UK-based furniture wholesaler Qualita – the Global Player category winner in The Furniture Awards 2024 – has announced a strategic partnership with Kauno Baldai, one of Lithuania’s largest and most modern upholstery factories.

This collaboration marks a significant step forward in Qualita’s UK expansion strategy, bringing together Qualita’s sales, customer service and logistics infrastructure with Kauno Baldai’s manufacturing expertise and quality standards.

Qualita boasts over 20 years’ experience serving both large and small retailers across the UK. With dedicated agents supporting independent shops and established accounts with many major retailers, Qualita possesses a deep understanding of the UK market landscape.

This expertise, combined with the recent addition to the team, a prominent industry designer Steve Armitage, positions Qualita well to introduce Kauno Baldai’s upholstery to the UK market.

Steve, formerly head of design for Loaf during its high-growth phase, brings a wealth of experience in designing bestselling sofas as well as cabinet furniture. His contributions promise to be instrumental in establishing Qualita’s and Kauno Baldai’s upholstery offer within the UK.

His design influence extends to the Laura Ashley cabinet product portfolio, where he has played an integral role in the success of the Garrat range, a top seller for over 20 years.

Although Kauno Baldai was incorporated in 1992, its heritage dates back to 1880, and upholstery manufacturing started there as far back as 1938. The company’s dedication to quality has continued through recent ownership changes, culminating in the construction of a brand-new factory.

Kauno Baldai currently exports its products to various European countries, and this partnership with Qualita marks its entry into the UK and Irish markets.

Beyond quality of manufacture, Kauno Baldai prioritises eco-friendliness and sustainability – a commitment evident through its use of renewable energy sources, eco-conscious packaging materials, and LNG-powered ships for delivery in certain regions.

Through this exclusive distribution agreement, Qualita will act as the sole distributor for Kauno Baldai’s upholstery products in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. This collaboration will encompass private-label offerings for major retailers as well as commission-based sales to independent shops.

Pictured: Qualita founder Andrius Minicius; Kauno Baldai CEO Tomas Mauricas; and Kauno Baldais sales director Deividas Vilius

The Furniture Awards returned at this year’s January Furniture Show, to single out the suppliers setting the pace in their respective fields. From local leaders to innovative importers, this year’s winners represent just what our industry is capable of …

Qualita’s story has it all – cost engineering, manufacturing efficiency, effective fulfilment partnerships, and eminently commercial product, making it a stand-out entrant in this year’s competition.

Supplementing its modern manufacturing facility in Lithuania, Qualita works closely with third-party manufacturers across the globe, enabling it to meet demand in the most appropriate manner. In the UK, its Qualita, Stockholm and Shadows collections represent a varied cabinet furniture portfolio with oak at its heart – and the business also operates across Europe, and further afield, fuelled by its impressive licensing deal with Laura Ashley.

“Qualita’s offer is comprehensive,” says the judges, “comprising a huge volume of products in a wide variety of styles. It’s a fantastic range, and a very well-organised business, that’s always looking for new opportunities – and boasts a proven ability to make the most of them.”

With over 20 years of experience in manufacturing, wholesaling and, more recently, licensing and selling to a diverse variety of clients, both in the retail and in contract sectors, Qualita has developed an ability to address both specific product briefs and global market trends. Having acquired the licence to develop, manufacture, supply and distribute Laura Ashley cabinet furniture in 2020, Qualita’s focus has been sharpened yet further.

Alongside its own manufacturing facility in Kaunas, Lithuania, Qualita works with a network of partner factories in Indonesia and India, and across Eastern Europe, investing in local QC experts to ensure consistency and continuity.

“Whilst our reach is truly global, it is the UK market that remains our largest, and rightly commands much of our attention,” says Qualita’s head of sales for the UK and RoI, Anthony Matthias. “Aside from white label production for retailers such as Heal’s and Soho Home, for our independent retail portfolio can be divided into three distinct looks:  our own Qualita contemporary collection of solid oak, ash and walnut living and dining furniture; the Stockholm (former Winsor Furniture) living, dining and bedroom collections; and the Shadows living and dining collection.

“And let’s not forget our exclusive Laura Ashley licence. This quintessentially British brand still resonates strongly with the public, and a strong part of that is the furniture offer, which presently consists of more than 20 different collections and looks.

“All our ranges are comprehensive in their SKU count, enabling consumers to buy into the look and to add to their collection over time.”

Beyond the UK, Qualita is active across Germany, Sweden, France and Spain, with the new license extending its reach across much of Europe and the wider world – and Qualita is already looking towards new opportunities in the Americas.

Read more about this year’s award winners in the March issue of Furniture News.

Pictured: Furniture News’ Paul Farley, Anthony Matthias, and Clarion Events’ Zoë Bonser

Last January, Furniture News published an in-depth profile of Lithuanian cabinet furniture manufacturer Qualita, outlining its impressive expansion and brand-building achievements against the challenging backdrop of the pandemic. Since then, Qualita has faced further challenges – yet the business very much remains on top, explains its head of sales for the UK and Ireland, Anthony Matthias…

“The world in general has faced exceptional challenges in the past year,” Anthony begins, “but, given Qualita’s proximity to the conflict in Ukraine, we’ve felt those pressures even more acutely. Inflation, and the unforeseen supply issues that arose (we used to purchase materials and components from Ukraine), meant we had to make some difficult commercial decisions to insulate ourselves from the worst effects of it all, and to protect the business.”

Despite this, Qualita enjoyed significant wins last year. “The relaunch of the [former Winsor Furniture mainstay) Stockholm living and dining collection has been a great success,” Anthony continues. “Thanks to a great team effort, we now have more than 70 shopfloor displays across the length and breadth of the UK.

