Toledo Interview with Michael Nieuwhof

AFA – Tell us about Toledo
MN – My Father started the business in 1974 in Launceston, Tasmania and we are still here today. Initially he built furniture on consignment and supplied them to businesses to on sell. The cash flow of the product on consignment was often held up, so my Father decided the best way was to start a retail arm and we went into retail in the 1980’s. We see ourselves as a genuine retailer with genuine margins, not putting 100% mark up on things because we can.

AFA – When did you start in the business?
MN – l started in 1978 as an apprentice cabinet maker and worked my way up through the business and took over when my Father stepped aside when he was in his 50’s. My Father realised that to keep the business going a younger person needed to come in to set the course for the future. When l look around at some of the other furniture businesses here in Tassie the ones that have survived over the years are the ones that have done just that, so my Father had the right idea.

AFA – When you took over did your Father still have some input?
MN – Like all Father’s he still had his ideas, and kept coming up with ideas, but when l explained how things are changing he understood that the business needed to adapt. I sometimes think about the way the business has changed over the years and what my Father would think…or if he would be turning over in his grave (chuckles)

AFA – How have things changed?
MN – Well in the 90’s we used to have a team of about 30 in the factory, now we have about 12.The customer base has changed and they are all around 50+ . The younger people are of a throw away mindset but we are starting to see a shift with them and they are coming in now to buy quality pieces to go with their cheaper brands.
They might buy a cheap dining table but come to us for the chairs.
We are making more made to order product because retailers who sell imports or lesser quality can’t adjust the specifications of their products to fit in with people’s requirements. If it is not what they stock then they can’t have it. So l spend a lot of my time nowadays in front of a computer (which l hate) but it’s gotta be done, drawing up plans and designs for people. Then l give it to the guys in the store and they make it to suit.

AFA – Are there any other things you have done to change with the times?
MN – We stock Stressless furniture as well and we find that this complements our other ranges nicely. People come in looking at the Stressless range and see what else we have and that works very well.

AFA – What are the areas for growth at the moment?
MN – We are flat out making Dining room chairs at the moment because no one else is doing them, we are really busy with this and can’t keep up. Chairs are hard to make so the margins aren’t there but it is keeping us busy so we have to be happy with that. I feel like the economy might be turning around a bit as it has been tough for the last few years.

AFA- It has been tough, but how have you managed to survive when others haven’t?
MN – It has been very tough, we have had to invest back into the business, we have had to adapt as l said before. We have lifted the quality of our products, whereas before we were more of a mid-range furniture company now we are more higher end. The imports over the years saw the cheaper furniture makers - the pine ones - have to lift their game which in turn made us lift ours to where we are now.

AFA -Your Furniture is good quality and would last so you wouldn’t get much repeat business?
MN – You are right there, our furniture does last and we don’t have any returns…though every now and again we might see some well-worn (or loved) pieces and we just fix them up or the owners want something more of ours to replace it. They still come back to us.

AFA – What do you love about the Australian Furniture Business?
MN – No two days are the same, l am not on an assembly line, people are always happy with the finished product. I get a lot of satisfaction from the work and the outcomes.

AFA – What do you think the perception is of Australian Furniture?
MN – I think the public are more educated, they have bought poor quality imported furniture and have been lured in. Now they know that Australian Furniture represents quality. They know that if they are not happy with it they can talk to the maker, it can be fixed straight away whereas the other places don’t care – you get what you pay for.

AFA – I had a look at your web site and…
MN – I know, l know we haven’t updated it in years…and the reason is every time we do a great piece of work and we put it on there, someone on the mainland copies it. So l know we should update it, but l just don’t like seeing all of our hard work being copied like that so it is in the too hard basket . I know we should do it for promotional sake....its a tricky one and we don’t know the answer (sighs).

AFA – Where does the name Toledo come from?
MN – Back when my Father started the business there were a lot of fancy houses being built with big columns and things and he thought he needed a name that suited. So he went to a map found a name in Spain and chose that. You will see there is a coat of arms, and that incorporates the family. My Father was Dutch so it has the colours of the Dutch Flag, my Mother was Scottish so it has the Scottish thistle, the Southern Cross for Australia and the crossed swords for the town of Toledo.

AFA - What are your thoughts on the Furniture Industry today?
MN – We have real hope, we are busier now than the last two years, l think it has turned the corner. There has always been peaks and troughs and l think we have been through the worst of it. With the dollar making imports more expensive that has played in our favour. I am very excited. We had the blokes come and talk to us about Furnitex and that sounds like it is on the right track now too, so everything is coming together.

AFA – that is good to hear, thank you for your time Michael it has been a pleasure.