Real. Leadership Founder Steve Charlton recently spoke to Stephen Johnson, Managing Director of Quooker “a kitchen revolution that is currently taking over the world!”

We first connected with Stephen when Quooker were included in The Sunday Times Best Places to Work 2023. These are the companies that are putting their staff well-being at the top of the agenda. We were intrigued to read, that as a company they provide daily free lunches from Deliveroo, have a casual dress code and pets are welcome in the office. Everyone gets their birthday off, paid, while team social events happen regularly, and the company offers a cycle-to-work scheme. This was obviously a company brave enough to do leadership in a different way.  Stephen was kind enough to give up his time to explain why creating a sustainable people-first culture is so important to him and what has driven him to challenge established ways of working.

This was a fascinating conversation and challenges many preconceptions you may have of building and running a successful business.

1 – Tell us about your leadership background, your upbringing experiences and influences?

I was fortunate to have a very privileged upbringing and educated at a boarding school in Yorkshire. But I must be honest, I am not an academic. I really struggled with the school curriculum, didn’t find it engaging and found learning difficult.

I see myself as fortunate because father had several businesses and my career path was essentially defined for me, pass or fail my exams. But he was also a tough taskmaster and a hard man to work for and try to emulate. Family businesses are exceptionally challenging environments, if you do well in those environments it’s assumed it’s because you’re the boss’s son. People think it’s easy, but it really isn’t!

For me, working with my father when I left school was an amazing opportunity. I feel that that was my schooling. I worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day engaged in the business, learning absolutely everything from manufacturing, stock control, accounting, marketing, retail sales, commercial sales. Those 25 years in my father’s business, have enabled me to get where I am today, and I remind myself of that journey every single day.  I take a lot of my learnings from that into our business today.

My father was a successful businessman floating one company and selling the other. Yet I always wondered whether I had the ability to develop something myself. Therefore, when we’d sold the company, I decided that I would go and look for a job. Could I build my own business from the ground up? Could I implement the many things I’ve learned from 25 years in a family business?

2 – How did your Quooker journey start?

I spent day and night scouring job sites and applied for hundreds of positions, I made so many applications and suffered rejection after rejection. Some companies didn’t even offer me the courtesy of a reply. Among those that did, the general feedback was having a CV working in your father’s business is no real proof of any capabilities. In addition, I had conducted so many interviews, but I’d never attended one. And it was an alarmingly difficult process, that I had not anticipated, and one that still lives with me today.

At that time, I made a promise to myself that if I made a success of my business, I would always consider any application, I would always seek to provide individuals, from any background or level of education, with an opportunity where they could learn a trade, just like the opportunity I had. I ensure that anyone who expresses an interest in a job will always receive a reply, and if they attend an interview and fail, we’ll always take the time to give them valuable feedback and an insight into why they were not successful. That, for me, is important. I know that if I hadn’t been given the opportunity I’d been given, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

After 4 or 5 interviews with Quooker, I eventually convinced them to give me the job in 2006. But it was effectively a start-up, a blank canvas. I was given a week’s training, a laptop and sent away to make Quooker UK a success.

In the first year, I worked alone, travelling the country, seeking to persuade kitchen dealers to stock and promote the products. I set myself a target and in my first year I sold 1000 Quookers. It was a very interesting first year and it made me reflect fondly on the experience I had in my father’s business. If you start a business, you start at the roots and work up which is exactly what I did, I didn’t take on any employees until 2008 and lots of dealers thought I’d lost my marbles!

Now we are in our 17th year of trading and employ over 150 people. We have over half a million taps installed in the UK. And every single year, we have shown an improvement on the last which is one of my proudest records at Quooker.

We’ve had incredible success with it in the UK, but a by-product of the invention is it is sustainable as well. Not only have we got something that saves people time, but it also actually saves people energy and water. As my journey with Quooker has evolved, the USPs with the products have evolved and as we now live in a more sustainable environment that people really value.

What I’ve done at Quooker is pick the good bits that I took from the family business and mixed in with some new ideas and things that I wanted to do. Business has obviously changed significantly since we sold our business in early 2000s to the present day. I think we’ve seen the most significant change in business not only in technology, but how you treat your staff and how you treat people generally. My father’s business was a serious place, a tough management style back in the days of double glazing and direct selling. That is the industry I grew up with, it was a tough commercial environment. You would wear shiny shoes, shirt and tie and always look presentable. There was always a competition who had the nicest suit, who looked the smartest, and it was all about selling. The environment was one of driving people to success…so culturally entirely different to the world that we now live in.

3 – What’s it like working at Quooker?

I always wondered that if you couple that amazing product with an absolute world class service, and then also looked after your staff in a way that perhaps other companies don’t look after them, would that make the business more successful?

I don’t accept mediocrity, and I won’t falter from this. We absolutely want to be best in class, and we see service as a key differentiator. That means that anybody who deals with me, any customer, any size, any scale, I want them to have the most pleasant experience with a Quooker that they can have.

Nobody pays for anything until they’re fitted and happy with it. My father taught me at a very early age that you’ll always find your business problems in the debtor’s book. He said if anybody’s unhappy with something they won’t pay. If you want to find areas in your business where you have problems, go and look through your debtor book and see who isn’t paying, and you’ll find your problem customers in there! To this day, I still manage our debtor book.

