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Unprecedented with Rekha Dhokia

Published 3rd May 2021

At Unprecedented, we spoke to Rekha Dhokia, Finance Director at Hammonds Furniture Limited, who told us about how she juggled work, her studies and her family to get to where she is today, and how Hammonds Furniture Limited has dealt with the lockdowns.

A background into you and your business? 

I was born in India but spent most of my life living in Dubai after my family moved there when I was four years old. I came to England in 2003 at the age of twenty one after meeting my husband.

I had known from an early age that I wanted to be independent and have a career unlike many female members of my family. Numbers had always interested me and so a career in accountancy seemed an obvious choice.

Within a week of arriving in the UK, I started job hunting via recruitment agencies. Almost immediately it seemed evident that although I could speak fluent English, my accent was proving to be a barrier. Although I didn’t show it, regional accents were difficult for me to understand but I overcame them unlike others that didn’t accept my accent.

Undeterred, I continued, and my first job in this country was a clerical role opening post and filing invoices into alphabetical order. I literally did start at the bottom and worked my way up!

I continued to take on different jobs within accounts departments and started studying for my ACCA. I was determined to only sit these exams once and pass the course with ‘A’s as I didn’t have the time nor the money to do the course twice. Being married meant that I had family obligations and often I found it challenging to maintain the balance between being a wife, daughter-in-law and having a career. Whilst studying, my day started at 4am to study for a few hours until I had to leave for work. Upon returning, I would find a few more hours in the evening to study some more. Things we often take for granted like going to the gym or a social life never even crossed my mind and were an alien concept - I was determined to reach my goals and knew that the long journey would be worth it. It never occurred to me that I was making sacrifices, I was just grateful that I had the opportunity to study towards a qualification.

I kept moving through different roles and worked my way through my ACCA. By the time I passed my exams (all first time!), I was working as a finance analyst and had earned the respect of the managers and colleagues which being a young, Asian, female immigrant was extremely difficult at times.

Through the years, I kept pursuing more challenging roles and never shied away when an opportunity presented itself. I had gained confidence and this spurred me on to approach my managers and put myself forward.

I now work as the Finance Director of Hammonds Furniture Limited, a retailer and manufacturer of fitted furniture who operate throughout the United Kingdom. We design and manufacture our own furniture at our factories in Hinckley and employ 700 employees. Sales are mainly generated from our network of sixty plus showrooms as well as online. We offer kitchens, bedrooms and home studies with designs ranging from classic to contemporary all made to the customers exact requirements.

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

Leadership is about taking control, guiding and nurturing. Leadership is required when there is an objective or goal to achieve. It could be as simple as going from A to B, within a certain time frame and that’s why taking control matters. A good leader is one who understands the goal that needs to be achieved and guides their team towards it, which of course means that communication is key.

Who are your Leadership role models/inspirations?

Leadership to me is very personal. I have had some great managers who have inspired me to succeed and achieve my ambition. I have learnt something valuable from each and every one of them whether it’s how to do something or how not to do something.

On a wider level, I find business founders and leaders like Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson etc, very motivating and inspiring. Their determination and perseverance makes me believe that anything is possible if you are willing to see it through.

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be?

I want people to miss my energy, clarity, humbleness and caring attitude. I still get messages from my previous staff members saying how they miss working for me and some even say that I have been the best boss they have ever had. I respect every individual and always give everyone the benefit of doubt.

What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?

I believe in honesty and integrity. I live by honesty and integrity and expect others to do the same.

What impact has Covid-19 had on you?

Although I have been very busy over the last year and have hardly had any time off, I have been able to spend more time with my family. Spending so much more time at home has made the relationship I have with my two young children even stronger. I now strongly feel that to show my commitment to my job, I don’t have to work long hours within the confines of an office in the workplace. Infact, I feel that I have more sense of satisfaction and productivity working from home 

Like everyone else, our shopping habits have changed, we value our family time and there is more focus on physical wellbeing. We are more involved with our children’s schoolwork which can be painful but helps in bonding with them.

What impact has covid had on your business?

We are a retail and manufacturing business and thus were severely impacted during the first lockdown. We were fitting 500 rooms per week on average and operated on a very tight timeframe of manufacturing 8 to 10 days before installation. All our operations came to a halt when the lockdown was announced. Our stores and factories were closed and we had to cancel all our design and installation appointments. We placed over 800 staff on furlough with only a handful of us working in order to deal with admin and monitor the situation as it evolved. We lost 10 weeks of revenue, which was a huge blow to the business.

