Running a business as a family: Matt Blatt shares its story
You could accuse Adam and Deborah Drexler of knowing some secret about the key to a successful marriage and business partnership. But they will be the first to tell you that none of their success has come miraculously, but is a result of years of hard work, maintaining a steady hand on the rudder of their business, Matt Blatt, and using the strength of their family’s support to keep the business growing.
And ‘growing’ is certainly the right word for their design and furniture brand, Matt Blatt. With Adam starting out selling furniture that he sourced himself back in the 1970s, the company now owns 14 stores around Australia and is all hands on deck, with their son Joel and daughter Avril continuing to help drive the success of the company.
With 70 per cent of the company’s product range boasting an original design, the brand (and family) ethos is to never get stale, always entertain, and always find the right designs for the right customers.
Adam Drexler was kind enough to give us an insight into the company’s history and what it has been like growing a company as a family-run business.
Q. What is the history of Matt Blatt?
I started selling furniture I’d found at auctions in a little shop in Eastlakes back in the late 70s, before I moved into manufacturing in the 80s. That was when my wife Deborah got involved. She was a primary school teacher and came on-board because I needed someone to help out answering phones at our Marrickville warehouse.
When manufacturing in China gained momentum we realized we couldn’t compete so we had to change the business model. We started importing and we believe we were the first furniture company in the country to sell our products on eBay. From there we launched a website, selling direct to the public and we soon realized that people wanted to touch and feel the furniture items they were buying. This led to the launch of our first showroom, and the rest is history.
Q. What has been the biggest challenge of running a business as a family?
Our son Joel is our General Manager and our daughter Avril designs prints and rugs for us. Sometimes that means that a Monday dinner is spent talking shop. We have to always make a conscious effort to separate work and play and take work talk off the table. It’s hard to do though. We recently cut an overseas holiday short because we were both busting to get back to work!
Another challenge of a family business is that you throw everything into that business. There’s no safety net. We couldn’t rely on the income of one person while the other invested in building the business. We put everything on the line, including our house, and we came close to hitting rock bottom once. The kids were only young and Deb was ready to go back to teaching and I was going to start driving taxis. There’s a huge element of risk and sacrifice that comes with starting a business as husband and wife, but huge rewards, too.
Q. How did you come to a single vision for the business with two founders?
I’m still not sure we have a single vision! In fact, we agree that we intentionally don’t have a vision. To us, a single vision creates too many limitations. As husband and wife, we’ve generally always been on the same page.
We expected the real challenge to be going from a small family business to a national brand with hundreds of employees, but to our surprise ‘like attracts like’. We had a strategy day recently and our entire leadership team were aligned in what they think works, what needs to change and what our core values as a business are. When you’re clear on your purpose and what experience you want to give to your customers, it filters down throughout the whole organisation.
Q. How do you approach splitting up responsibilities?
We both have different strengths, but shared interests and styles. The dynamics of successful business partnerships are not dissimilar to the dynamics of a healthy marriage, so it has come (fairly) naturally to us. We respect each other’s opinions and when we disagree, we can talk things through without it turning into a fiery debate. We go on buying trips together and we’re both heavily involved in the marketing side of the business. We’re passionate about ensuring the integrity of the brand remains and everything we buy and create needs to reflect that.
We leave a lot of the operational day-to-day work to Joel, our son and General Manager, and have loved watching him grow into the role. He’s come a long way since answering phones in our warehouse as a teen!
Q. Did you seek outside advice when starting the business?
I was doing everything from customer service and graphic design to driving the forklift. I realized fairly quickly that there were some aspects of running a business that were outside my level of knowledge and expertise. I’ve always sought external financial advice but about five years ago we created an advisory board which completely transformed the business. We meet monthly and dissect the inner workings of Matt Blatt. It’s so valuable to draw on advice from people who have built successful businesses time and time again. We wouldn’t be here if we had been too proud to ask for help when we needed it.
Q. Have you both discussed in what direction you want to see the business go?
We always joke that we’re on a bus together and one of us has the wheel, but sometimes we realize we’re both enjoying the ride and no-one’s in the driver’s seat! We never set out to build what we have built so we’re looking forward to continuing to grow the brand organically. We’re on the same page that we want to keep expanding, building more showrooms, entering new markets and bringing Matt Blatt to new customers. We’re very conscious of what customers are asking for which is why we’re selling a lot of Australian-made products and exclusive designs, as well as the premium replica pieces we’re known for.
Q. Are there any things you would have done differently when starting out?
To be honest, I wouldn’t change much. That’s not to say we didn’t make mistakes, because of course we did, but every mistake taught us a valuable lesson. Our growth was slow and steady. We were brave and took some big risks and when something didn’t work, we’d pick ourselves up and try something new.
Matt Blatt showrooms can be found across Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Adelaide and Canberra and their product range can be found at www.mattlblatt.com.au.