Nunawading furniture business crafts recovery plan

Second generation business Lifestyle Furniture has come a long way since it set up shop in Geelong in a cramped workroom at the rear of its showroom back in 1989.

Mark MortellitiFast fact: a tiny, non-airy interior, a circular saw and woodwork don’t mix all that well!

The relentless sawdust shower that would settle on every conceivable surface was a sight to be seen, jokes owner Mark Mortelliti, whose parents Joe and Marion purchased the operation when he was 16 and passed the reins on to him in the nineties.

While still at school, Mark helped his parents in the workroom each weekend by making beds, bunks, bookcases and wall units.

Sawdust overload aside, it was a job Mark loved from the get-go because he was fascinated about creating one-of-a-kind products with “beautiful timber grains”. He, like his dad before him, had a serious knack for it, too.

That talent has paid dividends over the years.

Since its inception, Lifestyle Furniture has thrived, securing both public and commercial clients including restaurants, cafes and schools both locally and interstate and now employing four staff with combined timber experience of 100 years.

The business relocated in 1995 to Nunawading to become one of Melbourne’s largest showrooms spanning 10,000 square feet where it has over 1500 items on display – 70 per cent of which are made from Australian sustainably harvested and reclaimed timbers including Victorian ash, jarrah, red gum and Tasmanian oak, blackwood, messmate, oregon and marri.

But the pandemic has – as many small businesses can relate to – put the brakes on sales.

“The impact of the pandemic was swift,” states Mark. “We reduced hours of trade and we started making one-on-one client appointments in the showroom. Furniture sales is very much a face-to-face game and the vast majority of transactions are still completed in a showroom.”

To help Lifestyle Furniture recover, a Victorian Government Business Support Fund grant has been allocated; something which Mark found out about through his wife.

Showcasing handcrafted furniture“She’s a hairdresser and business owner and she mentioned the fund to me, which she had read about through the Australian Hairdressing Association,” he says. “The application was easy to complete online. Having the grant approved made me feel that the Victorian Government was in my corner. The funds will help me pay fixed costs such as insurance and rent and I’ve already recommended the program to many business contacts in the past couple of weeks.”

At least technology has helped generate some sales, he says. “We recently launched our new website, which I’d been working on for the previous four months and whilst it was about 90 per cent ready to go I told the web designers to just put it up as the coronavirus issue was escalating day by day; I didn’t want to wait. It has helped already by facilitating new leads and generating sales whilst my showroom has been closed.”

For him, the hardest part about navigating this "new normal" is the lack of close customer contact. “I love to shake hands with clients when a deal is done to thank them for their business: not being able to shake hands feels unusual.”

Not being able to hang out with long-term customers also hits home. “Return clientele is the most rewarding thing: when someone walks in and says, 'Hi Mark, I bought a table from here 12 years ago and love it: that really makes me smile.'”

He, like many, cannot wait to see the Nunawading furniture precinct bustling again. And who knows? Leaner, smarter business plans may be implemented by many small businesses, he adds. “On the other side of this pandemic, all businesses will be re-inventing themselves and looking for better efficiency.”

In the meantime, he’s channelling a positive outlook. “Attitude is everything and I’m coping well so far: it’s just a matter of rolling up the sleeves and getting on with the job for now.”

The Victorian Government has a range of programs, advice and information to support business through the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19). These can be found on the Business Victoria website or by calling Business Victoria’s coronavirus hotline on 13 22 15.