Jon Rosby looks more like an art or antiques dealer than the marketing director of one of Britain’s biggest retailers. His black polo-neck jumper and open jacket add a bohemian touch to the corporate offices of the PR company where we meet. As we chat about his background in art history and penchant for Russian Impressionists, it all seems a long way from MFI kitchens and bathrooms.
Rosby has worked with the company for 20 years, but it is unlikely he has witnessed as huge an upheaval in the furniture industry as is taking place today. High street home retailers are harnessing design like never before as consumers become more design savvy.
MFI is reaping the benefits of its design-led approach. Results released last month show its turnover up almost 20 per cent, with the UK retail division experiencing its third year of strong growth. It’s clearly no longer just a place to buy cheap and cheerful kitchens.
Rosby believes MFI was guilty of an ‘insular, inward looking’ approach to design in the past. But it’s now part of the company’s ethos to focus internal resources on core skills and ‘pull experts in as we need them’, says Rosby.
Experts include Conran Design Group, whose revamp of the MFI estate enabled the company to broaden its offer, both physically and psychologically. ‘Customers thought they were seeing different products because our stores were completely different,’ says Rosby.
‘We’ve looked at what we do well – for example, kitchen design – but we wanted to move the business to another place and needed to bring in external help to move it on. Internally, we’ve become world-wide project managers rather than designers,’ he explains.
Rosby moved through MFI from a start designing kitchens to a broader retail role, managing stores and regions, before moving on to product procurement and now the top marketing role, squeezing in an MFI-sponsored MA along the way.
As marketing director, he has a broad remit. He is ultimately responsible for product design, graphic design and in-store communications, retail interiors and corporate identity. His team works with a ‘broad spectrum’ of designers and up to 12 design groups.
Kitchens are a mainstay, but MFI now aspires to encompass every room in the house. Bathrooms are a recent addition and the company acquired Sofa Workshop last year, bringing in a high turnover, high value product to complement its existing mix. It also plans a move into free-standing furniture and is working with The Nest on projects such as children’s furniture.
‘The Conran refit created extra space and allowed us to grow the business,’ Rosby explains.
Design is playing an increasingly important role across the business. Responding quickly to design trends has become vital in the furniture industry, which Rosby contends is ‘much more of a fashion business’ today. He compares MFI to retailers like Zara in its need to deliver ‘fashion products very quickly’.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s movements from Cologne or Milan furniture fairs took two to three years to filter down, ‘if they did at all’, says Rosby. Today trends are adopted and adapted for a ‘mass market audience’, with product development reduced to six to eight months.
‘Consumers are more aspirational and more well educated [about design] than ever before,’ says Rosby. ‘MFI’s ability to respond to design styles and make them affordable to a mass market has been a big driver in staying ahead [of the competition].’
Product lifecycles are decreasing all the time, too. In the past, a top selling kitchen retained its appeal for up to 12 years. ‘Today that’s dropped to three years,’ he says. Success depends on ‘staying in touch with customers’ and offering ‘good, affordable, product design’.
Under Rosby, MFI also launched a revamped corporate identity last autumn, designed by CDT Design. ‘We changed the logo on the back of the Conran roll out,’ explains Rosby. ‘We wanted to make it more contemporary. MFI brand awareness is high and we want to keep the good things, but the previous logo was very red and boxed in – we wanted a more feminine brand.’
Rosby describes the core MFI customer as ‘female, proud of her home and aspirational’, and says customers are defined more by mindset than demographics, with products appealing across age and income bands.
He remains committed to mass market retailing – ‘keeping the heartland’, he calls it – but the company’s range is also moving upmarket. Two kitchen products launch this year which will retail between £11 000 and £20 000. It’s not the extreme top end of the market but a significant step for a retailer that only three years ago was delighted with a top-end sale of £2000.
This is his passion, he says, developing new products. In the next breath he says he’s passionate about collecting cars too: at the moment he has four, all ‘a bit different, not conventional ones’. It will be interesting to see how his unconventional, eclectic taste will steer MFI’s future direction.
Jon Rosby’s CV
1999 Becomes MFI’s marketing director
1989 MFI buyer, product and category manager within the marketing department
1982 Joins MFI and runs five stores
1978 Buyer, kitchen design
1977 Debenhams Furniture department assistant
Education MA distinction in marketing, Manchester University, 1996 and a diploma in art and history, Norwich School of Art & Design, 1977