I was responsible to make sure everyone gets paid on time and the company is able to manage within its current cash reserves with no money coming in. I was monitoring every single penny going out of the business.We were quick to communicate with all relevant stakeholders and ask for any support they can offer. I am also thankful for the furlough scheme which made my job easier as I knew our employees were getting paid.

After the first few days of lockdown whilst all our operations were suspended, we explored the idea of virtual sales appointments in order to keep some sort of presence in the market. To our amazement, there was a demand for it and we managed to sell over £2m through this period.

Our business adapted to the “new world” and we started reviewing and changing our operations and processes. All of this was done with an objective to achieve our growth plan and to not let covid disrupt it.

A year on since the outbreak of covid, our business is stronger, leaner and one step closer to our growth plan.

Where were you and what were you doing when you first realised that Covid-19 was very serious?

It was mid-Feb when everyone was talking about covid and that’s when I came to realise this could be serious. After a strong January sales campaign, 2020 was looking like it would be a great year but all of a sudden... I was like arggh! This might not look pretty.

Are there any people within your support network who made a big positive impact on you as a Business Leader during those early weeks/months?

I felt the whole business community come together in ways I hadn’t seen before. I made more connections last year than I had when there were no social restrictions. There were forums facilitated by recruitment agencies and professional services firms that really helped me to get through the first few weeks.  

Internally, our board of directors met virtually on a weekly basis which helped us to deal with the pandemic and offered support to one another regardless of our roles and responsibility.

What was your internal comms strategy at the start of lockdown? Has that changed in Lockdown 3.0?

At the start of the first lockdown, it was just the case of following government guidelines i.e we had to shut down and would keep everyone updated as and when we know more. There was an important element of information with regards to individual’s pay which needed to be communicated. Therefore the initial strategy revolved around this key communication.

Lockdown 2 was very different from the first one where we were allowed to carry on with inhouse services and thus production and installation would continue as normal. At this point we had some departments still on furlough, some departments working from home and some working at the premises. Our communication strategy now became specific to the different groups of people and the same carried on with lockdown 3.

What have been the Unprecedented decisions you have made? Those where there was no playbook.

I had to make some very difficult decisions through this time in order to protect the company’s future which all mainly relates to how I handled cash!

As board of directors we made the unprecedented decision to shut our stores prior to the lockdown announcement, which was pretty scary but required in order to minimise the impact of pandemic.

The word pivot was used unprecedently in May/June. What have you done to innovate or differentiate you or your business?

We developed a virtual appointment system within days of the first lockdown coming into place, which helped us to remain in the market whilst everything was shut. We also re engineered our call centres and customer services to make them future proof. Our marketing strategy has also changed extensively to suit the current demand and consumer behaviours. All of these changes allowed us to protect the company and also take advantage of the pent up demand that we are seeing since the end of last year in the home improvement sector.

What were the 3 biggest (or best) decisions you made in 2020?

  1. Shutting down the stores

  2. Protecting cash

  3. Restructuring

What remain your 3 biggest challenges?

  1. Consumer confidence

  2. Growth

  3. People

Looking ahead to 2021 what are your predictions for the economy? For your sector?

I think things will slow down in the home improvement sector as soon as restrictions start to ease off. Consumers will have more options on where to spend their cash, which is likely to go towards things that they have missed, like holidays and social events. Although this will largely depend on consumer confidence and also how the rest of the world is recovering from covid.

With the high demand we are seeing in our sector, supply chain will become more challenging and could result in increased cost of production and businesses should be quick to identify these issues and to act upon them.

At the beginning of 2020, we were in a talent short market. What is at the top of your "people strategy" agenda for 2021?

The key to our success is people. For 2021, we are focusing more than ever on recruiting people with the right skill set and our ability to retain them.

Fast forward to 2050 ... What would you say to your future self… That you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from?

I kept the faith and carried on working, thinking this phase would pass. I went back to basics with things like preserving cash (cash is king), ensuring we follow our 5-year plan and clear communication. I would say the same to my future self that keep faith and carry on. In terms of things that I did badly, I would say I needed to slow down, listen more and perhaps let others speak at times!

As a Leadership Team, how have you re-defined your vision and values? What have you done to make your culture remote-work friendly?

We are in the process of redefining our vision and values to reflect the new way of working, which is still evolving in my opinion. Our strategy around remote work will need to keep in mind that we have departments that can only work on site and others who can work remotely.

The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own priorities and goals.

My priorities and goals have remained the same, but I would like to accelerate my plans to achieve these. I feel like just the way businesses are looking to future proof we also need to do the same. There is no time to waste. 

If you have enjoyed Rekha’s blog, then why not connect with her on LinkedIn. Alternatively, to learn more about Hammonds Furniture Limited, visit their website or LinkedIn page. 

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