“In line with our stated aims, we now keep stock of the products in our warehouse in Lithuania, enabling us to offer an industry-leading delivery time of just 4-6 weeks in most cases. This, we believe, is playing a crucial role in the collection’s success, and is of huge benefit to retailers (and equally appealing to consumers).

“We’ve also updated the imagery available. We’ve opted for a slightly more contemporary setting, and hope this will help broaden the collection’s appeal, drawing in a younger audience.”

Anthony says last year’s later-than-planned JFS also enabled Qualita to launch its own collections of occasional furniture and shelving – Camden, Fulham and Regal, which it showcased to great effect in April. “As a result of much hard work, we now offer these ranges on an 2-3-week lead time, with stock of the Camden and Fulham collections held in the UK in our logistics partner’s warehouse,” Anthony continues. “These collections are great for our established bricks-and-mortar retailer base, but also work well for online retailers.”

As far as Qualita’s core contemporary living and dining offer is concerned, September saw the addition of solid ash alongside the solid oak and walnut collections. The ash tops (on selected table styles) are available in four oiled finishes, and competitively priced.

Bringing the story up to the present, Qualita plans to build upon these at JFS this month (stand 1-D50) by launching several table designs, complemented by various dining chair styles.

“I’m also delighted to announce that we’ll be relaunching the Shadows collection at JFS,” Anthony reveals, excited by the prospect of reviving an industry classic: “Back in the autumn we forged an agreement with CSI to take over the import, supply and distribution of the collection.

“Crucially, we’ll also be looking to stock the collection, thereby offering a very competitive lead time. Shadows will continue to be produced in Indonesia, and by the same manufacturer, with whom we enjoy an excellent relationship – but we’ll only be offering the collection in oak (Shadows was also available in teak beforehand).”

Anthony also explains that, in its role as Laura Ashley’s (LA) cabinet furniture licensee, Qualita continues to expand the distribution of LA’s products by supplying retailers including John Lewis and Next. “Additionally, we’re in active discussions with other selected retailers, and are also looking forward to playing our part in celebrating LA’s 70th anniversary this year.”

Not content to rest on its many laurels, Qualita is also moving a new home (office and warehouse) in Mitcham early this year, which will give it the space and facilities to support its ambitious growth plans – for this year and beyond.

Buyers looking for a fresh take on living and dining cabinet are in for a treat when the January Furniture Show (finally) comes around this month and Qualita takes the stage. Following up on our in-depth profile in January’s issue, we caught up with MD Andrius Miničius to learn more about the benefits of working with his Lithuanian manufacturing powerhouse …

In January, Furniture News was given an access-all-areas pass to cover the background and latest developments of Qualita, the UK cabinet brand and Lithuanian manufacturing powerhouse.

We revealed how Qualita had secured the production and distribution rights to Winsor Furniture’s popular Stockholm collection, after the latter’s Vietnamese factory was destroyed in a fire, and looked at the significance of Qualita being selected to represent all of Laura Ashley’s cabinet sourcing and manufacture.

Now the postponed January Furniture Show (24-27th April, at the Birmingham NEC) is finally upon us, Qualita’s new UK retail lines – and Stockholm – are still set to wow visitors to stand 1-D40. But what has changed since we last caught up with Qualita’s founder and MD, Andrius Miničius?

What progress has the business made so far this year? 

January Furniture Fair was moved to April, which delayed the launch of our new Stockholm collection under the Winsor brand. However, instead of waiting for the show to happen in April, the agents took it upon themselves to hit the road and convince retailers to recommit to the range from Qualita.

We set up the display at the old Winsor warehouse and invited retailers to come and visit. Some of them did, and some asked the agents to bring them a sample bedside table so they could check the quality.

And while it was just a soft launch, the agents have done a fantastic job so far, and secured display orders from around 50 stores. The aim was to get around 80 stores at the NEC in January – so we are headed in the right direction, and we believe we will reach our goal at the April show. In general, the market has responded really well to Stockholm.

As for Laura Ashley cabinet furniture, the sales are strong with Next, and now John Lewis has made a selection and is launching a few ranges across the bedroom, as well as its dining and living departments. Laura Ashley bedroom at John Lewis Partnership will launch this month, whereas the dining and living ranges will launch in autumn/winter this year.

Other Qualita ranges with UK retailers have held their ground, and we envisage growing our distribution further at at the January Furniture Show this April.

What exactly are you bringing to the January Furniture Show – and has the selection changed at all based on recent developments/feedback?

The plans have not changed. Other than presenting the Stockholm range in the flesh – which we are sure most of the committed retailers will come to see, as most have bought their displays after seeing sample bedsides or just photography – we will also have a good selection of the other products that Qualita is best known for.

This will include dining tables with various legs in wood and metal, and cabinet furniture in oak and walnut in different finishes, as well as some new occasional products such as shelving units, and side, coffee, nest and console tables that we plan to stock and make available on a shorter lead time. We didn’t have this proposition at Qualita before, as most of the products were made to order.

Can you outline any new styles/colours/materials you think are going to prove popular this year? How are you responding to these demands?

Oak will continue to be the most popular solid wood in 2022. However, the price of solid oak and oak-veneered furniture may see a substantial rise, as the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia and Belarus mean that Europe will suffer a huge supply shortage and raw material cost will sour.

Ukraine is one of the largest oak suppliers into the EU. The country also exports ash, beech and birch, so costs for these timbers will also rise. On top of that, chipboard, MDF, plywood and other materials that are used in furniture production are also imported from Russia and Belarus, which, given current economic sanctions, will incur shortages and price hikes.

