Cousins keep it in the family
Thirty years and countless fashion changes since the opening of its first furniture store, Cousins has stayed within the family.
The 1980s was the decade of ruffles, lace, frilly bedding and busy floral fabrics. Laura Ashley was the biggest name in home decor. It was also the decade that a family from the Black Country came up with the idea of a huge furniture store that could offer customers the biggest choice possible under one roof.
Thirty years later, brothers Robert and Edward Shotton now head a business with three massive stores in Dudley, Birmingham and Manchester catering to thousands of customers every week.
Bedrooms, lounges and dining rooms in homes across the West Midlands are the result of hours spent wandering around branches of Cousins.
The styles have changed over the years, as chintz and mahogany gave way to smoked glass, chrome and, more recently, reclaimed hardwood.
And the last few years have seen the trend for leather suites slowing down, with fabric becoming more popular again. Reclining sofas and chairs are popular too.
Those flowery patterns from the 1980s seem to have gone forever, though.
Some of the brand names date back to the early days, such as G-Plan and Parker Knowle, while others are more recent, like Black Country-based upholstery outfit Black Mill.
"It's very traditional and very well made," says Robert Shotton. "We never have any problems with it and it's very popular. We do very well with them."
Furniture of all shapes and sizes is laid out across the 90,000 sq ft of the store in Dudley town centre.
"People have a lot more choice these days.
"The furniture companies have to keep coming up with new products to meet demand and changing fashions.
"Things have changed quite a lot.
"At one time the best sofa was hardly used; it was often covered up. Now they have to cope with being used all the time."
Robert's knowledge is encyclopaedic. That is because he and the other family members who run the business buy every item. And they know where it has come from.
"We always go to visit the factories where it is made," he said. "We may go to shows in Shanghai or Singapore and see something we like, that we think people will buy, but if we are not happy with the factory then that's it."
It is part of an intensely personal approach to running a business that Robert Shotton credits to his grandfather, William Cole, who founded a business dynasty in the 1920s with a store that specialised in goods reclaimed from household demolitions and stock from bankrupt companies. The business grew, and Mr Cole even built a private zoo to help attract customers to Coles of Bilston.
"He had a lion, a few bears and even some monkeys," Robert Shotton recalls.
"He was a real character. I was very close to him. He had terrific self-discipline. I think I learnt from him; he would always work from early in the morning until late at night, right up until two weeks before he died. That was 42 years ago, when he was 72.
"He taught me one of the most important lessons in business – always buy at the right price, if you can do that then you can sell at the right price.
It is a lesson learned by Robert and Edward, and by their sons, John, Matthew and Thomas, as they too joined the family business.
The first store was opened by comedienne Faith Brown on August 17, 1985, at Tyseley in Birmingham.
"From an early age I always wanted to be in control of my own destiny as I firmly believed this was the best way to provide security for myself and eventually my family," says Robert.
"I decided to set up Cousins with brother Edward and cousin William – although William is no longer in the business.
"Edward and I have worked closely together for over 40 years and we've always got along extremely well. Not only are we brothers, we are also the very best of friends."
The Dudley store followed in 1996 and two of the UK's biggest stars were recruited to cut the ribbon – soap stars Liz Dawn and the Bill Tarmey – Coronation Street's Vera and Jack Duckworth.
They attracted a huge crowd and, Robert recalls, even stopped the traffic in Dudley town centre.
That first weekend saw the store take nearly £400,000.
The couple were such a success that Cousins brought them back to reopen its Tyseley store after a refurbishment.
Robert still remembers spending an 'absolutely fantastic' evening with them at the Strathallen hotel in Birmingham as they devoured a portion of chips, washed down with pints of lager for Liz and pints of bitter for Bill.
"People in the hotel couldn't believe what they were seeing," he said.
The company has forged strong links with Coronation Street since then – not surprisingly, it's Robert's favourite TV programme – with filming at the Manchester store for some episodes, while Cousins has supplied the furniture for character Carla Connor's flat, before and after the dramatic fire in the series earlier this year.
The Manchester store was opened in 2005, with its own distribution site, while Cousins has its Midlands warehouse in Oldbury.
It now employs around 120 people including its own team of delivery drivers. He credits Cousins' staff with the success of the business over the last 30 years. "It's been a team effort", he said.
"Some of the staff have been with us right from the start."
It's part of the nature of this family firm that it owns all its sites outright and doesn't owe a penny to the banks. Another of Bill Cole's lessons in business.
It is also proud of its close links with its customers. "We have people who have shopped here since we first opened," said Robert.
"I think people in the Black Country like to buy from a family business.
"They see us in the same way as people supporting a football team – I support Wolves, I'm a season ticket holder."
In the same way, local shoppers support Cousins rather than the opposition.
The business works hard to earn that support.
The size of the store is key to the approach that those customers should be able to find what they are looking for from the widest possible range of furniture, "from a £299 sofa to one costing £,4000," says Robert.
Those shopping at the Dudley store have their own tastes, a little more traditional that customers in Birmingham or Manchester, but their straight-talking makes them a pleasure to deal with, says Robert.
"You know where you stand with them, they call a spade a spade."
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