My Week: Adam Hills of Retrouvius

The design aficionado on recruitment decisions, the death of bling and why holidays are good for business.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

At the moment, my life is fairly dominated by childcare. My partner Maria, with whom I run my reclamation and design business, and I have two boys, aged four and six, so life is a fairly constant juggle of schedules.

The kids usually wake me up at about 7am. I have to get them breakfasted and off to school, which isn’t too challenging – we’re lucky enough to have a really great school five minutes’ walk from home. After that, I jump on my scooter or into my van and head to work, a warehouse in Kensal Green, to make sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing.

That part of my day has become a little bit more complicated lately. We’ve gone from having one member of staff about three years ago to having seven now. None of us have an MBA or anything like that, so we find we tend to make it up as we go along. We’ve just employed a new bookkeeper: she’s definitely on the more kooky side of that profession. I made sure I checked her references, so I know she’s good – but she also plays the accordion and does stand-up comedy. I’d far rather have that than someone terribly boring. We seem to be going along the right lines, though – generally, we tend to employ the person we like, rather than the person who is the most qualified.

The next part of my day tends to vary quite broadly – from spending a day on a demolition site or spending the whole day on the computer, through to spending time with clients. Yesterday, I was at a client's house in Suffolk all day. They’ve just bought a 16th-century priory which we’re furnishing. That side of the business is great fun: we’re very careful about how we select our jobs. It’s not about working for the person who has the most money, or the person who shouts the loudest – they’ve got to have some understanding for what we do.

We’re lucky on that front at the moment, though: we’ve been running the business since 1993, but it’s only in the last two to three years that our style has become relevant. When the credit crunch happened, bling became instantly unfashionable, and people started looking at the more ecological, historical aspects of design. Our star rose almost overnight – people were going ‘ah! I get it!’. It’s a good feeling when the world is starting to catch up…

These days, I can walk down certain streets in London and see a few places we’ve sold salvaged pieces to. I was on Northcote Road in Clapham today, and there are a couple of places there – The Draft House, where I had lunch, is kitted out with oak benches we took out of a law court, and then there’s Gail’s bakery, which has some shelving we took out of the Patent Office. At the moment, we’re doing a lot of work for Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurants, kitting them out with tabletops and other little accessories. It’s always good to have your stuff going in front of a broad audience, rather than it all just being hidden away in people’s houses.

This week, we’re busy preparing for an exhibition we’re going to be doing in September as part of Design Week. I’ve had meetings with a couple of designers, to whom we’ve given a limited palette of reclaimed materials which they’re going to use to create some furniture pieces. It’s a not-for-profit thing, just a bit of fun to attract PR and raise awareness of the business. We do as much as we can to broaden our horizons and spread the word.

The exciting news I’ve had today is a verbal confirmation on a new building I’m trying to buy for storage. I’ve got about 200 tonnes of beautiful Derbyshire fossil limestone, which was once the floor of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2, that needs to be stored. It’s probably not the best way to do things: first buy the stuff, then buy the building to store it in.

It’s only when I take a step back from the business that I find I can tear myself away from the minutiae and see the bigger picture, which helps me to make big decisions like that. I went skiing in Switzerland over Easter, which is when I realised I wanted to buy another building. After 17 years, it’s nice to be able to walk away for a few days: next week, we’re off to Italy for a few days for my 40th birthday. Obviously, iPhones and iPads have made it easier to get away, but the increasing number of staff has helped, too. It’s always a bit of a worry, but after you’ve done it once, you realise the business won’t disappear while you’re away. And when I step back into the warehouse after I’ve been away, I feel a real sense of pride in what we’ve created.

I can’t help but feel that at the moment, the business’ foundations are fairly solid. That’s not to say that nothing can ever go wrong – but I feel our philosophy is quite well embedded. It feels like there isn’t much chance of a competitor coming along and copying us. Our reputation and depth of knowledge are bigger than that – and I think that’s quite valuable.

- Adam Hills runs design and reclamation company Retrouvius.

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