HE could have been a doctor of dirt, but instead Ben Heath chose to follow his father into the family business.
Now, the 37-year-old has guided the Newbury-based furniture firm that bears his name through the recession and it has come out the other side even stronger than before.
But it was never Ben’s intention to join his father in the world of interiors.
Born in Reading, he grew up in Goring-on-Thames, attending Goring Primary School, before moving on to Langtree School in Woodcote.
He describes himself as a ‘late learner’, but enjoyed sport and played football, cricket and tennis.
“I also loved hunting, shooting and fishing,” he says. “Growing up, my friends and I spent a lot of time mucking about on the river. I had a boat and we used to go off to all the islands on the river.”
This love of the outdoors shaped his educational aspirations and after ‘things suddenly clicked’ at the age of 14-years Ben gained good GCSEs and went on to Henley College where he studied maths, further maths, chemistry and physics at A-level.
“I lived for the outdoors so I decided I wanted to be a land manager or a farmer,” he adds. “I got an honour scholarship to study for a land management and agriculture degree in Cirencester, which was still a private college at the time so very expensive.”
Before starting his degree Ben took a year out and worked on a pig and potato farm in Devon.
“It was a real eye-opener, but it gave me the practical experience I needed,” he explains. “I was treated like scum by the boss there and he worked me into the ground, but it didn’t put me off.”
At the same time Ben was starting his degree, his parents were running a furniture shop in Slough and things were not going well. They decided to start a new shop – ‘Tables and Chairs’ – in Newbury, in the same building Ben works from today.
“Because the business prior to this one had not been great they needed another name on the lease, as a guarantor, so they used me,” he explains.
“At the end of my first year at Cirencester, because the new business wasn’t doing overly well, my mum decided to leave it to my dad and moved to Devon.
“So I decided to help my father run the shop, while finishing my degree.”
Ben admits that he has always had expensive taste and was not too impressed with the ‘very inexpensive furniture’ being sold by his father.
Slowly, as stock needed replacing, he began to introduce more expensive pieces, having spent a lot of time researching suppliers and furniture.
Over the next two-and-a-half years he helped grow the business four-fold. In 2002 he achieved a first class honours degree and was given an award for his dissertation. He was then invited to do a PhD in soil science and satellite technology.
He accepted – the lure of becoming Dr Dirt, he says, was just too much. But his was one of the first PhDs the university had undertaken and he says funding wasn’t ‘quite right’.
At the same time the business at home was still continuing to thrive and after two years Ben decided to leave university and work full-time with his father.
“I was running a business and doing a PhD, which was rather tough,” he admits. “So I stopped the PhD to focus on the business. In 2005 my father retired and moved to France and I took sole charge of things.”
As well as a change in working life, Ben’s personal life also began to evolve after he met his future wife Gaby. They married in 2006 and their first son, Jack, was born the following summer. In 2010 the couple had a second son, Morgan.
“The business had grown significantly and things were going really well,” Ben says. “Then in 2008 the recession hit. We had finished on the Friday and we were on target for a record year, then on the Monday morning the phones just stopped ringing.”
The company suffered a 60 per cent drop in sales and Ben admits they just managed to ‘cling on by our fingernails’.
“The following years were very tough,” he adds. “Then in 2009 we got into selling Neptune Kitchens by sheer luck. That saved us; it gave us the extra bit we needed to cling on.”
A rebrand and regroup then took place and ‘Ben Heath’ was born – thanks to a rather expensive project by an independent company, not down to vanity Ben stresses.
In 2012 Ben says that a hunger in him to create bespoke pieces gave him the impetus to join forces with a local cabinet maker and set up a workshop in Hungerford.
“We started to design and make our own bespoke kitchens,” he adds.
“In January 2013 we put displays of our own kitchens into the shop. They were a great success.”
Unfortunately, Ben says, he and his business partner could not agree on the best way forward and at the beginning of 2014 his business partner left.
Fast forward a year and the workshop has been moved to larger premises just 400m from the shop in Hambridge Road and renamed ‘Ben Heath Manufacturing Ltd’.
Things are continuing to move forward, with a showroom revamp currently being undertaken and a new logo being designed. It now employs 14 people, including apprentices working towards cabinet making qualifications.
“Our bespoke range has been revamped and we continue to provide our interior design service,” Ben adds.
“Our focus is on quality; selling beautiful things, made locally from European timbers. Our carbon footprint is very low.”
Looking forward Ben says he wants to continue to grow his family business and eventually hand the reins over to his sons one day.