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Plugged in.

With Stuart Horwood

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Stuart Horwood
 

Stuart Horwood, the engine behind 15o8 London, is a man of many layers. Looking sharp as a pin when we meet at their London Victoria headquarters, he cuts a convincing corporate figure with years of experience driving successful businesses. But life outside of work is much more simple and often dirty! Work hard, play hard seems to be the order of the day and you’d best do it with polished shoes if you stand any chance of being accepted into the fold.

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You are CEO and partner of one of the world's leading interior design studios, but it wasn't a traditional path into the industry. Can you tell me a bit more about your background and how your role at 15o8 came about?

My background has always been business consultancy. I've travelled all around the world, working in different countries for the government, banking, manufacturing, hi-tech, telecomms etc. My forte in the last 20 years has been picking up distressed businesses, or businesses that are floundering, and reshaping them. I give them a new vision, a new strategy, and then help to execute it all and get them back on the map. And that's what I’ve done with 15o8.

 

It all started when I was approached by one of the three co-founders of 15o8 who I knew from corporate life, because she had been my Executive Assistant in the city for about 3 or 4 years. The 3 of them were keen to set up an interior design studio, but didn’t have experience of running a business - putting processes in place, shareholder agreements, loan agreements etc. So I agreed to help in a consultancy capacity 1 day a month, because I was working for Morgan Stanley at the time and a couple of other big city firms. After one year, one of the three left, and after two years, the second of the three left. In July 2012 I got a call from the new non-exec Chairman asking me to come in one day a week, but within two months I was working four days a week as COO. For the next two years, I ran the operation, sorted it out, drove a lot of business through the studio and in 2015 I then became CEO. I've run it ever since.

 

Would you say your corporate approach to running 15o8 has made it the success

it is today?

 

Yes I think so. It's about setting a goal, setting a strategy, growing, expanding, making sure that the product is right, making sure the internal processes are right, establishing and creating a big enough team to deliver and a big enough team to go out and get the work. The next step is finding out which countries are the best ones to go for, which sectors are the best to go for, and then finding the right staff to bring into the company to execute a dynamic and progressive vision.

 

How did you find the shift from corporate to creative? Is the mindset very different?

 

100%. That has been one of the biggest challenges, because in corporate life most people are there to run a business, do deals and make money. In this industry, however, most people are creative so they want to design. It’s one thing designing a house that a client likes and wants to pay for, but to make a successful and viable business out of designing is a different kettle of fish altogether. 

When you become a company of 50+ you have a different set of challenges. You've got to find HR people, finance people, billing, invoice management, IT experts, technology and licensing. Your company's now a different company. The creatives are our greatest asset, but you've still got to wrap around that a corporate setup and management to ensure the financial success and growth of the business. In corporate life, you'll find that everyone is geared towards that. In the design industry, the focus is typically not the same and you have to move on the people that can't make it and find the people that can. That's a difficult task.

Is there anything that you would have
done differently?

 

There are a lot of egos in this industry and design is subjective. For one brief you could get endless different designs - all valid, all great designs. At 15o8 we've got a freedom in our design. We've got 10 design directors and no one above them so it’s a collaborative approach, because lots of people contribute to our designs. We got to that position a bit later on in the history of 15o8 - if we'd gotten there earlier, that would've been really good. Secondly, going around the world, I think we could have moved quicker to get into Russia, but the present sanctions stopped us just as we were launching there. We should have been in America three years earlier, and we should have had offices in the Far East three years earlier than we did. We’re there now, but we could have established them so much earlier, and we'd probably be twice as big as we are now.

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You've grown considerably in the UK and internationally so you must have become pretty savvy at knowing what you’re looking for when hiring?

 

We know the people that we want and that's why we’ve been using Plug. for the past 12 years, because you have access to the right people all over the world. 

I know what we need from a management point of view. Laura, our Studio Director and Partner, knows what we need in terms of studio skillset and Hamish, Sales & Marketing Director and Partner, knows what we need from a business and sales perspective. Then collectively we work out exactly who we need and try to go and find them. 1508 is modelled on a corporate but feels like a family so it’s important we find the right culture fit when we hire someone. Their design skills are a given, otherwise they wouldn’t have got to the interview in the first place. Then after that it is purely down to: Are they right? Are they collegiate? Are they a teamworker? Do they have the right work ethics? We work very hard here, and we have had people who haven't stayed the course, because they couldn't keep up with the pace. Those that are here, of course, we have to be very careful to keep. They're sought after elsewhere, because we have the best talent and the kudos of working for 15o8 London increases your value.​

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“I look at whether their shoes

are polished.”

