As I make my way through the sprawl of the Red Scar Industrial Estate, it’s hard not to notice the hustle along with the bustle. Units here are still in high demand, a far cry from the relentless haemorrhaging of jobs and industry we hear about in the news on a daily basis. It’s a welcome relief from the city centre, which seems to be at least 25 per cent vape stores at this point, and, for one article at least, I can spare the doom mongering for Nostradamus and his lesser known friend, doubting Thomas.Advertisement
It’s in that spirit that I’m here to interview the architect behind one of Preston’s more notable lockdown success stories. Leona Marsh, owner of Marsh Mill Interiors, welcomes me warmly and immediately begins to chat openly about her business so engagingly as to make a complete mockeryof my loosely prepared questions.
Leona went from working as an events manager at 53 Degrees to launching her own furniture company in 2017, subsequently supplying a host of upscale UK-wide restaurants and along the way landing features in Vogue (and Blog Preston, of course).
Read more: Preston woman building popular furniture brand using reclaimed wood
This may not seem like a logical career move. However, Leona explains that: “It was about passion. I was looking for a way to marry my passion for furniture making with a viable business. I’d previously worked in furniture restoration – upcycling and the shabby chic trend – and making furniture from reclaimed wood seemed the next step.
“Before going into this full time, I spent a year researching the market, and I also had a background in business development and advertising. It’s important because as a new business I spent much more time on the accounts, handling sales, arranging couriers, packing, advertising and customer service than making the tables.”
Readers may be familiar with the Marsh Mill Interior aesthetic, the chunky recycled and restored wood coupled with wrought iron legs and fixtures (I learn after I stopped recording that Marsh Mill Interiors is the single largest wood shop solely dedicated to this style of furniture in the country).
On her choice to use reclaimed wood, Leona said this: “People think working with reclaimed wood is much easier; it’s not. In order to change it from something destined for landfill, I use my special 10-step process on scaffolding boards from building sites to draw out the grain, the patina, the nicks and dints to make it look nice and add character.”
Leona won’t be drawn on the details of the 10-step process despite my insistence, so I suppose my own furniture business Burt Mill Interiors will just have to wait. I turn the topic instead to how the pandemic has affected the business.
“The commercial side of things completely dried up. In the first three months of lockdown I sold five tables. I thought ‘oh dear’ so I enlisted a digital marketing company called Bright Red to re-evaluate my sales strategy and redesign my website from the ground up.”
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Through necessity, Marsh Mill Interiors pivoted overnight to cater almost solely to the domestic market.
“I was surprised how quickly the domestic side of things picked up, but with everyone furloughed, people weren’t going out or going to restaurants so they were looking to make the most of their indoor and outdoor spaces.”
As the website says of the tables: “If it gets scratched or dinged, it adds character and only makes it look better with age. If you have a Formica or similar table top then the opposite is true, every scratch is obvious.”
The appeal of tables like this is obvious; I have three kids who love using pens away from paper and a puppy that will urinate on anything that can’t physically move away from him; this makes robust items a much more pragmatic choice for busy households.
If the appeal of the tables was obvious, the public’s response was even more dramatic.
“Things started to pick up around June, by August I had to employ extra staff and by November I had to move into this workshop.
“The new space has been brilliant, with the volume of orders and the number of people working for me I couldn’t have coped with anything smaller.”
Themes that can be observed through Marsh Mill Interior’s business decisions seem to be local and sustainable. The wood is sourced sustainably from local scaffolding firms, the marketing firm and the supplier of powdered coatings are Preston-based, and the tables allow businesses to meet carbon and environmental targets.
Further to this, at present, Marsh Mill Interiors currently employs eight members of staff. Leona tells me: “One of the things I’ve been most proud of is how my business was able to employ people who’d previously lost their jobs in other industries, through no fault of their own, just not able to remain open through the pandemic.
“This includes an 18 and a 19 year old, who might otherwise have struggled to find work or job experience in the current climate.”
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It’s hard to disagree with her; we might have taken for granted the long hours, poor pay and late nights trudging through Carlsberg soaked carpets working in pubs. It’s a privilege denied today’s youth, certainly until very recently as we’re only just seeing lockdown restrictions being lifted. Anyone trawling the Preston’s Buy and Sell pages will have come across parents outright pleading for work for their children; the claims of a lost generation really don’t seem so outlandish
Just then, Leona’s phone pings. “It’s a sale,” she tells me. “In London.” This week alone, Marsh Mill Interiors has shipped orders to Cardiff, Coventry, Leeds and London. Until recently, the only people I’d read about that had managed to thrive in the pandemic had been Jeff Bezos and an assortment of vampiric disaster capitalists. It’s refreshing to be able to write about a company that seems to be thriving while actively making the community a little better.
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What do you think of Leona’s success? Let us know in the comments.