Altrincham-born Howard Ashdown was on the verge of 60s pop stardom before getting a “proper job” – and this year he marks 25 years as owner of independent family-run furniture store Branches of Warrington. We met up with him at his showroom.
ALTRINCHAM TODAY: You’re celebrating 25 years of Branches in Warrington this year Howard – but your roots are actually in Altrincham?
HOWARD ASHWOOD: Yes, I was born on Navigation Road and went to Navigation Primary, and against all the odds passed the 11-plus and went to Altrincham Grammar. It was great but I wasn’t a good pupil – I was more interested in music and girls! When I left school I was in a band in Altrincham called Some Other Guys, and I had a whole series of jobs purely to facilitate our gigs. I played bass guitar – this would have been 1963 to 66. We had a ball! We supported The Kinks, The Moody Blues and The Small Faces.
In about 67 the band decided they were going to turn professional but I didn’t think we were good enough. We didn’t fall out – they found a replacement and went off to do a tour of Sweden and then Germany, and never came back!
AT: So you had to get a proper job!
HA: Yes, I joined a small electrical engineering company on Atlantic Street in Broadheath called Record Electrical, and worked in sales. Then I applied for a company called Kellogg’s in Old Trafford – I went for the interview and got the job, but still didn’t realise it wasn’t the Kellogg’s that made cornflakes, but an American construction company called Kellogg International Corporation, who built refineries and petrochemical units! I joined as a cost engineer, learning on the job, and ended up as a contracts and commercial manager for an American oil company, but left in 93/94 because they wanted me to go to a tiny island off the east coast of Russia. By that stage we’d lived in Belgium, Sweden, Canada, America and Aberdeen, and thought it was the right time to come home and start our own business.
AT: And that’s when you got into the furniture business?
HA: Yes. The company we found was a franchise business in the North East called Durham Pine. We considered Altrincham, Chester and Warrington as possible locations before settling on Warrington because the right building became available. It worked very well for seven or eight years, but the guy who ran it wouldn’t delegate any decisions, so in the end five of us left and set up Branches, and we grew to 12 stores. But then the economic downturn really kicked in seven or eight years ago, and now we’re the only one remaining. It’s been a great journey though.
AT: You now predominantly sell oak, pine and painted wooden furniture – in the online age, what’s the appeal of having a physical store?
HA: You cannot explain the quality to a customer online – a picture of anything looks nice on a website, but to open the drawers and show the customer that it is dove-tailed at the back and the base of the drawer is solid wood tongue and groove, people say ‘wow, I didn’t know they still made furniture like that’. You have to look at it and touch it and feel it. Because we’re independent we can buy different, quirky or unusual things. I believe we can give our customers a much better experience. We actually deliver the goods and build them too. We have the last bit of contact with a customer – there’s nothing worse than a delivery van leaving a box outside the front door.
AT: And in the best possible sense of the phrase, you have old-fashioned values?
HA: I would like to think so, but that’s possibly more to do with my age! But then age is experience. When I was in the group I worked at the Co-op in Altrincham, which was at the bottom of Kingsway. I was in charge of the carpets and bedding department, so I got an early taste of selling furniture. The Co-op’s customer base tended to be older people, and I just enjoyed the interaction with them and trying to find out what they were looking for. I enjoy that interaction and trying to get the trust of somebody who walks in for the first time and doesn’t know me or the shop. I remember one customer giving us a really good order for a whole bedroom of furniture, and him saying ‘we only came out for some dog food!’. And that gives me a lot of pleasure.
You can visit the Branches of Warrington showroom at 348 Wilderspool Causeway, Warrington WA4 6QP, or go online at branchesofwarrington.co.uk