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People Profile – Matt Newell – Entrepreneur

Visiting Niagra Falls, what an experience

I was born in 1963 in St Luke’s Hospital, Guildford and lived in Witley. My dad was a quantity surveyor and mum did secretarial work and eventually set up her own business called ‘Mayday Employment Agency’. I have 4 sisters and had 1 brother. We were one big crazy family! Home was like ‘The Larkins’, with plenty of theatrics. My older siblings, were a product of the ‘Flower Power Era’. It was a colourful time.

I attended a few schools, mostly in Guildford. St Josephs, Clarks Grammar and St Peters. I spent four years at Barrow Hills, Witley, starting there when I was about eight. I wasn’t academic at all, Barrow Hills had high academic and sporting standards, I didn’t succeed in any area. I think if there’d been 12 in a class, I would easily have come 13th! I was left to my own devices which I believe, is where my ‘building days’ began. I wasn’t academic and didn’t really fit in during sports days, PE, or study times, I used to forage in the school grounds, often going out of bounds, ever the rebel. There was quite an extensive area of woodland, where I would spend time building camps. Other likeminded pupils joined me. I instructed them on how to build camps, pushing leaves together to make base walls and branches to make the pitched roof. Eventually it became big and unwieldy, so a teacher used the school tractor to demolish it. It was probably regarded as a Health and Safety hazard even in those days, and we were probably having far too much fun!

Growing up there were a few significant people in my life, one being my grandfather George Newell. He worked in the construction industry, not suffering fools, a fire brand of a man. After my grandmother died, as a young teenager, I promised myself I wouldn’t let George go without spending time with him. I went to see him after school every Thursday night, for years and we formed a close bond.

My original Pentagon box design

He was also a cabinet maker. I was fascinated by the furniture he’d made so beautifully. I found it hard to comprehend, that a man could make such wonders.

When leaving school, I was struggling with what to do to make a living. His was one of the voices that spoke to me. His advice was to get a trade, make sure it was one I could do in the warm and dry. One I could travel anywhere in the world with, try different professions and if they didn’t turn out well, I could return to my trade. And that’s exactly what’s happened!

I’ve done many and various jobs before arriving at the business I run today. I followed the advice, completing my apprenticeship in Carpentry & Joinery with F. Milton & Sons, Witley, in the autumn of 1982, then set off on my travels, starting with a Ski season in Wengen, Switzerland. In the words of the Big Yin, I refer to this as ‘’my windswept and interesting days’’ ending up living in San Francisco. I worked at a marine yard in Sausalito, helping friends to fit out racing yachts and I also had work with an antique restoration company. I stayed in Tahoe for a while, helping to build traditional timber houses, as is typical of the American West coast. I was 21 at the time, I wasn’t doing a great deal of the building work, I did a few small jobs, picking up skills. It was a good insight as to what’s involved in constructing timber frame buildings.

A selection of my sloped briefcases which doubled as a writing desk

Following a turbulent relationship, I left San Francisco and came back to the UK. I needed to focus and rebuild my life and start my own business.

From a very young age I’d always been entrepreneurial, setting up stalls to sell apples in front of our house, or hanging around the local Golf Club trying to get caddying jobs. I didn’t have much success on the golf course. One day I pestered a guy and persuaded him to let me accompany him around the golf course. My parents had been playing tennis nearby and eventually they’d gone home. God-forbid, it wouldn’t happen in this day and age, I was probably only about 8 or 9, but I was determined to be seen as an ‘earner’. The chap dropped me home saying to my parents, with a smile “He wasn’t sure how he was getting back.” Once he had departed, I displayed a handful of coins, pretending I’d been paid! Even then, being seen as an ‘earner’ was everything.

Arriving back from San Francisco I came up with the idea of making a wooden briefcase. I’d seen people on planes, writing on briefcases, which were not the best of writing surfaces. My design had a slight slope for writing, beautiful leather interiors and finished in the most amazing veneers. During my apprenticeship I learned about box construction, for technical equipment, so I used to make all sorts of boxes in my spare time, such as jewellery cases and CD holders. I was happy making boxes. The business was based at the ‘’Self-Start Workshops’’, in Godalming. The self-start scheme, worked in conjunction with the ‘’Princess Trust’’. To qualify for a 0% loan from the trust, it was necessary to create a business plan and conduct market research. This process made me realise, the importance of portfolio, diversification, so I decided to also re-visit the jewellery boxes I used to make.

An example of my first jewellery box, all the joints are made by hand

I decided to make one in the shape of a pentagon, using mahogany and oak, given to me by my grandfather. It evolved through an organic process, incorporating features that made it difficult to open, such as a sliding bar for the locking mechanism, with the 5 rebated segments, interlocking. However, on its first trial run, when turned upside down, all the segments fell open, which I soon remedied, with a locking pin. It was a difficult process, fitting well with the emotional struggle I was experiencing. They say the best work someone ever creates is when they’re in emotional turmoil. I don’t think I’ve ever created anything quite so complicated since, but I produced what I considered was a really unusual piece of furniture and somewhere along the way I identified the pentagon box should be a logo for my first business and subsequently every business venture since.