Prices for furniture will rise in general, but oak may see the highest jump. Black American walnut is also becoming a bit more popular in the UK, but its appeal is still quite limited in comparison to oak. We have seen a few more retailers starting to look back to pine and the resurrection of pine furniture, even if in a different distressed, brushed, washed and weathered look. Pine and spruce are materials that are more widely available, and given the growing cost of other hardwood timbers, it is likely that more companies will focus on creating new products and ranges in these cheaper woods.

Qualita sources and manufactures furniture from oak, ash, beech, birch and black American walnut, and has even started making some pine ranges for Laura Ashley. The company has strong ties with various suppliers, and we are sure we will be able to offer the market whatever the consumers demand.

What would you say to anyone planning to visit JFS and thinking of visiting your stand?

I would say it is a smart decision! I believe that we have been in the market for long enough – we supply many retailers with white-label products, we have exclusive licenses to supply products under the Laura Ashley brand, plus we now offer Winsor’s Stockholm collection. And we are working on bringing other brands into Qualita’s portfolio.

We not only have our own manufacturing facility, but we also buy products from various other suppliers in the EU and further afield. We have a well-structured business, guaranteeing stability and consistency. We have offices in Lithuania and the UK. We are working very closely with retailers in order to offer products that are demanded by consumers.

We work in many European markets and notice the trends, and are able to quickly introduce changes within our company. We strive to offer our retailers a good customer service and, given our current position and history in the market, I believe that anyone we have worked with can say that we’re a reliable partner – and this is what one needs in the current turbulent market.

Taking a step back from the show, how has your service offer evolved to meet current demand?

Qualita is known for supplying larger retailers with private-label products, as well as smaller independent shops with products on a MTO basis. For years we have also been making bespoke products to customers’ exact specifications, and have offered this service to shops, interior designers, architects and various contract customers.

However, at the end of 2021 we made a decision to completely stop manufacturing bespoke, one-off pieces. Signing up the license to manage Laura Ashley’s cabinet furniture portfolio, getting the license to make and supply Winsor’s Stockholm collection, as well as making a decision to introduce some products that would be stocked and delivered to retailers on a shorter lead time, meant that our manufacturing, engineering and admin capacity is going to be exhausted and leave no room to continue offering a completely bespoke service.

Can you tell us a bit more about your manufacturing operation in Lithuania? 

The factory in Lithuania was set up in 2003. It currently employs around 250 people. We make products from solid wood as well as all sorts of boards, and we finish in oil, lacquer and paints. The scope is large – we have all the machinery necessary to make any kind of cabinet furniture.

The factory operates what we call a zero-waste production. All timber offcuts are shredded and processed into briquettes that are used for heating the factory in the winter, and the surplus is sold to local households. All the materials we use come from sustainable sources, and we carry out annual ethical and technical audits in the factory that are performed by a certified third party, such as Bureau Veritas or another.

We also have a sister company that is called Industrial Robotics Company, which works alongside our manufacturing business and helps automate various repetitive processes. We have robots in the factory that produce cardboard boxes, robots that sand, spray, and also – working with a number of tools positioned around them such as routers, blades, drills and sanding belts – process small wooden parts.

We aim to automate as many processes as we can in order to offer our employees a better and safer working environment, grow their skillsets, make production more efficient and consistent, and allow employees to earn more while doing less manual work. Robotisation also ensures stability and helps with quality control.

As of early March, has the invasion of Ukraine affected how you do business? 

It has. As mentioned above, supply and the cost of raw materials is going to become a big issue in the next few months. We also have subcontractors in Poland who employ a lot of Ukrainians, and they have now left Poland to go back to Ukraine and fight. This will inevitably increase lead times and may raise prices, as the factories will need to cover their fixed overheads with less throughput.

Many Ukrainian citizens are going to seek refuge in Poland and Lithuania. We hope that some of them will find permanent residency in our countries and will add to the labour market, which is currently depleted.

It is next to impossible to find young people in our countries that are willing to do manual work in factories. Everyone wants to work in an office, use a computer or trade crypto currencies. An influx of manpower into our countries may actually benefit the manufacturing industry. We don’t need cheap labour, we need people who are willing to work.

Do you see demand for your product here in the UK changing much this year?

It is difficult to foresee. For the last two years, demand has been solid – and growing. Those supplying from the Far East faced issues with their supply chains, from manufacturing to logistics. Costs have increased everywhere, so many wholesalers and retail chains decided to look for products closer to home. This all stimulated demand and helped grow our business, while pushing the prices for raw materials and labour up, of course.

This year looked like it was no different – until the war broke out. It is very likely that costs will continue to rise and, depending on how the conflict progresses, it may actually encourage people to wait and see what is going to happen, how the situation is going to resolve.

On the other hand, suppliers of less expensive furniture, such as IKEA, JYSK, etc, who are more affected by the supply chain issues due to the war and sanctions, may suffer more from shortages of raw materials and could actually be out of stock more often – which, in turn, may stimulate the growth of sales in the mid- to higher-end category.

It is a big unknown at the moment, but, as always, when the markets are turbulent, there are companies that deal with the issues better than others, and losses for some are opportunities for others. Qualita has weathered all the difficulties relatively well so far, and each crisis proved to be a big opportunity for growth. We hope that this year will prove no different.

Finally, what else is in the pipeline for 2022?

Growing our manufacturing capacity by way of acquisition is definitely on the radar. We are considering various options in Lithuania and abroad. We are also keen to find opportunities among various wholesalers and do more deals that are similar to our licensing agreements with Laura Ashley and Winsor.

We are currently working on a licensing deal with a very prominent brand in London. While they don’t have a furniture category at the moment, they are a well-known name that could do well with a selection of products distributed across the right type of retailers.

We are also keen to partner with or acquire businesses that fall in line with what we do and which could help Qualita grow by offering more products to our existing customers, or help us open more retail doors with products that we have not got in our portfolio at the moment.

