Five Minutes With... Chris Fowler

A collection that should have taken months to develop was created in just a matter of days, thanks to our fantastic team at Bisley. Speaking to Chris Fowler, Director of International Projects, we hear all about the development of the Belong collection…

How have you found the process?

Challenging and exciting! The main challenge was when we presented to the commercial team, we had a notion privately that there would be 3 to 5 designs that would be selected for the collection, but initially there were 12 to 13 designs. If you count the elements within our Outline product for arguments sake, there are some major product developments within that programme. I would say this is one of our biggest projects we have had in a while.

Can you give me a quick idea of what the brief was?

The original brief from our CEO Richard Costin was not to limit ourselves or be overly influenced by nay-sayers, or by the way we’ve done things previously. Come up with the designs and we will find a way around it.

This ‘no holds’ barred attitude at the front helped the creative process at the beginning. The role of our wood processing plant was our second strength to our bow. With Belong, we weren’t tied to any particular material. Referring back to the brief, we wanted to be self-sufficient, we didn’t want to be reliant on or have a complicated supply chain. That’s a really good asset for a designer, when you can pick the most suitable material.

What products were you involved with in the Belong collection?

I was most involved in Sling, Swing desk, Pal, Shadow, MultiRange [MultiDrawer desk] and Platform. It was quite collaborative all the way through the project, there was 4 of us involved. Once the designs were selected, we then delegated the designer behind the initial design to drive the product to the launch.

We were able to bounce ideas off each other. And of course, the products had to come together with certain heights and finishes to co-ordinate the range, so the products can naturally sit alongside one another. Jeanine, our interior designer, came into the process at the appropriate time to co-ordinate the collection. Building up to the launch, we had other teams involved such as the in-house engineers, they created all those great disciplines that the marketing team needed. The marketing team were then able to do things such as coding, strategising a digital presence and launch. It was like a typical project but so condensed because of the time pressures. What may take 3 to 9 months took us 3 to 9 days - we just had to go at that pace!

What do you enjoy about working at Bisley?

The variety, every day is different. I deal with different people, providing a different set of solutions for clients on the design or project side. My role has been focused on International markets recently, which means I work with more markets, people and solutions on a global scale. This gives me eye on the storage, office furniture and home markets around the globe.

In the last 6 months, I have felt even more passionate about working for Bisley. I didn’t realise, quite frankly, how fundamental we are and how we need to keep the front end of the business going to safeguard the jobs and Bisley’s future. To keep the pipeline of work full, I felt a great responsibility in the early days of lockdown.

How long have you worked at Bisley for?

I graduated with a degree in Product Design in 1989. I took my first job, which lasted 6 months, with Tangent (they were called Desk Existence back then). My boss was approached by Bisley and he took me with him. That was 31 years ago! I have enjoyed it immensely.

What does your normal working day look like? How has that changed in 2020?

I don’t get tied to office hours, working with international suppliers I sometimes must take calls in the evening. Dubai starts 4 hours ahead of us, quite often I have work to jump on first thing in the morning. They also work on a Sunday, so Monday I quite often pick work up straight away from the Dubai office. Then work from the US comes in overnight. So, it’s almost a 24/7 job, which I relish.

Since the lockdown, I have been working from home. On a personal level, I’ve got a routine so I can focus on my work during the working days and I get a genuine weekend. Prelockdown I wasn’t a fan of working from home, I thought by working in the office with colleagues we’d get more done.

I’ve got my own sanctuary of a room dedicated to work which I’m pretty sure not everyone’s got, its valuable to me. I’m fortunate enough that I got the space, maybe I will put some Belong in there!

Do you have a favourite piece in the Belong collection?

Yes, I would say Hideaway, that my colleague Chris Goddard developed. It’s packed full of features and is a really smart storage solution. It’s meek, compact not intrusive in any way. Then you open it out and it’s got quite frankly what 90% of the population would need – a flat surface, a light, some charge points, a little tray to put your accessories and you’re away working. But of course, you close it, put it away at night so you’re not staring at it thinking ‘Oh I’ve got to do this, got to do that’. It blends into the domestic environment with the lid up. I think it’s quite important to try and separate work from home life, and Hideaway helps achieve that.

How do you think the pandemic has changed the way we think about the workplace? What do you think the future holds?

For us at Bisley, it’s a dilemma as we are providers for the traditional workplace. Strategically, it’s the right decision to go for domestic furniture, to get the Belong collection out there - its fundamentally right, I can’t see another way around it.

Agile working, conference calling, zoom calling and more technology coming on board will be in the future, no doubt. I’m sure there are oodles of products that challenge the 9-5 working way that have been thrown up by the pandemic.

One of the hardest jobs during this pandemic will be selling central London office space or central Paris or New York office space; it’s got to be a very challenging job. Not far behind that is selling the furniture to fill that space. I’m not going to pretend I have all of the answers, but our strategy for projects and expanding our sales teams into new market regions could be our solution. The Dubai team are picking up new business, whilst the Dutch and German teams are taking on project work rather than the conventional catalogue business.

Unable to go out to sites means a lot more virtual support and installation guidance. I can’t predict what it’s going to be like in a few years’ time as I can’t see past the now. Continuing with that, I think it will be engrained and second nature to us. We tend to cling on to what we are certain of and we roll with it.