How Smart Garden Offices near Bury St Edmunds built a thriving business on the back of the homeworking revolution
PUBLISHED: 17:12 22 August 2017 | UPDATED: 17:17 22 August 2017
It was Charlie Dalton's real life challenge of raising his family and running a business that nudged him into being a manufacturer of high quality home offices.
“The joys of a young family combined with a small cottage and the need for a dedicated home office space meant that I ended up creating a garden office in 2001 at home. This was way before there was anything on the market,” he said.
Being a practical Suffolk chap from a long line of printers, Charlie reckoned that he could help others solve their work/life balancing act.
He added: “A few years later I formally retrained as a carpenter and developed a unique construction method, which we use to this day.”
Smart Garden Offices, currently based just outside Bury St. Edmunds, was born.
“Attitudes towards home working have changed dramatically - every year, more and more people work from home with a large proportion of them being new micro businesses,” continued Charlie who makes it very clear that he produces garden offices and not, most definitely not, sheds.
“I’ve always maintained the saying ‘there’s a reason Mercedes don’t make mopeds’. Whilst they are both means of transport, only one will enable you to travel in comfort and with enjoyment.
“A garden office should feel just like a room in your house: Warm, comfortable, safe, secure, robust and filled with natural light. Fundamentally, how would you feel about visiting your doctor if he worked in a shed?”
Some 14 years after it was launched, the business now employs around 60 people and has been recognised with a number of awards. The company picked up the One to Watch Award at the 2015 EADT Business Awards while this year it was a finalist in the Medium Business of the Year category. Also earlier this year, Charlie was named Eastern Region Institute of Directors’ Small Company Director of the Year.
But despite the impressive growth and collection of awards, Charlie refuses to rest on his laurels and prefers to look forward. One area where this is reflected is in the company’s commitment to developing its staff.
Last year the company launched the Smart Academy – an apprenticeship training programme for young recruits in partnership with West Suffolk College.
Charlie said: “We train, develop and retain every member of the Academy, to create the craftsmen of tomorrow. Whilst this is good business, it’s also a personal belief – encouraging youngsters with the opportunity to grow and thrive as craft professionals is hugely rewarding.”
And it’s not just those starting out on their working lives who benefit from the company’s focus on quality. Charlie is also focussed on training and mentoring all of his staff – a sort of enlightened self-interest.
“There’s previously been a real skill shortage in the broader joinery sector, but as a substantial local employer it’s our responsibility to help alleviate this,” he said.
The company currently has five models in its range, each one in seven different sizes – to accommodate the space and preferred aesthetic of different clients.
Its original line, the Classic range, is an inexpensive garden office option with traditional design, while the Suffolk Barn model is a weather-boarded version suitable for rural locations.
The Ultra model is a contemporary design with multiple features and makes a great garden room or gym, whilst the Key Studio range is an affordable option with modernist looks. The company’s brand new model in the range is the Belle, an innovative softer design which is aimed at the leisure space.
But Smart Garden Offices’ ambitions don’t stop there. While the business has grown from its Suffolk base to become a national company, it now has plans to launch overseas with its latest model, the Zedbox - a studio apartment in the garden - due to be launched this year.
“We’ve had over 5000 international enquiries already on this range and we’re gearing up to accommodate the international demand,” added Charlie, who says despite the business’ growing reach, its foundations remain firmly based in Suffolk.
“Whilst we are a national brand, I’m very proud to be a Suffolk Boy and a real manufacturer based in Suffolk. Where else can you get the open space and rural beauty of Suffolk combined with the skills and determination of a highly skilled team of colleagues?