During the lockdown period, Brits were told to stay at home. For many of us, this extra time indoors meant we became increasingly critical of our surroundings – the sofa we sat on all day proved uncomfortable, the lounge looked in desperate need of redecoration and the dining table, which was getting more use than it had ever seen before, appeared shabby and run-down. Homes seemed to be an area that people wanted to invest in, and for businesses like Lenleys, a luxury furniture store based in East Kent, this opened up a host of opportunities.
The company, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, specialises in quality home interiors and furnishings. It is entering a new chapter in its rich history, with third-generation business owner Lavinia Watts at the helm. “My grandad set up the business in 1936,” says Lavinia. “My father took it over and now I’m heading up operations. There aren’t many people that get to go into a family business that’s so well established. I want to do them – and the business name – proud, preserving the legacy and reputation they have worked so hard to build up.”
Lavinia grew up in Canterbury, where Lenleys’ flagship showroom is located. She attained a fashion buying business degree from Manchester University and spent several years working for a high-end fashion designer in London before becoming store manager for a large high street retailer.
In 2015, Lavinia moved back to Canterbury and joined Lenleys. “I genuinely love it,” she says. “I wake up and I want to come to work. I’ve always enjoyed roles where I get to make a difference, even on some small level – whether that’s speaking to a customer on the shop floor or making a decision that impacts the future direction of the company.”
I ask Lavinia about the challenges of the pandemic. She explains that shortly before the first lockdown, the team closed the store and went on to set up some remote working. The prime focus was on communicating with customers and reassuring them that Lenleys was still there and would reopen its doors once again. “Generally, a lead time when you order an item from us is anywhere from six to 14 weeks,” adds Lavinia. “We had a lot of people with orders in the pipeline who were worried about losing their deposits. It was all about communicating with them and saying: don’t worry – you’re not forgotten and we will keep working behind the scenes.”
Lenleys employs 60 staff across its three sites in Canterbury and Maidstone. As lockdown measures started to ease, a small team returned to the office and customer service was prioritised. “When we reopened, we were really busy,” beams Lavinia. “There was a real demand for household furniture and décor, which was great for Lenleys. We were very fortunate. I also think that the pandemic has encouraged people to support smaller, local businesses. We’ve had a lot of support and understanding, and for that, we’re hugely thankful.”
Lenleys had big plans to celebrate its 85th year – many of which were put on hold due to Covid-19. Although some key developments were halted, the team used the closure period to prepare for brighter days ahead, rolling out a brand-new system across the company’s entire operations. “We continued to make important decisions when we were closed,” says Lavinia. “I think we were pretty resilient and positive. We wanted to be on the front foot.”
A new state-of-the-art flooring department was recently introduced and Lenleys is hosting an exciting pre-Christmas event for its valued customers. Looking ahead to 2022, the team will be focusing on creating a bigger presence across the South East and launching a brand-new, highly efficient website. “I’m heavily pushing the digital side of things. I recognise that it’s the future. I think we will always need physical stores, but with time, we will become more reliant on the online side of things. We need to shift the business model that way. There’s much more innovation to come, but I can’t speak about that just yet!”
When we chat over Zoom, Lavinia is 35 weeks pregnant, so on top of all the exciting developments at Lenleys, soon she will be welcoming a gorgeous new addition into the family. A fourth-generation future boss perhaps? We’ll have to wait and see!
Originally published as part of South East Business’ December/January edition