We see the next five years as having serious growth potential for Qualita, and we will be actively looking for opportunities in the market.

Industry veteran David Turner worked as Winsor Furniture’s North of England agent for 12 years, and is now looking forward to re-engaging stockists with Winsor by Qualita’s version of the popular Stockholm range …

What’s your industry background, and role in the business?

I have been in the furniture trade for 42 years, 12 of them as a sales agent for Winsor Furniture. I’ve worked closely with Mark Devany on the design and sourcing of new ranges, and their marketing and distribution.

How do you feel about Qualita being Stockholm’s new ‘parent’ (see related)?

I’m very excited to be given the opportunity to work with Qualita, who already have some successful high-end, design-led products in UK stockists. With the current turbulence in sourcing products from the Far East, this is a good opportunity to move this bestselling range to Qualita in Lithuania.

What makes Stockholm so popular?

The main attributes of Stockholm are its compact sizes, the great choice and number of products available within it, and its design features, which are seen as contemporary, but easy to live with.

Winsor products have always showcased good attention to detail, such as matching veneers on sideboards and dining tables, and tables that are easy and simple to extend with butterfly extension leaves, with runners set in their feet to assist in moving them. Salespeople in the stores love talking to their customers about details such as these.

As I’ve already said, the design is seen as contemporary, but it does appeal strongly to an older customer as a safe, long-term purchase that is stylish but, to their minds, will not age quickly.

What are stockists telling you about its relevance and appeal today?

If anything, the popularity of the range was actually still growing last year, so I believe that the trade will welcome its reintroduction at the NEC. Customers are still asking for the product in stores, and salespeople are keen for it to return, as it was a relatively easy range to sell.

How do you feel they will respond to any changes to its engineering/price/distribution now it’s made by Qualita?

I believe that my customers who already deal with Qualita will have no reservations about the engineering of the range –especially if we tell them about the modern manufacturing processes, compared to those utilised in the Far East.

It will be important to offer a stable lead time – if we could achieve 8-10 weeks on an ongoing basis, that would be most helpful. Obviously, pricing will be important, but with everything in people’s lives increasing in cost at the moment, we have some leeway in setting prices.

How have you helped maintain stockist relations, given the difficulties in securing continuity?

It has obviously been a difficult time for our trade customers, having been let down twice on new sourcing of the Stockholm range, once from Vietnam and once from Lithuania. However, they have mostly been very understanding of the predicament that Winsor found themselves in, as the company have always had an excellent reputation for customer service, as well as keeping their ranges exclusive to retailers in the quality end of the trade, and not saturating the market.

Immediately following our initial approach to Qualita through Matt Casson, I felt that they would be the best partner to continue the supply and future development of Stockholm, and other ranges. I think it will be advantageous for us that we have the continuity of our well-established team of sales agents, plus Mark, who started the company in 1989.

If you could take any other existing Winsor range forward with Qualita, which would you choose?

I think we should relaunch Stockholm bedroom, along with some of the Alta occasional pieces and feature shelf unit. Haven has always worked well for me, but it has already been redeveloped three times since it’ original launch as the Ocaso range, so it may be difficult to sell back into retailers again.

What do you have lined up for the January Furniture Show?

I’m currently seeing all of my previous Stockholm customers to encourage them to visit us on the Qualita stand (1-D40) at the January Furniture Show this month (24-27th April). These are going to be exciting times, and I’m looking forward to seeing the range back on the floor in stores across the UK.

One of the biggest wins for Lithuanian manufacturer Qualita in 2021 was securing the rights to manufacture and supply Stockholm, a classic collection that comprised the bulk of Winsor Furniture’s revenue – before disaster struck in January 2021, and Winsor’s MD, Mark Devany, was forced to make alternative arrangements. Here, Mark recounts the story behind Stockholm’s new home …

There’s no denying it – Stockholm is in its own league. It is clean – almost Scandinavian in appearance – and very easy on the eye. It’s also practical, with soft, round, sweeping corners that are very child-friendly.

Stockholm’s timber selection is strict – a lot of oak products on the market use a myriad of different-coloured timbers, mixing shades of green, pink, yellow, grey … and they come together to produce a look that’s rustic, but not that sophisticated. Stockholm’s colour and grain are very specific. Couple that with the fact there’s no external handles (it’s all recessed), and you have an extremely appealing design, with nothing customers can take any offence at.

When shopfloor staff communicate these characteristics to the public, customers find it hard not to make comparisons thereafter. They go into rival stores and see the mismatches, and notice where corners have been cut. Stockholm sets a benchmark.

And it accounted for some 70% of our business at Winsor Furniture before last January, when a fire gutted the factory in Vietnam where we made it.

I tried negotiating with various other plants to take on production of the range, and they (inadvertently) wasted a lot of my time, going a long way down the line of pricing and sampling before deciding it wasn’t for them.

You see, Stockholm was made in a very specific colour and material, including American solid oak and veneers. A key feature of the collection is its doors and drawers – the same veneer runs across the whole unit, making it look like it’s been cut from one big piece of wood, and that’s very difficult to achieve.

Standard veneer suppliers might only have 5% of their stock that’s suitable for this purpose, and the factories we approached after the fire just couldn’t get secure supplies, or commit to prices. I was told China was swallowing a lot of the American oak – if they could get hold of veneers at all, factories were giving prices, then ramping them up just weeks later, or pushing back the delivery timelines.

The pandemic made finding a new manufacturing partner so difficult. We moved samples around three times – that’s even with QC people on the ground, and our original partner trying to help us make the transition. If you were handing a new collection to an established supplier, there wouldn’t be such a problem – but for a new proposition, and busy factories, it was proving very hard to get a foot in the door.

