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Georgia Metcalfe is the founder of the French Bedroom Company. She talks to workingmums.co.uk about setting it up, getting through Covid and Brexit and being nominated for a prestigious women in business award.
Georgia Metcalfe is a finalist in this year’s NatWest everywoman Awards, one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies for women in business. She is one of three females shortlisted for the Aphrodite Award for a woman who founded her business whilst raising a child/children aged 12 or under and will learn if she has won at a ceremony on 7th December.
Her business, the French Bedroom Company, which has been named a UK Cool Brand for five consecutive years, has come a long way since it was launched in 2006 when customers couldn’t even pay online. Today it cites international celebrities and royalty amongst its loyal client base. Georgia’s success is in no small way down to her obsession with quality and design, her ongoing search for new ideas and caring passionately about her customers.
So how did she get started? Georgia was originally working in corporate PR and then moved into consumer PR, promoting interior design businesses. She worked for various agencies on a freelance basis before realising that her passion lay not so much in making someone else’s company successful as with making and promoting her own interior design products
She decided to work one day a week and at weekends on her new venture alongside her regular work. Coming up with her first product was a challenge. She knew she needed a product that was either not available currently and/or not being sold very well. On her 30th birthday she asked her parents to club together to get her an antique French bed. She loved the romantic and feminine look of the beds, but there seemed to be nothing equivalent in the UK.
Georgia believes this is because the bed manufacturing industry is typically male-dominated. “I see a lot of grey and navy suits at trade fairs,” she says. She thinks this is because manufacturing has traditionally not been an attractive industry for women, often involving heavy machinery and factories. Yet she reasons that women typically spend more time in the bedroom and are often the ones leading the decisions on bed purchases.
Before launching her business Georgia had to source her beds. She could either buy them ready made from a UK supplier, from a factory or get them designed. However, the third option is expensive and means a large cut for the designer while factories tend to want you to order in large quantities, which is difficult when you are starting out. “We were almost buying them from UK suppliers in ones and twos at the start,” said Georgia. It was not until the business was up and running that they could work with designers and they now have their own in-house designers.
The French Bedroom Company launched 15 years ago and Georgia says the best way to get it off the ground was through trade fairs where she was able to make relationships with suppliers, buy off the shelf beds and market them, reinvesting the money in new products.
By 2007, things were taking off, just as the storm clouds of the global recession were gathering. Fortunately, French furniture was very much in fashion and Georgia was able to weather the crisis even though her business was only just in its infancy. It has not been easy since the business began – the 2008 recession and the combination of Covid and Brexit have been extremely challenging. Georgia says her heart goes out to people who started a business in the last few years. When it comes to Covid and Brexit, she says her company is fortunate to have built a resilient team and supply chain and understands how to absorb extra costs and deal with all the delays in the supply chain.
“It has been a perfect storm. There have been factory closures due to Covid in the Far East, port delays due to a lack of containers, shipping problems, Brexit paperwork, haulier shortages, extra costs for renting containers…It’s been a sea of trouble,” she says. “If we hadn’t have known what we were doing it would have been really difficult. I have never known it to be this difficult.”
Another problem is that costs are rising across the board, from foam to cotton, and manufacturers need to be careful about where they source cotton due to health issues in India linked to GM cotton seeds. Georgia says the company could air freight items, but that would not only be more expensive, but it would contribute to climate change which goes against the company’s sustainability values.
She adds that her customers have been very understanding about any delays and that the company communicates with them regularly and offers alternative products if there are problems. Thirty per cent of its business is through repeat orders. She prides herself on the company’s customer care and says emails are answered in two to three hours. However, she anticipates the delays continuing until 2023 and says new Brexit paperwork is anticipated in January. “We are bracing ourselves,” she says.
“This job is all about relationships and when the chips are down that is what will sustain you,” she adds. For instance, the company’s UK factory is working around the clock and the business has paid them upfront to support them. In turn the factory is looking after the business.
Georgia also pays a lot of attention to building a supportive team and puts an emphasis on the company’s values and on kindness. “We look out for each other,” she says. Everyone gets a chance to learn about different aspects of the business. “We treat it like a degree where you do major and minor subjects,” says Georgia, adding that variety helps keep people engaged. The team now comprises 14 people. Some work from home either full time or occasionally and the customer experience team is generally in the office to fire fight and come up with creative solutions.
Georgia herself works a four-day week, taking Wednesdays off, and she says the decision to do that “changed my life”. Before that she was working flat out and only took a week or two off when she had her two children, now aged 15 and seven. She tries to spend as much time with them as she can. Like many, she had to work and homeschool during Covid and also moved office – the new office is a mile away – and warehouse at the same time so she had her hands more than full. Her 15 year old daughter helps out and has been able to see what running a business is like from the inside.
Looking forward, Georgia says her business’ main priority is to keep going, but she is working on marketing with some fun new videos being launched soon and on product development, having over the years branched out into other bedroom furniture, bed linen, wallpaper and home accessories. Her latest design is a reversible headboard providing different styles for the seasons. The company is also launching a campaign to support Afghan women and children.
Georgia knows the road ahead will be challenging, but says she thrives on problem solving. “When I look back on the last months I will not look back with sadness and frustration, but with a bit of a high five that we got through it with all that is happening and the technological revolution as well which is changing how everything is run. It shows that nothing is insurmountable,” she says.
Of her shortlisting for the Aphrodite award, sponsored by the Daily Mail, she says simply: “For me winning would be like a corporate hug. As a woman in business, carving out a route for my children and my children’s children, to win such an accolade would so fill me with pride. It would be a real endorsement of what I am doing.”