The Vietnamese Hallmark of Quality
Jonathan Charles Fine Furniture has built a reputation for blending modernity with craftsmanship from its highly specialised facility in Vietnam, the passion of its people a defining factor in its ongoing success story
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Kyle Livingstone
When Jonathan Sowter discovered the world of furniture making during woodwork classes at high school, little did he know that his company would be crafting a dining table worth $240,000 from a facility in Vietnam.
Fast-forward to the present day, and this is exactly what has happened. Sowter is the Founder and CEO of Jonathan Charles Fine Furniture, a specialist designer and manufacturer of the highest-quality European antique replicas and in-house unique pieces.
One of which was an extraordinary dining table for a client in the Middle East, this single item the perfect demonstration of what the company represents – the finest craftsmanship money can buy in the world of furniture making.
But how did a British high school student end up running his own business based out of Vietnam?
It is a fascinating story, one driven by a desire to combine practical skills with a flair for design – in short, to provide an alternative to the mass-produced mainstream.
“My mother was an interior designer, and I have always enjoyed making things and am intrigued by craftsmanship and materials,” Sowter says.
“I realised when I was about 12 or 13 that this was what I wanted to do, so I left school to join a furniture company at 16 and have been in this industry ever since, barring two years when, ironically, I taught woodwork in between jobs.
“By the time I got to 21 I knew I was a good craftsman making high-end furniture, but what I was making was, albeit well-made, ugly. It dawned on me that I wanted to both design and make furniture, so I went to university as a mature student and enrolled on the best course available at the time.”
Sowter was soon headhunted by Paul Maitland-Smith to start up a furniture factory in the Indian state of Rajasthan, the business moving to Vietnam two years later where he has lived ever since.
“When Paul decided to sell the company, I decided to do something for myself and started Johnathan Charles in 2004,” Sowter recalls.
“I sold my house in the UK, paid off my student debt and invested in some machines and 10 workers. My expectation was to grow to something like 100 employees and make a nice living producing quality furniture for a handful of clients.”
Diversified and personalised
The company enjoyed almost immediate success in remarkable fashion. Within three years the enterprise had swelled to 1,400 people in order to fulfil demand streaming out of the United States for quality, crafted furniture.
But what defines the company today arguably emerged out of a period of crisis.
In 2008-2009, the global financial crash threatened to decimate business for Sowter, who immediately set about diversifying the business’s income streams and opening up Jonathan Charles to new markets and opportunities.
“Everything fell into place for us in America to begin with, including my English accent and ponytail,” Sowter quips. “But the crash showed we were relying on one market far too heavily, and that I wasn’t sticking to my original business plan to spread risk.
“This prompted us to focus extremely hard on finding new markets, and today we sell tailored, market researched products in 52 different countries and employ over 1,700 people. We have done our homework on each country, and that has been the key to our success internationally.”
The company also took the decision to streamline its vast portfolio from near 6,000 at peak to around 2,000 pieces which make up its catalogues today, ranging from beds, cabinets and chairs to mirrors, tables and sideboards, exemplary quality furniture which is typically sold to high-end retailers, interior designers and hotel brands such as Ritz-Carlton.
There is, however, one underlying foundation that has remained steadfastly the same throughout Jonathan Charles’s busy and expansive journey.
It operates out of a single location with four specialised buildings in Binh Duong Province, the industrial zone just outside of Ho Chi Minh City – this is a vital detail, for it enables the firm to control and produce every element of every piece of furniture.
Such is the comprehensive, trusted reputation earned by this exacting attention to detail, Jonathan Charles also serves as a hardware maker for other furniture companies and acts as an OEM for other brands such as Ralph Lauren.
“We don’t compromise on quality and offer a personal touch with our customer service,” Sowter says. “The fact I am a designer and also the CEO helps in this regard – I can walk onto the factory floor and start making things if I wanted to.
“I understand the nuts and bolts of the factory floor and have engrained into me the high-end perfectionist of a craftsman, and it didn’t take long to realise that the secret to our success was that attention to detail.
“The daily challenge of trying to get the traditional craftsmanship onto modern furniture is a great one for a designer and is what I live for. Jonathan Charles is known for being a master of the traditional, but what we are pushing for now is to blend with the modern, reflected by the fact we now have two catalogues of products of equal size.
“I am definitely a products man and each design I treat as one of my babies – the business side of things is where I really rely on my team to be smarter than me.”
As well as business-savvy senior management, Sowter is also able to rely on his 1,700-strong team of highly skilled, passionate craftsmen and women who go the extra mile to deliver a perfect product.
The CEO further points to how his team are extremely loyal, many having been with the firm for several years, benefitting from extensive training and development opportunities.
“We do hire some expats for technical expertise, but I prefer to train our craftspeople from scratch,” Sowter continues. “If they have experience in another factory, then those ways of working act like muscle memory, which is not what we are looking for.
“We invest heavily in upskilling our people into well-paid, quality craftspeople, who are without doubt the reason we are so successful. We are blessed with a proud workforce who put everything into the final 10 percent, which are the hardest yards to make.
“The Vietnamese people have been and are amazing, and I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for their dedication and passion.”
Such an emphasis on quality craftsmanship, the Vietnamese hallmark, has proven a massive hit in China.
Now the second largest market for Jonathan Charles and responsible for around 20 percent of revenue (the US accounts for 30 percent), Chinese buyers are increasingly looking to source finer pieces of furniture for their residencies, hotels, restaurants and other establishments.
In 2018, Sowter made the momentous decision to welcome leading furniture retailer Markor into the company as a shareholder, a move which the CEO believes will propel the country into the firm’s number one market in years to come.
“Markor is the king of furniture in China and was the first such company to list on the Shanghai Stock Exchange,” he adds. “They approached me because they wanted to have a higher-end brand in their portfolio, and I in turn was looking to find a serious foothold into the Chinese market.
“The plan is to open 100 Jonathan Charles stores within five years, which is a massive opportunity. The room to grow here is enormous, and Markor is the perfect partner to make this happen. I have seen a lot of stores in a lot of countries, but Markor outlets are something else entirely – they are on a new level.”
Sowter admits that the prospect of 100 Jonathan Charles stores in China will bring enormous pressure to deliver, but he signs off the conversation in confident fashion, reiterating that the one constant throughout this company’s journey to date will remain the same.
“We are and will remain proudly made in Vietnam,” he says. “That attention to detail, drive for perfection is our secret sauce and we will never compromise on that.”