We define success in customer service as making sure there is an engineer at the customer’s door by the time the customer puts the phone down after telling us about a complaint. Again, we’re never going to achieve that but it’s an amazing focus.

Having world class service, where the customer is central also means having happy and motivated staff, that enjoy coming into work, understand their goals and objectives and aren’t managed by fear, or KPIs, but are treated as valued individuals with responsibilities.

I started to invest in my people in meaningful ways, be it from listening on a basic level, to providing them with all their food and nutrition during the day. If you work at Quooker, we will feed you and look after you because I see that as part of our responsibility.

We run free lunches for people in our business, they can go and order what you want, have what they want. But I want people to act as if it was their own money. So, if you are somebody at home that lives on beans and toast, then when you’re in my business, do what you would do at home. Sadly we’ve a couple of instances where people have taken advantage, for me that for was a difficult moment because I could have defaulted to behaving like a normal company, disciplining them and taking the privileges away? Or do I accept responsibility that these people haven’t been educated as well as you want them to be in your business, and you need to re-educate them on the values and meaning of our culture. So sometimes I’ve been challenged by my own ideas but ultimately, I’ve done what’s right to protect our amazing culture, not made knee-jerk reactions to individuals or short-term events.

4 – How you recruit people who are as passionate as you about the business?

I feel that through making Quooker a success, it can help to change the wider industry. I don’t need these other businesses to do what we do. Hopefully, they will look at what we do, and want to replicate, copy, imitate or try and do the good things that we do.

We invest heavily in industry bodies and we invest heavily in youth, I sell a sustainable product, but I want a sustainable industry, and I want young people to thrive in my business.

Ensuring we have diversity in the business is so important to me and fundamental to who I am as a leader now. If I look at my 150 staff, now, the average age is 30 and my youngest recruit is 16 years old. He’s an eighth-grade grammar school student who decided that he’d prefer to learn his trade in business, as opposed to university. Sitting next to him in my office is a 19-year-old who comes from a less advantaged background, who didn’t attend much school. But she’s been with us for 24 months and is doing exceptionally well.

It’s an interesting way that we work with youth in the business, but I suppose the reason I do it is because I feel that I was very fortunate, and I want to be able to offer others those opportunities.

5 – Have you found the balance between being an empathetic but results-focused leader? 

I must be honest and say I’m still learning about that. I’m pretty good at self-reflection. I’ll take time each day to reflect on my performance, whether it be in an interview or during staff reviews. I always consider how I managed a situation? Could I have done anything better? I always look back and consider whether I have the right skillset to be effective?

The biggest challenge is whether we can continue to run a company of this size, that is growing rapidly, in the way that we were in the early days? I think I can achieve it.

So it’s important that I’m not derailed from my ambition. I’ve got proof that making sure your staff are happy and motivated ensures your business in more successful. What we must do is educate the staff to understand the environment and understand what we’re trying to achieve. But it’s difficult. And at some points, I think it would be easier to be a little tougher, but I really don’t want to do that I don’t feel comfortable doing it.  I want to stick to my plan and reconcile that in my head that if along the way, I meet some people that can’t work with that, then we part company, and I continue on my journey.

6 – What’s next, what’s your legacy?

As I reach the age of 54, my next in command is only 28. He’s been with me for 11 years and  I’m very focused on succession. Making sure that when my time is up at Quooker, that I leave an amazing business that carries on trading in the way it has, continuing our philosophies, values, culture and ambitions.

But I live in a fear of failure. I look at teams like Man United or the Mercedes Formula One team. Both of those sports entities were successful for 20 years, but they took their eye off the ball and they allowed their successes to go to their head. They didn’t continue with the formula that got them where they were. And I think that they are culpable for their own failure because they didn’t invest and became too comfortable. I look at the Mercedes Formula One who have produced two years of poor cars. For me that’s a failing in the business. And I’ve yet to see success continued over generations.

What I’m trying to build is something that’s not cyclical. Whether I achieve it or not will be determined by the people that I leave behind. But that is what I’m working to as well as ensuring that we achieve our business goals. For me, if I achieve that, then I will say I have been successful. Growing a business from a start-up to leaving it in a way that it’s going to continue growing sustainably.

7 – What are you most proud of as a successful leader?

We look after the mental health and well-being of 150 people. They’re all at different stages in life, they all have different life challenges. And all those life challenges will affect them in their workplace. If somebody is in a difficult home environment, and they come into work, they are not going to feel as good as they would if their home environment was perfect.

With hybrid working and a growing team, it’s very difficult to determine work ethic, who’s doing what, who feels good, who feels bad. I look at my team and worry about their  mindset, their mood, how they feel, are they motivated? A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet a sports psychologist who works with some Premier League teams, he spoke to me about working with the people in my business to develop culture and well-being. How he could work with my team to ensure that when they turn up for work, they are fit and well and ready to perform like sportspeople. It’s been invaluable as the staff have free access to him and can talk to him about any issues they have. I also have access to him and find it exceptionally valuable.

To employ the amount of people that we do and have them happy, motivated, and determined is an achievement I’m proud of and one that I think massively contributes to our company’s success.

8 – What is the one leadership lesson you would want to share?

Value your employees and learn from your employees, they are your most valuable asset. This business now is all about people and culture. Every year we’ve grown the business, every day we try to do better than yesterday.

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