It was her experience shopping for lighting for a renovation that got Mr. Ralph Founder Rachel Williamson thinking. Accompanied by her sister Charlie, Rachel had been looking for lighting for a renovation in Cambridge.
Trouble was, most of what she liked she could not afford, and what she could afford was not up to the mark. There was, she thought, no affordable design-led middle ground.
It was 2013 and Rachel, who had just given up a career in a Sales and Marketing Leadership role, and with no plans to return to the corporate world, saw the gap in the market.
She had never owned a business but liked to do things her own way and was pretty sure she could come up with a customer-focused business model that would plug the gap.
“Pendant and wall lighting was taking off in Europe and quickly coming back into fashion after years of everyone chasing the clean, recessed minimalist look. People wanted layers and the emotional effect of atmospheric lighting, and recessed LEDs simply could not do that,” Rachel said.
Internet research turned up a short list of three Chinese suppliers she liked, and after looking at samples, Rachel settled on one. Then, of course, she had to back her research with money.
“I was very lucky I had the support of my husband Kevin, and there were some savings I could use. It was both nerve-wracking and very exciting. Initially I was just aiming to make my money back and I went into it thinking that if I could earn a small living, I would be happy. I never had any intention of starting a big business, I really wanted a simpler, pared-back lifestyle.”
With lifestyle in mind, Rachel started from a little cottage and showroom in Cambridge, but such was the response she quickly realised her company did not have the business systems in place to cope with the demand for her range.
“We shut the Cambridge business, moved to Waihi Beach, found a large warehouse in Paeroa, went completely online, and grew that. We opened a showroom complete with a 100-square-metre grid of display lighting and that’s when we realised people were prepared to travel, to make a trip of it so they could see the product for themselves and experience the lighting options we had. Even if it is convenient to buy from the comfort of home, people want to touch and see lights in a showroom.
We realised we had become a destination, that people would seek us out in provincial Waikato. And that realisation has become central to our business model.”
So, nine months ago, secure in the knowledge the customer would come to her, Rachel moved the business again, this time to a showroom dedicated to light in Gordonton. In Gordonton customers are taken on a journey that begins with glass, wood, clay and rattan and concludes with metal and concrete. The crowning glory is a charcoal painted room that showcases a carefully curated collection of pendant lights.
“In Gordonton about 50 percent of our revenue is from Auckland. We are 75 minutes from the city and Aucklanders make the trip. And we are so close to Hamilton. Gordonton was perfect for our model.”
Rachel has a second studio in New Plymouth.
“We are deliberately based in provincial New Zealand. We’ve found the spin-off to this to be quite layered. We avoid big city high street rents and the customer benefits from our pricing model. As well, we get to employ amazing people who want to work in fulfilling jobs. What’s evolved is right for my lifestyle and right for customers.”
While Mr. Ralph has a substantial online presence complemented by provincial destinations, Rachel is quick to place her staff and customers at the centre of her business model.
“We love to give back and support Women’s Refuge, Foodbank, Pound Hounds and are soon to become a Business partner of Kidscan. I believe in an integrity of intent, that well-paid, valued staff are central to the way we do business. I am after a bespoke way of dealing with customers and I believe that if staff feel themselves highly valued then they will emulate that with customers.
“I feel you always should put yourself in the shoes of the customer, if possible, try to be your customer. If you cannot do that then you don’t have a sustainable business model.
“We want customers to love what they have purchased so we offer a 30-day return policy with no handling fees. To help customers purchase with confidence we have free online consultants and staff who will either travel to customers’ homes, or work with them off-the-plan.
“If we invest time into our customers, they will be loyal in return.”
When the lockdown hit, Rachel again had the opportunity to reassess Mr. Ralph.
“As an online business we were
more fortunate than most high street retailers, but we realised how important it was that the online offering was
world class, so we are investing in better systems and content to future proof the business.”
Rachel has continued to seek out new sources of lighting inspiration.
“We have a curated range from Bali, Spain, and South Africa and outdoor lights from Oxfordshire in England. As well, we are working with New Zealand designers. We are exploring New Zealand made fabric shades. The trick is to find the balance and provide a carefully curated range. I know we have a good eye, so we should be able to fulfil peoples’ needs.”
Rachel’s advice to those looking for lighting solutions for their home?
“Find a signature piece, say a pendant for the hallway, or something magnificent over the dining table. Then complete the picture with less expensive wall lights, floor lamps, table lamps. Look to create mood, texture and colour. Exquisite fabric shades (with tassels) are back. But don’t do too much – less is often more with beautiful lighting, look for simplicity in design.”
And, as for the future?
“Mr.Ralph will continue to be primarily an online business that reaches everybody, but our provincial design studios have proved to be a great portal that allow people to touch us, meet us and see our product so watch out for Mr. Ralph in a provincial town near you.”