Christine has a burning ambition

Christine Mavin has transformed Plaster Piece from a loss-making shop into a market leader in fireplace retail.

Christine Mavin has transformed Plaster Piece from a loss-making shop into a market leader in fireplace retail. Rebekah Ashby found things hotting up when she met the current North-East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.

Well one thing's for sure, Christine Mavin's workforce will never complain about being cold.

When I go along to meet her at Plaster Piece's South Shields branch I'm given a tour of the showroom which contains an array of designer, contemporary, traditional, stone and flueless fireplaces - and most of them are turned on!

Not too much of a problem in March, but I can only begin to imagine how warm things get during the summer.

Over the course of our lively two-hour chat, I quickly realise that things are hotting up at this fast-expanding fireplace retailer in more ways than one.

In June managing director Mavin, who was named North-East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year at the end of last year, got a phone call which would diversify her retail business - which operates out of five showrooms around the North-East - into manufacturing.

She says: "Plaster Piece is a large dealer in Goppa (correct) fireplaces and we were their largest customer in the UK.

"I got a phone call from someone in the industry to say they had been put into administration and I thought `oh my goodness, what are we going to do and where are we going to get our fireplaces now?'

"So my partner said `well, why don't you go and have a look at it?'. This was on the Friday at 5pm and we travelled down on the Monday to view it."

Just seven days later the 35-year-old was the proud owner of Goppa Fireplaces Limited in Flintshire, Wales, and would spend the following nine months living in the Holiday Inn for four days out of seven.

She says: "I have only just bought a house down there and it's a bit of a relief, I have to say. I drive down at 4.30am on a Monday morning to get there for 9am and stay until Wednesday afternoon, so I spend three full days at the factory in Wales and the best retail days - Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday - here.

"Now, for the first time, I don't have to pack a suitcase when I go down there so it's going to make things a lot easier."

The Newcastle University engineering graduate says: "I thought about how I could turn it around and whether I could make it successful again and I hoped very much I could.

"It used to employ 100 people and when I bought it there was about 50 left because the administrator had already made redundancies. I took about 26 back on and I found holding those interviews the most difficult thing I have ever had to do.

"A lot of people had worked there for almost 20 years so to have to pick and choose who I wanted to keep was really hard.

"But I knew things must be scaled back and I knew I couldn't have one person for each job, so I had to take people on who would be flexible and muck in."

At first Mavin spent a lot of time on the factory floor, pitching in and trying to learn about the business. She has invested £1m rebuilding the plant, redrawing work practices and rebuilding its export sales.

"It had cashflow problems and had experienced a drop in export sales and when they needed to downsize - they didn't," she explains.

The former pub manager says that, with a lot of hard work, she hopes to take Goppa back to its glory days.

Revenues had been built to £2m within six months of rescuing it and she hopes to reach the former turnover of £5m quickly.

She's pushing hard on the export front. A former Goppa director has stayed on and moved to France to help win business there and Mavin is looking forward to the first container-load of products heading over to Russia shortly. Moving into manufacturing has presented her with an interesting dynamic because she now visits rival fireplace retailers across the UK to sell them her fireplaces.

She says: "I have been into other people's showrooms, which was a bit strange at first, but if another retailer has a problem with one of your products then you are more sympathetic.

"I like to think I am quite a considerate manufacturer as a result.

"It's very difficult to make a decision about whether you are going to go through with something as big as buying a failed manufacturer in 48 hours but nine months down the line I know I have done the right thing."

The business today is a far cry from the Plaster Piece she took over nine years ago - a shop in Wallsend, North Tyneside, with debts of around £200,000.

She has since grown it into a chain of five showrooms in North Shields, Wallsend, Ashington, Stockton and South Shields, which sell fireplaces with prices ranging from £99 up to £10,000.

She says: "I was working as an assistant pub manager, moving around Northumberland doing relief work, when I met my partner Chris [Ferry].

"He had set-up Plaster Piece and had one little shop in Wallsend that wasn't doing very well. When he started it off he had always done property development and he really didn't like it, so I took it on.

"I wasn't sure I would actually like it myself because I'm quite a social person and thought it would be rather tedious and dull if I'm honest."

