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‘I put my heart and soul into the business’

Inside Track: Robin Maharaj, founder, Kilkenny Architectural Salvage & Antiques by Ruth O’Connor

Kilkenny Architectural Salvage & Antiques was established on the outskirts of Kilkenny city in 1998. The business specialises in architectural salvage, sourcing antiques and artefacts in Ireland, the US, Europe and Asia, which are sold to builders, architects and designers, as well as to homeowners and garden enthusiasts.

What sets your business apart from the others?

The main thing that sets us apart from our competitors is our huge product range – 99 per cent of the time we have what someone is looking for. The warehouse area is about 8,000sq ft.

The outside area is 100,000sq ft. We have both new and old products – both antiques and reproductions. I am passionate about the business, and about reusing and recycling and have been for many years. We definitely have a low carbon footprint here.

We carry a huge range of products and to cater for our customers, whether they are building a modern home or refurbishing a period property. We are also involved in the commercial sector and supply restaurants, hotels, pubs, etc, and we work with landscapers and garden enthusiasts.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

Know your product inside-out and have complete confidence in it.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?

Not embracing social media sooner. We now have a presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, and will shortly be updating our website. We’ve seen a huge increase in business because of social media.

We always had a website but the social media focus has only been in the past six months. My grown-up children have pushed me into it and shown me the potential that’s there.

What has been your major success to date?

This month we celebrate 20 years in business. I believe our ability to adapt to the changing economic climate and to our customers’ needs have given us a solid footing. We try to expand our product range and remain competitive at all times, which gains us a lot of repeat business.

We’ve always been very involved with our staff and fought hard to keep them during the recession.

Who do you most admire in business and why?

My friend John Dixon of Georgian Antiques in Edinburgh. He runs one of the most successful antiques businesses in the UK and, on my many visits, I’ve been impressed by his professionalism, the quality of his product and the service provided to his customers. He has been a major guiding force. The way he runs his operation is amazing.

In your experience in the downturn, are the banks open for business?

You’ll always have to go to the banks for finance as you’re always working in overdraft if you’re in the buying market. Most of our assets are in our stock, so inevitably you need cash to buy stock. We have a good relationship with the bank. However, from speaking to other business people, banks seem to have gone from one extreme of loose lending to the other extreme of lending very little to SMEs.

The money seems to be in Dublin and the banks seem to be slow to lend down the country. It’s evident in the number of shops that are still closed in Kilkenny – and Kilkenny is a boom town. Banks are lending but you have to jump through hoops, particularly down the country.

What one piece of advice would you give Government to stimulate the economy?

I think they need to support the SME market more. It represents over 90 per cent of business in the Republic. If each of these businesses could employ even one extra person, it would have a dramatic effect on the economy and on local communities.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in business?

The financial crash obviously had a big effect. There are other challenges, such as the rising cost of insurance premiums, business rates, and so on. It’s difficult to get an insurance quote for our type of business and that’s a problem, because no insurance means no business.

These are hidden costs that the customer doesn’t see. Insurance companies seem to pick premiums out of their heads and that is not supporting local businesses.

How do you see the short-term future of your business?

We’ve never looked at the short term. I buy stock today that I mightn’t sell for two years, so it’s important that I don’t need to sell any particular item on any particular day and that I’m not forcing stuff in and out the door. It’s a longer term view. You have to have confidence in the long term.

What would you say your business is worth and would you sell it?

I can’t be in the buy-and-sell business and not say that everything has a price, but, like most self-employed people, I put my heart and soul into the business. I can’t see myself selling it in the near future so I won’t put a figure on it.