Recessionary mindset' pays off for furniture company.

Thonet is an excellent name for a New Zealand furniture design and manufacturing company. It's just a shame that Kiwis refuse to pronounce it correctly.

Michael Thonet (pronounced Ton-et) was the 19th-century father of modern furniture design and manufacturing, and his name was a logical choice for a Wellington company determined to follow in the German master's mass-production footsteps.

But clients thought the name was of French origin and pronounced "Tho-neigh". Co-founders Russell Millar and Ainsley Kimber persisted with "Ton-et" for about 18 months "before we thought, 'bugger it, it's too hard"'.

Tho-neigh it remains. Only in New Zealand, however. "When I travel overseas I have to remember to say Ton-et because nobody knows who Tho-neigh is," Kimber says.

Advertisement

The pair formed Thonet in 1992, in the depths of a recession, originally acquiring licensing rights to the name from its Australian owners and eventually buying the exclusive rights for its use in New Zealand.

The idea for the company was formed during a trip to Melbourne, when Millar and Kimber saw the rise of cafe culture and correctly predicted the growth of a similar market in New Zealand. All those cafes and restaurants would need stylish but affordable furniture, after all.

Even so, forming a manufacturing firm at a time when the business landscape was littered with the remains of a manufacturing sector decimated by deregulation and the sharemarket crash was an optimistic move.

The pair say the company has, from the very beginning, operated with a "recessionary mindset" - an ethos they credit for Thonet's longevity. Not many furniture manufacturers are still in business after 20 years, Kimber says.

He adds: "What we did learn quickly [in the early 1990s] was we weren't going to run a company like a corporate.

"We'd just seen so many mistakes made by so-called professional people."

That meant he and Millar never let the company get too large or "out of control - we'd never go to bed worrying about things". Both wanted a business over which they could maintain control and, says Kimber, there was never an ambition to build 15 branches or possess 50 company cars.

"We've always been considered by our bank to be conservative managers, which is a good thing.

"We've grown [but] you don't need to grow with branches, staff and cars - you can grow with revenue."

This allows the company the flexibility to fill a one-off custom order and simultaneously meet a request for 50 bentwood chairs for a restaurant, he notes.

It is a philosophy that stood the pair in good stead during the global financial crisis.

Says Millar: "A lot of other businesses have gone under in the last few years simply because they didn't know how to operate through this kind of environment."

It is not only the company that's lasted. Kimber points out that both men are now aged 49 and still married to the same women, proof perhaps that good things really do last: "Nothing's changed, we just look a bit older."

Thonet's range of original and international designs - imported and made under licence at the company's Kapiti Coast factory - is sold to retail customers from Thonet's Wellington showroom and in Auckland by Furniture Lab in Parnell.

But the bulk of the work is larger orders for the hospitality industry and corporates.

New Zealand was already in recession when the 2008 crisis hit, but Kimber says the home mid-market held up, even when shop fitouts disappeared - proof, he suggests, that classic design will always outlast ephemeral fashion.

"They're long-term brands, they're not fashion; they've been around longer than you or I," he says of Thonet's bentwood chairs, industrial design by Emeco and Artek's modernist pieces.

The pair are now focused on an exit strategy that will ensure the survival of Thonet for another 20 years.

"In business, the first five years is a milestone, 10 is another milestone, 15 is good and 20 is better," Kimber says. "The next 10 years will be our swansong, and we want to pass our company and brands on to someone else with integrity who can carry on with these brands."

As long as a buyer loves the Thonet brand, Kimber doesn't even mind if they can't pronounce the name properly: "It doesn't matter. It's a great name. It looks fantastic written up and when you see it in block-letter form."