And we didn’t want to work with just any factory. We needed to make sure their output was of a sufficient quality that we wouldn’t be fighting our own fires once we’d taken stock of the goods in the UK.

Then there was the shipping crisis, running in parallel to all this. When container delivery hit $18,000, we had to contact our stockists to increase prices on any orders placed before January 2021.

We communicated with our existing stockists at every step of the way, and they were very accepting of the 10-15% price increase. Some even tried to help us achieve continuity by feeding us information along the way, offering up their own trusted contacts in the hope that we’d be able to make it work with them. I guess they recognised the size of the hole Stockholm would leave in their turnover.

By late summer, all our negotiations in the Far East had failed. Vietnam went into lockdown, so we were looking at a delivery date of April/May 2022, which was just unthinkable – so we started looking at the possibility of making Stockholm in Europe.

We need a partner who already understood the concept of direct retail supply – and struck up a conversation with a Lithuanian manufacturer, which seemed very promising. But, when we started drilling down into the particulars, and the compromises they’d want to make (including some fundamental changes to the range), it became clear that it was the wrong path.

To be honest, I was close to breaking point. I knew someone, somewhere, could make it happen, as there was so much value in the range, and its UK stockist base was excellent – but I was hitting a wall at every turn.

Then Qualita stepped in. They had a very sophisticated set-up, so the quality wouldn’t suffer (if anything, it’d be better). Rather than having us wholesale it to the UK, they wanted to purchase the design rights and supply it directly.

As far as retailers are concerned, the deal will appear the same, and I think pretty much everybody will reorder some living and/or dining models. Stockholm’s not made from American oak any more, but the quality is very impressive – and Winsor’s agents are working with Andrius to help spread the word (I also think Stockholm will complement a lot of Qualita’s existing retail space).

Given its popularity, and the number of people we asked for help last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if another supplier tried to take advantage of our misfortune and came up with their own version of Stockholm. To that end, we issued a statement in the autumn, with ACID’s help, clarifying that we wouldn’t stand for any imitations.

What will come of the remaining Winsor ranges? I’m not sure yet. Winsor still exists, as a company with assets, but not trading. After fighting so many fires for so long, I’m looking forward to taking some time out after the January Furniture Show – but at least I know Stockholm is in good hands.

Since 2008, Laura Ashley and Qualita have been inseparable – a partnership that even the former’s going into administration could not destroy. Indeed, these days the two are working more closely than ever, explains Laura Ashley’s head of design and product, Helen Ashmore, and VP, Poppy Marshall-Lawton…

What’s your industry background, and role in the business? Having worked for both suppliers and in retail design for many years, Helen is now leading the design development process with the Laura Ashley team, setting the print, pattern and product direction with the licensees to deliver the stories for the season.
As VP of the brand, Poppy oversees the newly established UK brand team activity. Her role is to re-establish the brand in the UK and internationally within the new licensing structure. She has worked in licensing for over 15 years, and joined Laura Ashley in 2014.

How does Laura Ashley differ from its pre-administration model?

The new Laura Ashley is a far cry from the pre-administration model. We no longer operate stores or directly source products. The company now consists of a small team of dedicated brand ambassadors leading design, marketing and retail strategy with our carefully selected partners who develop, manufacture and distribute the collections in line with the seasonal collections and trend guidance developed by our in-house design team.

The brand is now distributed through selected retail partnerships. Our key retail partner for the relaunch was Next, who operate our ecommerce platform and display the branded collections in
over 45 of their retail locations.

What were the challenges involved in rebuilding your furniture offer?

We worked tirelessly to bring back the bestselling ranges for the relaunch of the brand in March 2021. Once we had established the new brand partnerships, we had a little over six months to source ranges and get stock into the UK.

For the Home collection, it was key to be able to bring back the bestselling ranges that customers know and trust. Many of the previous suppliers of the Laura Ashley range had been seriously affected by the administration of the previous company, so relationships had to be rebuilt as we all began to adapt to the different ways of working. This was all during the global pandemic, and with all the international shipping challenges – but we’re now able to enjoy working on the new collections.

Why did Laura Ashley choose Qualita as its sole cabinet furniture partner?

Qualita have been a key partner of Laura Ashley over many years, and with their manufacturing and sourcing network, along with their high quality standards, they were a clear choice as the partner for our cabinet furniture range. Qualita were able to move quickly to re-establish the supply chain, and made huge investments to get it available for launch. Laura Ashley is a global brand
with over 70 global retail stores, and Qualita were also able to continue to supply these international retailers.

How does Qualita act on your behalf?

As the exclusive licensee for cabinet furniture of the Laura Ashley brand in the UK and Europe, Qualita are responsible for sourcing a wide range of furniture that sits within the wider Laura
Ashley Home collection. They offer the full Laura Ashley furniture collection to Next in the UK, and are working on expanding distribution throughout the UK and Europe. The ranges that are
produced and supplied by Qualita need to fit with our brand values of being design led and focused on quality.

What’s the scope of your operation together?

Now that we have relaunched the brand in the UK, we are working to expand our retail distribution with other multiple home retailers who reach a different customer demographic, and we are
seeing that there is a huge appetite for the brand from other retailers. This is a long-term relationship that we want to develop, to be able to continue to bring newness to the collection whilst looking at expanding internationally.

New collections have just launched online, with further range additions and new products due this spring. Furniture will continue to be at the centre of the Laura Ashley brand as we look to the
future and work to attract a broader customer base, both in the UK and internationally.

