [where the business is based]. So, after doing a little bit of research, we took the decision to go to South Africa. We met a few BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing), reviewed what they did and rather than go down the easy route and sign up with one of them, decided to open our own office.

That decision means we can expand services from South Africa as the business grows. Improving our customer experience and our Net Promoter Score (which is growing, with fewer people than we had the previous year) is based on a lot of hard work by everybody.

It’s no good trying to be everywhere at once
The business was trying to do everything all at once, with no systems or data. We were in France and Germany, but we’ve retracted out of those locations because we’ve found we gain more by focusing our efforts in one or two regions. Our focus is the UK and Ireland. Ireland grew 130% last year, although it's not a big part of the business we want it to be. We're planning to grow 100% again this year.

Supply chain management delivers a competitive advantage
All the way through my career I’ve been heavily focused on operations and the supply chain side of the business. There was an interesting report recently saying more supply chain professionals are getting the senior jobs in businesses. I think that’s because it can make the business win or fail.

I wouldn't say we're at war, we're a friendly business, but we want competitive advantage. We must have the right merchandising model and we've heavily invested in our merchandising team. I undertake all the forecasting for the business. I'm involved in the data of every line of product being launched, every line of product being discontinued.

Consistent engagement We talk about supply chains twice a week. We have a call with China, Vietnam, and now India. It’s at the top of everybody's thought process.
Rigorous tracking Have we got the product in at the right time, have we got too much of it? We have all those controls you'd expect in a much larger business than ours. Active inventory management We track availability. We have a team of people constantly looking at that, as well as myself.

In our industry, if it's not in stock then generally, you're going to get 70% less uptake on conversion. So, it's significant.

Supply chains are still volatile
We’ve been heavily impacted by the current conflict in the Middle East and attacks on Red Sea shipping routes. The cost of bringing products into the UK through that region spiked from $1,000 to $18,000 a container, which underscores the seismic impact geopolitics can have on the cost of doing business.

Taking the next step is a big challenge
Funding the next step in terms of where we are now with our warehousing facility is priority number one. We’re in a shared facility of around 70,000 square foot. Then we have a third-party company who is supporting with around 25,000 square feet. The biggest challenge is taking that next step up to a 150,000 square foot facility in terms of the costs that will be incurred. We need that to continue to grow. And we need that to have the right stockholding in the business.

Supply chains are also not as robust as they should be, and that comes from suppliers not giving you the product on time – with significant delays at times. Countries like America are placing big demands on factories in countries like Vietnam and China. There’s demand amplification in the supply chain, so you see lead times stretched, and challenges getting the product out on time.


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