A friend of mine, John Pollock, lived in Cranleigh. I loved our in-depth discussions. On one such occasion, he helped me name the business. John came up with the name, along with other suggestions, but I was intrigued by the name *Entelechy. It meant ‘actuality from potentiality’ which was fantastic because I make things, I create things and I’m all about the actuality from the potential. I was born to build, make and create.

So the business began by making these boxes. My market research involved taking them around the Bond Street jewellers in London. The proposition was for high-end jewellery presentation, rather than mass manufactured boxes. There were mixed reviews. I look back now, wondering how I had the audacity as a 23 year old, visiting the top Bond Street jewellers, pressing the buzzers on the security doors, to be granted access. One particular gentleman said “If a client spends a million pounds on a piece of jewellery, how is this going to enhance their investment? ” A woman beside him, looked at him as if he was a Philistine and said “You’ve completely missed the point. I would love to be presented a beautiful piece of jewellery in this.”

The Pentagon box hinged with 5 opening lids

One company said to leave a few boxes with them to see if they sold, but I wasn’t in a position to leave my exhibits behind. The concept was for ‘’one off bespoke commissions’’. I’ll never know if that idea would have taken off as I moved back to the briefcases which were more saleable. I needed to make a living and attended markets and street fairs to sell my range of products, which by this time, also included coffee tables, which did particularly well, due to a fascinating range of Italian veneers I had discovered at a trade fair. I received enquiry phone calls from all sorts of people. Good Housekeeping Magazine rang me once – they were going to do an article. They never did – story of my life!

One call was from an organisation, that sourced interesting products for Bloomingdales in New York “We’ve got a buyer coming from Bloomingdales and would love to show him your briefcases, they’re unique and just the sort of item that does well in Bloomingdales.” I put the accelerator on, to get a ‘’production ready’’ item for the buyer. I had to source the best materials. It was all about the locks, latches and leather. It was difficult to find quality fixings but I tracked down a chap called Anthony in Leytonstone, who did the most beautiful leather work. He started to do the interior leather work for me. In the end he provided virtually everything and manufactured the product for me. I wanted the finished result to be suitable for stores like Harrods, Bloomingdales and Tiffany’s. When I met the buyer from Bloomingdales, they placed a sample order, but due to production problems and Bloomingdales going bust, it never progressed which was disappointing, but helped me realise I needed to do something completely different. The writing was on the wall.

Towards the end of 1989, recession started to bite and I was struggling once again, with what to do, to make a living, as much of my ‘’bread and butter’’ work had dried up. One evening, while having a beer with my great friend Andy Barr at the White Horse in Hascombe, he suggested I get a job with Haymarket publishing. “You are good at talking, you’ll be able to sell.” So I joined Haymarket selling advertising in Autocar and Motor, with the view of moving on in a year or so, but ended up working at Haymarket for nearly 9 years. The opportunities kept on coming. I was sent to New York for 3 months. Eight months later, turns out New York wasn’t my thing. As I had previously lived in San Francisco the company wanted me to remain in the States, suggesting I return to San Francisco where I stayed for 2 more years.

An early handmade wooden jewellery box

At this time I had been good friends with Caroline (now my wife) before I was sent to New York, but not romantically involved. It was clear we had much in common and the first inklings, that we were soul-mates, had formed. During my time in the States, Caroline had also travelled to Sidney Australia, the UK and back to her beloved Altea in Spain, where she spent her teenage years. Towards the end of my tenure in the US, we got back in touch and agreed, that we would like to try and make a go of it, raising the conundrum of where to live. I had an I-visa which was issued for media professionals, granting me multiple and indefinite US access for 5 years. Whereas Caroline couldn’t work or do anything even if we’d got married, not even charity work. So we returned to the UK in the autumn of 1994, initially living with my parents, in Witley, until buying a cottage on the river Wey in Shalford. I stayed with Haymarket for a little longer launching events. I became the manager of Wine and Spirit International, learning a bit about buying wine. I invested in wine, keeping it in bond, acquiring ‘’blue chip names’’ eventually turning a healthy profit.

My last day with the magazine and Haymarket was at a Wine exhibition in Cannes France in October 1997. What a way to end a truly interesting and fun part of my professional life. I then moved into the IT industry, working for US companies, focussed on the communications industry, selling network infrastructure, to service providers.

During this time, we’d been renovating our cottage in Shalford, making oak plank doors, oak architrave, skirting, door linings the whole lot. Friends commented, “These are really lovely, you should do this.”

Selling my wares in Guildford street market in 1988. If you look closely you can see the open Pentagon box

At the end of 2003 my position was made redundant, giving me with the opportunity to re-invent myself again, with the oak products, launching ‘Oak & Nail Designs’. The orders came in, after I began to cherry-pick customers from local planning applications. I looked for houses with names like ‘The Old Barn’ because they were just the sort of projects that would want my services.