As he plans to unveil a vastly expanded offer at the postponed January Furniture Show this April, Qualita’s founder and MD Andrius Miničius shares his company’s journey, from Battersea shop to global powerhouse, with Paul Farley …

“It seems to me that it doesn’t matter how well you do all year,” Andrius tells me, “at Christmas you’re judged extremely harshly if orders don’t arrive on time! Thankfully, we’re very much on track to deliver.”

Last year’s Golden Quarter saw Qualita busier than ever, thanks to a confluence of opportunities which means the Lithuanian cabinet furniture manufacturer, a long-time supplier to UK independents and multiples, now has even more strings to its bow.

When Winsor Furniture’s key factory was destroyed in a fire, its principals searched high and low for a new manufacturing partner to ensure the continuity of its bread-and-butter collection, Stockholm, finally alighting on Qualita – and bringing the Winsor by Qualita brand into Andrius’ stable.

Of even greater significance was Qualita being selected to represent all of former key customer Laura Ashley’s cabinet sourcing and manufacture (excluding upholstery), some months after the retailer’s brand and IP rights were sold to a US investment firm.

Clearly, one man’s loss is another’s gain. Both of these additions to the business were bred from adversity, and the outcomes could have been so much different for everyone involved. Now, as Andrius comes to terms with the scale and scope of this new operation, he’s looking to this month’s January Furniture Show – the UK trade’s first major gathering in two years – and setting the stage for a barnstorming next act.

“Our show stand’s going to be twice the size this year,” says Andrius. “As well as a host of new Qualita-brand launches, Winsor’s Mark Devany and five of his agents will be there with Stockholm, and I’ll have more news on the whole host of developments that have gone on behind the scenes in the last couple of years.”

Building business

Having studied economics in Riga, a young Andrius Miničius decided to take a year out to promote his brother’s pallet timber business in London. Confronted with a saturated market, Andrius turned his attention to retail instead, setting up a small shop in Battersea, Wood Empire, and selling interior details such as cladding, flooring, skirting – and furniture.

When the opportunity arose to acquire a failing factory in Lithuania, Andrius and his business partners seized it, putting the profits from the store back into manufacturing, saving the facility and creating a supply arm alongside the bespoke business.

“Initially, we sold goods into the UK through Link International (Christian Harold). When they went under in 2008, we moved quickly to establish a direct trading partnership with their biggest customer, Laura Ashley, which was turning over €1m every quarter with them. Given that the financial crisis was just hitting, making sure we were in a position to take over wasn’t easy – but, thanks in part to us already having a shop in London, we managed to establish a UK wholesaling company (Qualita), and moved forward with Laura Ashley.

Going national

“That partnership really opened the doors for us, and we grew steadily with new customers and contracts, all the time building our independent stockist base.” While Laura Ashley remained Qualita’s biggest customer, other major accounts, including Heal’s and John Lewis, soon followed.

A chance meeting with Habitat’s trading director in the Battersea store led to a partnership that lasted until Home Retail Group sold the brand to Sainsbury’s in 2016.

“I was covering for someone in the shop, and a couple entered looking for a side table for their holiday home,” Andrius recalls. “I sat with them for two hours, drawing up the various possibilities – and the man, who turned out to be Habitat’s Malcolm Brighton, suggested that perhaps we could do bigger business together. Home Retail Group had just taken over the brand from the administrators, so Habitat’s supply base was in flux, and there was plenty of opportunity. Right place, right time?”

John Lewis proved slightly harder to crack. “We were different to any other wholesaler at the time, in that we could make to order – tables of any different size, finish or style,” Andrius explains. “It turned out that John Lewis’ category-specific buyers weren’t keen to take on such a complex proposition, so I ended up pitching it to their head furniture buyer, Dave Brittain. MTO was not that popular at the time, but Dave recognised that our offer could stand out in their portfolio – and we went on to do business with John Lewis for many years.”

New markets

Wary of having all his eggs in one basket, Andrius began eyeing new territories and markets as the decade progressed, and as luck would have it, the acquisition of another down-on-its-luck Lithuanian factory enabled Qualita to open the door to Germany in 2014.

“When we acquired it, the factory was doing €1m turnover in Germany through some 160 shops – and we doubled that within just two years,” says Andrius. “We had assumed that some of our British product would work there, but sadly, those lines weren’t to their tastes. That said, the more rustic/industrial German products were quickly adopted by our UK stockists.”

In 2015, another Lithuanian supplier went into administration, this time granting Qualita entry to the Swedish market. Spain followed, and France (by way of Habitat).

In 2019, the company’s principal factories were merged and expanded, creating a 16,000m facility that employed some 250 people. It was divided into three departments: bespoke MTO, which handled samples and batch sizes up to 20; MTO tables, tasked with an output of around 150 models each week; and a volume division, carrying out batch production for larger customers.

“Prior to entering Germany, 90% of our business was in the UK,” says Andrius. “As we grew elsewhere, that fell to 60%.”

His insistence on spreading the risk would prove prescient.

Perfect storm

March 2020 will be remembered as the month in which most of the western world woke up to the fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic, as lockdowns, furlough and supply chain disruption quickly became the order of the day.

For Qualita, that crisis was preceded by another. That very month, a struggling Laura Ashley – still Qualita’s biggest customer, accounting for some 60% of its UK business and around 35% of its overall revenue – went into administration, finally giving out as the pandemic loomed. The timing proved crucial.

“We’re lucky Laura Ashley went into administration before the pandemic shut everything down,” says Andrius. “We employed over 300 people, and so many of them were making Laura Ashley products – so we were in much deeper trouble than those businesses just having to contend with Covid shutdowns. Furlough helped, but many staff left. It was a very hard time.”

Qualita’s diversified customer base helped to a degree. “So many countries closed down completely at the outset, but Sweden’s shops stayed open, so we were able to refocus our attention on those 60 customers – our standard 10-week lead time for tables became just four weeks for them!”

