Phil Bee Interiors has been supplying the homewares and furniture industry since the 90s after launching the company ‘by accident’ 25 years ago.
Founder Phillip Blumenthal was on holidays in Indonesia where he bought some lovely handmade décor. This purchase started the journey to what is now known as Phil Bee Interiors.
“I got to know the factory I purchased it from and realised they also exported,” he explains.
“I kept their card and it sat on my desk for some months, I was in between flying jobs and was looking to do something on a temporary basis. I had some close friends who were already in the importing business, so I knew a little about it. I decided to take a leap of faith and import a 20 foot container as I really loved the ceramic vases and ceramic plater I purchased. They were unique and I believed there would definitely be a market for it.
“With only a couple of thousand dollars to my name, and knowing nothing about the industry, I imported my first container and had it delivered and stored in my parents’ double garage.
“I pounded the footpath seeking out shops who may be interested to purchase my wares. I also attended my first trade fair with a small 3x3sqm stand with a few pottery vases and ceramic platers.
“I travelled all over Australia and build the business town by town. I had no staff in the first few years and didn’t turn a profit for the first five years. It was hard but very exciting at the same time.”
Located in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham with over 30,000 square feet of space, the company was originally known as Phil Bee Pottery as these were the only items that were imported and sold.
“We moved into India, the Philippines, Thailand and China and as the business evolved and our products became more diverse, we changed the name to Phil Bee Interiors.”
For Blumenthal, who is a pilot by trade, what had started as ‘something to do for a little while’ had turned into a business he loved―he found his true passion for décor and furniture and wanted to share this with others.
“I always believed to stay in business, you need to be unique, niche and stand out from the crowd. Our products are left of field, such as upcycled cars made into furniture. By staying unique has kept us surviving all these years, as we are not competing with everyone selling the same thing.”
While the market has changed significantly in the last 20 years or so, Blumenthal says you must adapt with the times and constantly reinvent, you can’t afford to become lazy and complacent.
“It’s survival of the fittest really. The industry has evolved to being a digital industry, in the beginning there was just a printed catalogue, pen paper, order book and trusty fax machine, now there is ecommerce, apps, iPads, social media, blogging, etc.”
When asked about the impact of Covid-19 he says it has had the opposite effect in the gift and homewares industry, as many businesses have seen their sales increase instead of decrease. The recent lockdown in Victoria is also keeping many more people inside their homes again.
“People are spending more time at home and they are reaching out to local retailers who have a digital presence. Business has more than doubled. I would expect little slowdown for 2021 but I would think purchasing of furniture and home decor will see a larger than expected growth.
“We also don’t rely heavily on trade fairs, so the recent cancellations of fairs in Australia and overseas has not affected us at all. Our buying is more focused, we spend a lot of time with our partner factories, working and developing, rather than focusing on what everyone else is doing at worldwide fairs. I actually think the immediate future for fairs is online.”
Any last advice for businesses out there doing it tough? “My motto over the years has always been never ever give up. Roll with the punches, pick yourself up and keep going. Follow your passion, set a target and go for it, however, be careful with your risks.
“Be unique, be different, don’t follow the herd, stay focused and passionate and never lose sight of your goals. Re-invent always. Also, don’t fuss over something you have no control over, it won’t get you anywhere.”