But she put new procedures, such as tighter stock control, in place and went through the business with a fine-tooth comb.

It took Mavin, who was educated at John Spence Community High School in North Shields and was then just 26-years-old, around 12 to 18 months to get the business back into the black.

"We were operating with maximum overdraft but you just keep going and keep going. I was so focused on getting to the end goal of getting money into bank that looking back I can't possibly have spent any time thinking about what I was taking on, I just got on with it."

As soon as there was that all-important money in the bank, Mavin moved Plaster Piece from Wallsend High Street, into premises five times the size in a former cinema on Station Road, Wallsend.

Just 12 months later she opened a second showroom on another Station Road, this time in Ashington, Northumberland.

"In hindsight it was probably a bit quick to open another outlet but I got on that roll and just kept going," she says.

"It was a lot smaller, but I decided there were no other fireplace retailers in the Northumberland-ish area so we went for it."

Two years later and Mavin was taking over the former Radiant Fireplaces plant on Shaftsbury Avenue, South Shields.

"I had shoved the property details under my bed and didn't consider it," she says.

"But a year later I had a clear-out and found them and remarkably it was still on the market - within a week we had decided to buy it."

An increase in sales at the stores, including one at Portrack Lane in Stockton, which opened in April 2006, has led the company to build a £750,000 20,000sqft distribution centre next door to the showroom in South Shields.

She says: "We have outgrown the site where the warehouse is in Wallsend.

"It was OK when we were smaller but it's in a residential area and decided that really we need a distribution centre that we can control from one place."

Mavin has certainly got her hands full and often works seven days a week, but admits that since taking on the manufacturing business that she has been forced to delegate more.

She says she has "really amazing staff" whose dedication has helped her grow the business at a fairly relentless pace.

"When we first open a new shop I base myself there," she says. I try and spread myself between the five branches but give my time to shops if I feel they need a bit of extra attention.

"I serve in one of the shops every Saturday and I must admit I still get a buzz out of selling.

"I think I must look really young because people still come into the showrooms and ask me if they can speak to the boss.

"I'm obviously the managing director but I think people expect it to be a man and the fireplace industry is certainly very male dominated.

"Chris is in property so he finds the next store for us and decides where we are going to expand into.

"We put our heads together and decide on the design of the showrooms and then he fits it out to the specifications and hands me the keys. It works quite well."

Mavin punching above her weight in a man's world - she is probably the only woman in fireplace manufacture in the UK - was part of what impressed the judging panel and led them to award her the North-East Woman Entrepreneur Award in November.

She said: "It was absolutely amazing to win. I had entered so many times and never won but like everything else, if you want it badly enough and keep plugging away at it, it will happen."

She is clearly always thinking in terms of the next store and is toying with the idea of opening a national franchise, but insists that now is the time for taking stock and consolidating what's she's got.

Thank goodness for that, I'm exhausted just listening to her.

The questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Black Mercedes.

What's your favourite restaurant?

I love Indian food, so the Rumana in Newcastle.

Who or what makes you laugh?

We have a laugh at work, usually at silly things.

What's your favourite book?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

What's your favourite film?

The Grinch/Forest Gump.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?

To run a busy hotel.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?

Would you like to buy a fireplace?

What's your greatest fear?

Giant man-eating spiders.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Never be complacent.

And the worst?

Putting something off until later.

What's your poison (alcohol)?

WKD or wine.

Apart from The Journal, which newspaper do you read?

Evening Chronicle.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

£35/week for putting the jelly in pork pies.

How do you keep fit?

Running around the factory floor.

What's your most irritating habit?

People at work say there are too many to mention.

What's your biggest extravagance?

Shopping, shopping and, if time, more shopping.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Sir Alan Sugar, Gordon Ramsay, ET and Peter Kay.

How would you like to be remembered?

Energetic, full of life a good friend and mum.

CV

Age - 35

Status: Partner

Children: One

School - John Spence Community High - (1982- 1987)

Tynemouth College A-levels (1987 - 1990)

Newcastle University, Engineering Degree - (1991- 1994)

Pub Management (1994-1998)

Managing Director Plaster Piece Ltd (1998 - Present)

Managing Director Goppa Fireplaces Ltd - (2006 - Present)

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer