Q&A: Crafting a future from the past

This week ISB chats to Simon Brown, managing director of furniture maker TH Brown. The company was an iconic brand in the mid-20th century, renowned for its modernist designs that became a favourite of vintage furniture collectors. Simon, the third generation of his family to run the business, gave up a career in IT that saw him fill senior roles for the likes of IBM to resurrect the family business founded by Thomas Howard Brown in 1911.

ISB: How much was the recognition of your father’s legacy a driver for the brand’s relaunch?

SB: My father, Peter F Brown would have to be the last “unsung design hero” of mid-century modern furniture design. In addition to his designs, my father was most famous at the time for his innovations in furniture manufacturing, production and use of new materials and techniques such as moulded foam, bent timber, and the use of the world’s most advanced production equipment.

When I was looking to re-establish the TH Brown brand it became clear that my father had designed a wide portfolio of iconic and highly collectible pieces yet no one knew his name – just that of TH Brown as a company. Dad passed away in 2012 at 87 years of age, and I felt that it was time to proudly celebrate his impact on this wonderful Australian furniture design era.

ISB: How did you manage making such a major career change at such a point in your life?

SB: After 35+ years in the IT sector it was time to focus on quality of life. I am fortunate to have had such a rich heritage, so it was a natural act to return to “the family business”. With over 108 years of TH Brown history behind me the chance to re-launch the brand was breath of fresh air for me.

The chance to largely work from home and set my own priorities at my own pace was a release that has greatly enhanced my “mojo” and unlocked my creative spirit. The IT sector had been very fruitful and exciting for me, but no longer provided me with passion.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge of making the transition to such a different industry?

SB: The skills I acquired in IT sector were fully transferable and the back-office technology needed to run a business was also familiar to me. What has been challenging has been coming up to speed with the current furniture market and retail models. Fortunately, they aren’t that different to when I worked in sales at TH Brown in the 1970’s. It’s still about margin, brand awareness, marketing and, more recently, social media. I have discovered just how enduring the TH Brown Brand remains even though it hadn’t been used in over 30 years – it’s a source of great pride to me and my extended family.

ISB: Do you have any tips you can share on working with family members?

SB: Create boundaries – set times which are specifically for talking shop otherwise it will take over your relationship. Remember, you’re life partners first, business partners second. As wife Toni has a full-time role and we tend to collaborate at night and by phone during the day. It hasn’t taken over our relationship yet – we have a 10-year-old son so we compartmentalise our TH Brown activity – and it’s working well so far.

That said, when you’re talking business you need to view your partner as a business associate and treat them as such. Keep the emotion out of it. Toni and I offer pretty different skill sets so we tend to just get on and do what we each need to do. We do have differences from time to time but we tend to resolve them very professionally and quickly – the interests of the company always prevail.

ISB: Finally, what advice would you offer to anyone wanting to follow their passion later in life?

SB: You need to take risks in life or you never deviate from your past which, as you get older, will always be a source of regret. And be prudent with your money, you can still be what you want without risking your retirement if you’re smart and patient.

Wherever possible take your past experience, add it to the mix and remember the network you’ve built over many years – friends are naturally inclined to help you wherever possible so don’t be afraid to ask.

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