It’s our birthday! Looking back on ten years in business – Part 1

It’s our birthday! Looking back on ten years in business – Part 1

This weekend will see us reach the milestone of ten years as the North’s leader in oriental furniture. As I sit and write this in our expansive new showroom, it seems a lifetime away from when I started the business from a tiny home office. The Shimu website launched in July 2003: over that period we’ve moved three times; taken on more staff; and expanded into Chinese antiques, lighting and accessories.

The idea for Shimu started when I was working as a Marketing Manager in the Hong Kong office of an American software company. My partner (now wife) and I admired the designs and craftsmanship of the traditional Chinese furniture we saw for sale in Macau – in particular I remember some beautiful horseshoe back armchairs and carved cabinets. We also loved strolling around the Cat Street market and along Hollywood Road on Hong Kong’s central island, not far from where we lived. This is the area in Hong Kong where, in the late 70s and 80s, antiques from the Chinese mainland first became available. Back then it was possible to pick up a real bargain and even when I was there around 2000 prices were far lower than today. Nowadays it’s still the place to go today for Chinese antiques and curios in Hong Kong but the price you’ll pay is little different from what you would pay in the UK. You also have to be careful that the ‘antiques’ offered by some stores may not be what they seem!

We left Hong Kong in 2001 for the UK and shipped one or two reproduction pieces from Macau – a beautifully made cabinet and a handsome blanket chest in camphor wood that still sits at the end of our bed. Not long afterwards when we bought a new house we looked for similar pieces here, but found very little available. It was this which planted the seed of a business idea in my mind.

A year or so later, the company I was working for was bought out and I was made redundant. In between looking for other work, I started to seriously research my furniture dream as a potential business.  This led to a trip to Shanghai in November 2002 to find potential suppliers. I visited around 12 or 15 companies during a week long visit to Shanghai and to Ningbo (a city in Zhejiang province south of Shanghai). The trip to Ningbo involved one of the scariest car journeys I have ever faced, as the driver weaved through motorway traffic at an alarming speed, dodging buses, coaches and trucks and squeezing through gaps he had no right to get through! After surviving the journey I quickly realised that the quality of the furniture on offer in Ningbo was vastly inferior to that produced by the smaller workshops I had visited in Shanghai. Quantity was more important than quality to these factories, some of whom were shipping out 30 or 40 containers every week – mostly to the USA. After a disappointing few days I took the safer option of a bus back to Shanghai.

In Shanghai itself, there is a particular area in the west of the city that was home to many of the antique restorers and suppliers of ‘classic’ or traditional Chinese wooden furniture (not so much the case now as many have closed or moved to other parts of the city). I had appointments with some suppliers, but then spent a couple of days walking around this area, visiting other workshops and showrooms ‘on spec’. At one place in particular, the quality of work and standard of the finished furniture were better than I had seen anywhere else, and the size of the business and attitude of staff seemed to fit perfectly with what I was looking for. A few more weeks of negotiation and discussion followed, then, on my return to the UK, I placed an order for our first container. This was made up of several designs that I had seen in Shanghai, plus a number of my own based on updated versions of classic ’Ming’ furniture, all to be produced in solid, reclaimed elm wood. I remember receiving and eagerly opening an email from Shanghai a few weeks later, with photos of the finished pieces ready to be packed and shipped. Deposit paid and fingers crossed, I then had something else to take my mind off whether or not I had just parted with a large sum of money in return for thin air – my wife and I were married just as the shipment was due to leave.

We headed off for a wonderful honeymoon in Corsica, with me sporadically checking emails to reassure myself that the furniture really was on its way. A couple of weeks after we got back, our first container did indeed arrive and was unloaded into a West Yorkshire warehouse. A few frantic weeks of unpacking, photographing, photoshopping and editing later and Shimu went live!

Second part of this post coming soon – find out more about our journey from a box room office to our beautiful new showroom in Greengates!

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