Yet it would be some months before the real lifeline came.

In partnership

After buying Laura Ashley from administration that spring, Gordon Brothers was plotting the retailer’s recovery, and initiated negotiations for supply licenses. Thanks to their long history together, Qualita was first in line.

“We signed a deal in the autumn to be their sole sourcing partner for cabinet furniture,” says Andrius. “And this wasn’t just a UK deal, it was global. We became the de facto partner in helping to design and develop Laura Ashley’s cabinet goods. It reignited the business, and meant we were no longer just the manufacturer-wholesaler of our own product, but would be operating on a much larger scale, buying different products and working with numerous suppliers in different countries.

“The deal gave us a completely different perspective on our growth. Before that, we were limited by our own factory – suddenly, there was so much more to fall back on. Laura Ashley’s bankruptcy actually made us stronger.”

Rehoming a classic

In the background, Winsor Furniture, a well-regarded UK cabinet brand that worked parallel to Qualita, was enduring its own tribulations, which would eventually see it join the Lithuanian’s ranks.

Winsor’s mainstay was Stockholm, a clean and classy Scandi-style collection that had proved a firm favourite with UK retailers and their more discerning customers for many years. Disaster struck Winsor in January 2021 when its principal factory in Vietnam burned down, and despite MD Mark Devany’s best efforts to find another manufacturing partner to take on his hit range, none fit the bill – until Qualita agreed to step in, some eight months later.

“Winsor sold Stockholm into well over 100 UK independents, and I was confident we’d be able to maintain business with the majority of them,” Andrius explains. “We acquired the license to make and sell Stockholm from Lithuania. What we could make was not like for like, but it was very similar. We also took on Mark’s agents, and lined up the relaunch for the January Furniture Show.”

Full circle

Armed with new business thanks to Winsor and Laura Ashley, Andrius is now setting his sights on a more holistic proposition, for customers old and new.

“Stockholm’s a very high-quality oak/oak veneer range, and it’s value-engineered to stand out against its cheaper competitors,” says Andrius. “That’s what independents like about it – you can very clearly see the difference.

“We’re hoping it’ll be the first of a whole family of British classic ranges. We’re launching it with 23 pieces of living and dining furniture – keeping bedroom on hold for the time being – and making it in batches, so it can be stocked for quick delivery. We’re hoping to bring the delivery window down from 10-12 weeks to 6-8 – that’s just one of the advantages of manufacturing in Eastern Europe rather than the Far East!”

Surrounded by a ready supply of local materials, Qualita’s factories are processing some 400m3 of solid timber each month. Order fulfilment currently spans anything from 4-12 weeks, depending on stockholdings, material availability and the level of bespoke work required – a consideration which still applies to much of the business’ core lines.

“Our independent retail range is still going strong,” Andrius continues. “It is contemporary-industrial, unique and MTO, so there’s lots of choice, and our customers love that customisable aspect.”

Qualita still works with an impressive roster of multiples, but Andrius is adamant that its privileged new working relationship with Laura Ashley will only help existing customers.

“As our network develops, we’ll be able to create better prices and more margin for everyone,” he explains. “It’s been a steep learning curve, but we’re establishing supply partnerships everywhere from Poland and Romania to India and Indonesia. It means we’re in a much better position to manage the entire supply chain, and make import delivery more straightforward.”

There’s no problem there – as a UK-registered entity, Qualita handles customs clearance for its customers. “We take care of all of that. There is a cost involved for us, but it’s a competitive advantage we’re proud to have,” says Andrius. Qualita also boasts a UK customer service team that’s available seven days a week, free marketing support, some in-house delivery capacity, and the ability to professionally handle replacements and repairs.

“Because we had our own production facility and UK store from the outset, we’ve always found ourselves operating a little differently to your typical importer,” Andrius concludes, pleased with what he’s achieved, but conscious that there is much more hard work to come.

“The last two years have been tough –more difficult than you can imagine – but we’ve persevered, and it’s amazing how much stronger we are now we’re coming out the other side.”

Being blessed with opportunity is one thing – but, amidst all the disruption, Qualita created its own, and the business will never be the same again.

As Qualita’s head of buying, experienced industry operator Adam Wray works closely with Laura Ashley and other partners to ensure the right products land on the shop floor…

What’s your industry background, and role in the business?

I’ve been in the furniture industry since the beginning of my career, which began at Heal’s with a stint on the Tottenham Court Road sales floor, before taking up a buying role in the head office with the inspirational John Jenkins. I’ve been using my design degree ever since, with a series of furniture buying and product development roles with retailers such as Harveys, Linley, Tesco and Laura Ashley.

At Qualita, I’m responsible for the product development of all furniture products destined to be sold through our licensed channels. That includes the highly successful Laura Ashley license that we acquired 18 months ago, and some other new and exciting prospects that we are working on. I’ve also been able to use my experience at several high-profile retailers to help inform various aspects of Andrius’ business as it evolves from (primarily) a manufacturer into a wholesaler.

How close are you to Laura Ashley?

Very. I have a strong affinity for the brand, and having worked there as a buyer for several years I understand the existing products and customer profile. I liaise constantly with their design and development team, responding to their seasonal trend briefs with concept ideas and range plans, which then develop into fully fledged designs.

With international travel curtailed, how have you gone about finding inspiration and new product?

As you can imagine, there has been a great reliance on the internet, and I have combined more targeted searching through curated channels such as virtual exhibitions with broader Google searches (including using Google Maps). However, the most reliable results come from tapping into my existing network of contacts and suppliers. Someone once told me that “people do business with people,” and I think that the importance of historical and established relationships has been doubly important recently, when it has been harder to visit potential new suppliers.

