Managing director of Searle & Taylor, Darren Taylor takes us on a tour of his Winchester boutique showroom and talks about 25 years in kitchens
Having finished a two year apprenticeship in cabinet-making, 18 year-old Darren Taylor started a business making kitchens with his then business partner Jeff Searle. 25 years later, he is managing director of Hampshire-based retail business, Searle & Taylor, which specialises in full bespoke and contemporary kitchens with a flagship showroom in Ropley and a boutique town centre showroom in Winchester. “The Winchester showroom is designed to appeal to retail customers, but is also where we invite architects and interior designers to discuss B2B projects”, explains Darren. “We currently feature contemporary displays by Poggenpohl and Goldreif here, together with a full bespoke offer, and the minimalist style of the showroom suits our clientele, many of whom live in Hampshire but also work in London.”
Located opposite the original Hotel du Vin in Winchester, the showroom is situated in an early 19th Century building. “Overall, it is 120sqm, and it extends into a number of rooms, but the shopfront is comparatively small, giving it a boutique feel”, says Darren. “Also, the building is listed, so we have to ensure that the fascia is respectful to the surrounding architecture. It was a kitchen showroom before and I knew the previous tenants, so when the lease became available three years ago I snapped it up.” The Winchester shop also acts as a feed to its larger Ropley showroom, in Hampshire, a former car dealership, which opened in 2008 after the premises were purchased freehold and fully refurbished. “It is a huge space, with a dozen fully working displays in a range of designs from traditional to ultra-contemporary, so if a client can’t find what they are looking for in Winchester, we can direct them straight there; it works surprisingly well.”
The dark grey exterior of the Winchester shopfront certainly belies the size of the interior. Long and narrow with neutral coloured stone floors, the linear contemporary Poggenpohl displays are designed to complement the sightlines, while a separate room houses a display by sister brand, Goldreif. When asked about his choice of furniture manufacturer, Darren says, “I have always been a fan of the complex space-efficient aspects that comprise German kitchen furniture design, and for years Poggenpohl really stood above the rest.” He continues: “Over the past few years, however, the market has caught up quite a bit, so as a business we do not limit ourselves to one contemporary manufacturer and we also offer premium kitchen designs by Austrian brands, Intuo and EWE, which are part of the Nobia Group.”
Towards the centre of the showroom, on a separate lower mezzanine level is an entire roomset dedicated to the Searle & Taylor full bespoke offer, which Darren says is a specialism of the business, and is clearly a passion of its owner. “I designed it, and had it built, but I actually installed the kitchen display myself, which was a real labour of love. The ceilings are very high, but I used this to my advantage to demonstrate that customers can have traditional bespoke kitchens built in the tallest of rooms. It features pull-down shelves in the top cupboards and space has been created for fold-away step ladders beneath the plinth, so that the top shelving of the wall units can be accessed.” Darren also says that while the external look of the kitchen may be traditional, the internal aspects are anything but. “We use Blum internal storage systems for most of our kitchens, as it makes such a difference to the way people live now. There is a place for everything, it is neat and ordered, and I am a big fan of simple solutions when they are executed in a really clever way.” He also likes to include design features that are more personalised to the surrounding environment. Integrated within the cabinetry of this bespoke display is a 360° revolving wine rack that houses bottles of wine on one side and glasses on the other, which Darren says he designed as a little ‘nod’ to the famous hotel across the road.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Searle & Taylor, which has undergone a number of changes to reach this point. Darren explains: “At the start, we were designing and making kitchens by hand from a farm workshop in a small Hampshire village called East Worldham.” He continues: “We made all types of furniture from tables to dressers, but we always enjoyed planning and building kitchens so this was the route we took until we began to manufacture them on a much larger scale. We built up a strong manufacturing company supplying up to 30 luxury kitchen showrooms around the country with our full bespoke kitchens”. He continues: “In 1999, we found larger trade and retail premises in Winchester where we were employing 20 staff and making up to 5 kitchens a week. We converted the upstairs office space to lovely showrooms to display them.” But the business of manufacturing volume kitchens became less appealing to Darren, so in 2009 they sold off the manufacturing side of the business, retaining the local retail side and they moved to Ropley with a decision to focus on a more premium retail offer. When asked what influenced this decision, Darren says: “I really liked interacting with clients, and I still do. I enjoyed the process of drawing up a design in front of them; creating a full blueprint to scale, performing a presentation and then nailing the sale. It excites me just as much now as it did then and I have a fantastic design team working with me, who are just as committed.”
In 2013, Darren Taylor decided to go it alone and end the long-term professional relationship with his business partner, Jeff Searle. “It was a very hard thing to do after successfully working together for 22 years” he says. “In business terms, we were going in different directions and at very different speeds. Jeff and I had worked together since I was 18 years old so I had grown up with him, personally and professionally. But, I had turned 40 and with that milestone came some tough decisions to make about the future, and I made them.” He continues in a deferential tone: “This business would not be here without him, and his name will always remain respectfully above the door.”
And, how is business? “We turnover around £1.8million annually and we make a good profit every year, the bulk of which I re-invest into my showrooms with a high percentage dedicated to marketing” says Darren. But, he continues with caution: “Since the Brexit vote last year our supplier costs have risen and the change to stamp duty has affected the upper tier of the market.” He adds: “to counter this over the long-term, we have instigated some changes to make the business future-proof. We have rebranded our logo, completely updated our website and have just added our services on Houzz Professional, which is a very interesting proposition. We are available via social media and we have invested in fantastic photography, the result of which means that our kitchens are being featured in beautiful interiors magazines. It is a big expense, but it’s what’s necessary to be seen as a premium brand in a very competitive marketplace.”
How would the 43 year-old Darren advise the 18 year-old Darren now? “That is a scary question” he says. “In the early 1990s there were so many opportunities to be a young entrepreneur, and I think there are far fewer now. I was lucky that I managed to get on an apprenticeship scheme straight from school to train as a cabinetmaker and I always had the ‘gift of the gab’, so that helped too. I also had mentors and people that I looked up to and tried to learn from in business”. He continues: “The advice I would give to my younger self is to not do too much too young. I feel I missed out on being a care-free young adult as I was spending all my time running a business, while my mates were out partying. While I am really happy with the result, and the business has always been successful; I would have liked to have travelled more to gain life experiences that did not include factory visits in foreign countries. That said, I have made amazing friendships with like-minded people over the years and I genuinely love what I do for a living. I’ll make up for it by taking an early retirement. Not everyone can say that.”
With 25 years of kitchen industry experience under his belt, what’s next for Searle & Taylor? “There is always more to do in terms of the business, but I won’t be expanding anytime soon unless someone makes me the most amazing offer to extend my brand proposition, but only under my strict guidance. It’s my name above the door too.”
· Established: September 1991
· Location: Winchester
· Size: 5 full Displays totalling 120 m2
· Employees: 5 plus subcontractors
· Average sale: £32,000 plus Installation
· Suppliers: Poggenpohl, Goldrief, Full Bespoke by Mark4, Gaggenau, Miele, Zip Taps, Quooker, Silestone, Dekton, Westin and Franke.