My business story…Montpellier Marble
Eve Iravani shares the story behind Montpellier Marble, a company specialising in handcrafted marble and stone fireplaces.
Tell us the Montpellier story…
My husband Michael and I are both half Iranian but both educated in the UK from an early age, and we returned to live in Iran during the early 1990s. While we were there, we discovered just how beautiful Persian marble and granite is, and people told us that it’s favoured all over the world.
Purely out of interest, we visited a couple of quarries and fell in love with the stunning Persian rock, thinking ‘maybe we can start exporting it’ as finished products and made some initial fireplace prototypes.
Shortly after this, we moved back to the UK as our children were starting school, and having enjoyed being a full-time mum for a few years I wanted to get back into working. As we had always been involved in running our own businesses, we saw a new opportunity, so we decided to turn our passion for marble into a business.
At that time marble fireplaces were largely of the reproduction type and antique designs – the sort you found in period properties. We saw a gap in the market for more “user friendly” marble fireplaces in modern homes.
How long have you been running Montpellier?
Montpellier was formed in 1997.
Have you run any previous businesses?
Michael and I moved to Marbella in Spain when I was 23, just after we had got married. At the time we were living in a development with other ex-pats, and we noticed that that many people were living in luxury villas and apartments but did not have telephone lines. Fax machines were also coming onto the market at the time.
So we saw this as an opportunity and created a business centre where people visiting the coast could still stay in touch with their businesses using our services which also included translations, secretarial services and photocopying in an “office away from the office” concept.
Eventually we added a print shop, and branched into graphic design and advertising. We did well for a few years but then we started to encounter difficulties when the recession hit in Spain in 1992. At this point we decided to move to Iran like other returning family members post-revolution to reclaim homes and businesses. We sold our business and started a new chapter.
What was your first job?
When I was 15, I took a summer job temping at an oil company. It was a clerical job and very boring, but I carried on doing similar work after I left school, although I couldn’t see a career path. Later, I quit my job and chased my then-boyfriend to Colorado – I wouldn’t recommend doing this to anyone! But my gamble paid off and we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this year. While we were living in the States, and largely encouraged by Michael, I decided to apply to university and a few years later graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Economics.
What motivated you to start the business?
When we moved back to the UK after living in Iran, I wanted to get back into work but didn’t know what I could do. It’s extremely difficult to work for someone else once you’ve run your own company, and all the while I was looking at different jobs, something kept telling me ‘no’. So that’s when we started Montpellier. Running your own business means that you are the architect of your own destiny. You don’t have to plug into someone else’s system.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
We were very lucky to have an investor within the family who gave us a start-up loan.
What was the biggest hurdle in the early days?
As we were the new kids on the block, we didn’t really know what we were doing, and we found it difficult competing with the designs of industry-established companies. Our surrounds are carved in Iran, where traditionally they would be quite elaborate, featuring intricate carvings of eagles and lions – so we had to work with the stone masons to come up with designs more suited to European tastes.
When we did our first trade show in 1998, we were still a tiny company with only three fireplace designs which were very niche as the back panel and hearth matched the surround – something no one else was really doing at the time. A turning point came when we won an award for one of our early designs, the first of several, and we really started to capture people’s attention. It propelled us forward.
What is the hardest part of running a business?
Having to make it happen every day. Nobody is doing that for you and there is no handbook. You can’t wing it when you’re running a company, you have to prepare for and anticipate different outcomes and scenarios. When you’ve got employees who look up to you for leadership, you have to set the course, articulate your vision, and take command – like the skipper on a ship. Even on days when everything is unravelling you have to keep a poker face and stay strong and resolute.
Who or what has been your biggest influence?
I have so many influences as I love so many different things in art, architecture and design. We get a lot of inspiration for our fireplace designs from the places we travel to. I also admire many women in business.
I remember a particular moment that really inspired me to return to business after we moved back to the UK. I found myself reading an article about Katharine Graham, whose husband had run The Washington Post. This was the newspaper which broke the Watergate scandal. Shortly after the scandal, her husband died, and she had to make the transition from homemaker and stay-at-home mum to running the business, without the presence or support of her husband. It was such an inspiration at a time when I needed it. I thought ‘if you have determination, you can do anything’.
How important is customer service to your business?
Customer service is huge. I travel up and down the country to meet and visit our Montpellier stockists and customers – probably more than is necessary – but it’s the aspect of my job I enjoy the most. Nothing beats a face to face meeting and the personal touch. As I’m out of the office for days at a time, having someone to help with answering the phones means we can still provide a seamless and personal service.
Best business move?
We didn’t sell a single fireplace in the first year, although we spent a great deal promoting our brand. We took our time with our approach and visited showrooms and manufacturers, and it gave us a really good understanding of how the industry works. It was the best decision we could have made.
Worst business move?
Retail is very tough. We opened and ran our own showrooms for many years, but we bit off more than we could chew. So we’ve decided to close our retail showrooms, revert back to our core business and do what we do best, which is manufacturing and selling to the trade.
What is your plan for the next few years?
As we’ve stripped the company right back down to the original core business, streamlining the business means we have freed both time and funds to relaunch and revitalise it and hopefully emerge stronger. It has been a good decision so far, and has taken a great deal of pressure off, allowing us to focus on what we do best.
If you did it again, what would you do differently?
Find one thing you do well, and then do it exceptionally well. Diversifying is tempting but can mean you spread your resources too thin and it can prove a distraction leading you to take your eye off the ball.
What piece of advice would you give to a start-up?
I am a mentor at The Growth Hub in Gloucestershire. I find my chequered experience is actually of some use to people starting new businesses! One of the best lessons I’ve learnt is: watch your overheads – margin is everything, and it is too easily eroded if overheads spiral out of control.
Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t running Montpellier, I would be…
Carry on with mentoring. Or be an angel investor. I find helping other people get going with their journeys is immensely rewarding and it is a way of showing how grateful I am for the opportunities I have enjoyed.