For a while Oak & Nail Designs did well, but in 2005, I had an IT industry offer, I couldn’t refuse. By the end of 2006 I was ready to leave the corporate world. There is only so much one can take of flying back and forth to the US, attending pointless seminars and corporate nonsense, with managers, who had no idea how to manage and leaders who had no idea how to lead. I returned to my Oak & Nail Designs business. However, while having a beer with Andy, once again he made a suggestion. He was setting up a new kitchen business and asked if I was interested in being involved. I declined, but said I’d help find the right team and do the first couple of kitchens. I ended up doing this for 14 years! I ran the installation side, building a team, travelling extensively in the UK and beyond, fitting beautiful kitchens. One project required flying a team to Scotland to fit 20 kitchens. Every couple of years I’d go out to the Alps for installations in Chamonix, Meribel and Tignes.

In the Autumn of 2011 we moved to Cranleigh and I built a room in the garden. When it was complete, I stood back, admiring my handy work, it dawned on me ‘This is what I want to do!’

An Italian veneered coffee table and briefcase

I loved it, I just absolutely loved the whole thing. It brought together everything I’d ever made before. Relatively quick and easy to build and almost entirely wood. Other fields of construction such as house building, are fraught with problems, often by the end of it, everybody has fallen out with everyone and the client has had enough, it’s a drawn out process, but garden rooms are just fantastic. It’s a stand-alone project, you’re not in anyone’s space particularly. The customer can leave you out there, whether it’s fine weather, or foul. From the start within 4-6 weeks, you’ve got a beautifully, finished product. It gives me the opportunity to use all my knowledge and experience.

I wanted to start this business in 2016 but I was planning a major phase of a renovation on our home in Cranleigh, and running the kitchen business in London, was a big commitment, I couldn’t commit to more. I had to wait my time and at the end of 2019 I realised if I don’t do this now I’m never going to do it.

I had the name – Format Garden Rooms which just seemed right. I didn’t think about it for long, it came to me in a minute, as a play on words. The ‘format of a layout’ and it’s ‘for-Matt’ and for everyone else who wants to share a dream, creating something beautiful, having a lot of fun in the process. One friend built my website and another did the artwork. I had it all lined up, we were literally about to press the button in February 2020 and then BANG! COVID. I didn’t launch the website for a while, I wanted to see what would evolve with COVID. Little did I know what was ahead, receiving enquiries, with zero promotion. The serendipity was unbelievable. The world came beating on the door. The importance of space and time away from each other really hit home. Those that had space even if it wasn’t much space, in the garden, or wherever, wanted to put a box of some sort somewhere, to be quiet, creative, yoga or exercise time – you name it, someone wanted it! So ‘Format Garden Rooms’ began.

Myself and Caroline, we just clicked

We form strong friendships with our customers. Recent clients in Ewhurst, invited us to celebrate their garden room’s completion. They conducted a little presentation over a glass of bubbles and explained why they had chosen us. “One of the reasons we chose you Matt was because you told us from the beginning this is a 2-way exchange and you select your customers as much as they select you. You said you’d reached a point in your life where you wanted to work with people who you enjoy working with. You said we were being vetted and that gave us great comfort.” To me that is important because if people enjoy their project and get on with each other, the end result is so much better. When there’s friction and stress, the designer/builder becomes paralysed, along with their creative juices too.

When I’m employing people I’m not particularly looking for young super bloods. I’m looking for people who are hard-working, interested, hungry to learn and could do with a leg up, to give them an opportunity. My company ethos is to try and give people a chance. People who may have had a tough time, at school, home, or another environment, where society, might not be prepared to provide avenues to progress, or a fresh start.

Our team is made up of ‘’interesting characters’’ who don’t necessarily fit the ‘’mould’’. The youngsters may have been seen as disinterested, or disruptive at school and in the wider community. I see nothing of that in our young team member, nothing of that at all. Yes a typical, misunderstood 19 year old, but he’s a good lad and he’s hardworking.

I am always at home in the outdoors, especially with trees and nature

If I were to advise someone on how to start in business I’d say, never ever give up and work hard. Try to stay focussed. ‘Prioritise! Prioritise! Prioritise! Pay attention to detail and the rest will follow. Be reliable and do what you say you’re going to do. Try to anticipate the next situation and expect the unexpected. Do the very best and be the very best you can. As for me I have everything in my amazing wife and children and I see every day as a massive ‘’Win’’.

*Aristotle’s view on Entelechy
Entelechy, (from Greek entelecheia), in philosophy, that which realises or makes actual what is otherwise merely potential. The concept is intimately connected with Aristotle’s distinction between matter and form, or the potential and the actual.

For further information contact Matt on:
07718 519454

www.formatgardenrooms.com

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