What manufacturing bases/materials do you feel drawn to at the moment?

Indonesia has a particular ‘handwriting’ that is popular at the moment, and features in Laura Ashley’s trend briefings. There is still great skill in the region to hand-craft product but still maintain the quality standards expected by discerning UK customers. I’m also drawn to Vietnam, where I’ve seen a lot of very highly specified and high-quality product from very good factories that still have sensible MOQs.

Do you feel the role of the buyer has changed much in the past 10 years?

It probably has at some retailers, and less so at others. I sense that for some the role has become much more about commercially trading a range and less about product design and development – particularly so where the offer is brand focused. Accordingly, the skillset those buyers employ is probably balanced in a different way to one where the retailer develops and designs more in-house.

What do you look for in a manufacturing/supply partner?

It’s always beneficial when you find a partner that already understands your market and the expectations that come with it. If it’s clear that they already understand these expectations and share your values, it’s easier to focus on the fun process of product development. Although the pandemic has prevented travel to certain locations in South-east Asia, initiating a proper trading relationship with a factory I’d only visited in the past has been made much easier because they already had high-profile customers in Europe and the US, so knew what was expected of them.

Anthony Matthias, Qualita’s head of sales for the UK and Ireland, outlines the unique appeal of Qualita’s cabinet collections, and sets the stage for a January Furniture Show reveal this April which will take the brand to the next level…

What’s your industry background, and role in the business?

I’ve been in the furniture industry since the mid 1980s. I have very wide experience, from supplying MFI with flatpack IKEA-style product, to supplying David Linley Furniture with bespoke upholstery. From 2004-20 I worked for Sir Terence Conran at Content by Terence Conran, and have been very involved with selling, both domestically and internationally.

I joined Qualita at the start of last year, and am head of sales for the UK and Ireland. Therefore, I work closely with our team of agents, but am also responsible (in conjunction with my Lithuania-based colleagues) for our portfolio of house accounts.

How has Qualita’s product output evolved over the past decade?

In order to maintain our appeal, over the last decade we have evolved our portfolio from one that could have been described as more rustic, perhaps even farmhouse, into one which is much more contemporary in appearance. The original models are indeed still available but, together with the contemporary styles, we believe our current portfolio offers retailers and consumers alike much more choice.

Oak, and solid oak in particular, remains the timber of choice, and accounts for much of our output – though we do also work in walnut, ash and birch, as well as a variety of engineered woods. And since our output is a mix of our own designs and white label production, we are able and well placed to respond to the different and varied briefs of our clientele.

Further, some six years ago we bought another Lithuanian factory and, as a result, started supplying the German and Swedish markets, and then started to offer those same products to our UK clients, significantly increasing our overall product offer but also shifting the look and focus from traditional to contemporary.

That said, there is no place for resting on your laurels, and we have worked diligently to further hone our offer to meet the demands of the day. Specifically, we identified the growing trend for consumers to want to be able to customise their purchase, and so today much of our portfolio is available in a wide choice of oils, leg styles, table edge options and so on, affording us that all-important USP.

As far as defining our looks and trends is concerned, well, since our portfolio is so large, we cover everything from the farmhouse look to the painted, more classical styles, through to the contemporary Germanic/Scandi look. But the common thread running through all our products is that they are thoughtfully designed, they are crafted using the most appropriate materials to achieve the best results, and the products’ quality speaks for itself.

Why does the portfolio remain popular with independent stockists?

Our collections – from table, to chair, to ancillary cabinet pieces – are highly customisable, which is definitely our USP. Retailers and consumers alike love the fact that they can truly ‘make it their own’.

How are consumer tastes falling into line with your products’ style and materials?

By not comprimising on materials and paying attention to detail, we see that consumers remain ready to invest in our quality furniture. Oak certainly remains the timber of choice, but we believe that by combining it with a contemporary design, we are offering the consumer the best of both worlds.

Has your approach to sales changed much in the past 10 years?

For much of the last decade there was little change – but it’ll come as no surprise that since early 2020 we had to change certain aspects of what we do and how we do it.

Like everyone, we have embraced the use of the virtual meeting platforms, but nothing can beat a face-to-face meeting. Going forward, we see merits in both methods. Much can be achieved by screen-sharing product presentations, but we will always favour exhibiting, thereby enabling clients to see the products ‘in the flesh’.

Has Brexit affected how you go about business in Ireland?

Historically we didn’t sell much in Ireland, but that is already changing, with sales building steadily. Brexit is with us, like it or not, but we have been careful in choosing the right logistics partner, who has the know-how, and the infrastructure in place, and that gives us (and our retail customers) the confidence as we look ahead to 2022 and beyond.

Do you have a particular favourite model/design?

Honestly, I don’t. We have a great breadth of styles, and they all hold appeal. But, if I were in the market for new furniture, I would probably opt for our Fargo table.

How will Qualita’s branching out into new areas/partnerships with Laura Ashley affect your core independent business?

I believe it can only help. It will not only give us the potential for further strengthening existing relationships, but we also look forward to making new connections with retailers with whom we haven’t previously worked.

Are there any new design or service directions existing stockists should expect?

We are always striving to improve our service to our customers and so, with this in mind, stockists can expect an improved delivery service, including the option of DHD.

What do you have lined up for the January Furniture Show?

I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to the exhibition and seeing everyone, new faces as well as old. In terms of what we have lined up, our stand will be an exciting mix of bestsellers and some new twists on existing products. Additionally, we are very excited to be relaunching the very popular Stockholm collection by Winsor, which now falls under our umbrella. And, if that isn’t enough, we shall also be launching a varied and interesting range of occasional furniture.

So, all in all, there are plenty of good reasons to beat a path to our JFS stand this April, where visitors are assured of a very warm welcome!