What's a deal breaker for you when you meet someone? I’ve heard that shoes play
a part…

 

Well, funny you should say that. There’s an element of truth in that, and also in their handshake. I look at whether shoes are polished. Are they well presented? If they're too outlandish, it could be a no. There needs to be a certain style that represents our brand. They need to take pride in themselves as then they’ll take pride in their work and the way they approach our clients. So I often do a quick glance to see if they’ve polished their shoes, yes. If they invest in themselves for an interview, it means they're serious about having a proper job. If they aren’t bothered to make themselves look well turned-out, then I assume they won’t be too bothered about their work and I wouldn’t be happy sending them out in front of clients, representing the brand.

With 8 international offices now, how do you manage the juggle between work life and home life?

 

I'm in the studio probably before most people. I'm in about quarter past eight in the morning and I'll leave at 7.30 /  8 o'clock at night. I've got an hour and a half travel each way from East Sussex so I'm doing a 14 or 15 hour day but I’m happy being busy. I don’t like to sit around and I want to be surrounded by other do’ers. I expect a similar sort of commitment from everyone around me.

I’ve got a 450 year old house on a small holding and I will eventually have sheep and chickens on there. I'm an outdoor person, not a city man. I’ve worked and played in the city all my life, but really my other happy place is in the countryside. I can be in my boots up to my ankles in mud on the farm cutting down trees or lambing at the weekends. But in the city I can sit on the board of any company and no one would know that I enjoy a farming life as well. It’s the balance I need though, and one that works well for me. Being on the farm can be complete escapism for me

How do you use your time on the long commute each day?

I usually do some work, but I also read. I read the Economist, Foreign Affairs, and I just finished a degree this year in Politics, International Relations and International Economics, so that involved a lot of reading and writing of essays. 

The book I’m reading at the moment is called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It was given to me to read by our HR Director, because she thinks I’m an Outlier! 

I know I’m different and I don’t mind it.

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And what does that mean? To be an Outlier?

 

It means you're different - you don’t fit the standard mould. People may not understand you. Your pace, your work, your mindset, everything about you is different. You are different from the norm. I know I'm different anyway from all the quirks that I have and I don’t mind it. It's never really bothered me. The truth in life, I think, is once you understand yourself and you like yourself, then you'll understand and like others. 

I'm on the spectrum - I have Aspergers - so when I was young, people didn't understand what that was. I had no idea what it was. It's only recently that it’s become a word that people have heard.

​​You must be good with people though to be able to run a company of over 150 people and have worked in such high-powered corporate jobs previously?

 

I was on the board at BT. Before that I worked for the government and went to cabinet twice a week. I've worked for NATO. But when you work at this level, you have to very quickly understand people. You have to look at their skills and their strengths and then my job is to use each of their different skills to collectively run a company. Some people say Stuart’s far too hard. Some people say Stuart's far too soft. And they’re right - I'm bits of everything. And that is what Outliers is all about. What makes a person different from all the rest? What's happened in their youth, what's happened in their education, what's happening in their mind? Why did they excel above everybody else? And why do they keep excelling? I am only as good as the team I have. My success is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

“You can't fail in life if you’re

energised and motivated.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given or a rule that you live by?

 

I'm never going to stop working. I think the trick in life is to put one foot in front of the other and just keep walking. Then as you walk forward, you gain more of a positive outlook on life. Don't live on the periphery of anything. Everything you do, you go into it to do the very best of your ability. My favourite sayings that I live by and use are “Don't put off til tomorrow what you can do today” and  “Where there's a will, there's a way”. So if someone says, “Oh, I didn't have time to do something” just because they don't want to, or someone says, “Sorry, I've got in a bit late today. The trains are always late.” It’s an excuse and not acceptable to me. It’s about what message you send out in the world, and you send a message out in the world by what you say, how you say it, how you look when you say it, your body language, how you hold yourself, the way you speak to people, the way you walk into a room. Anyone could do anything in this world. Anyone could have any job. I've employed people, both in 1508 and in previous companies, and put them into senior positions within months, because they have the energy and they have the commitment. So if you've got a will, you've got a way. You can't fail in life if you’re energised and motivated.

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How do you keep yourself and your team motivated and energised? 

It is hard work. As a team we meet regularly and we work out what the business is today, what it was yesterday, have we delivered on everything and how did we do? If there's a problem, how do we mitigate it? I have a range of reports that I run and these reports literally are the dashboard of the company. It's like being in a racing car all the time - you can't stop and put your feet up, because you're in a race and everyone in the car is helping drive, helping direct, helping coordinate, helping look after and maintain the engine. If one person is not there, there would be a problem. So teamwork is paramount.

But we have a bit of fun as well. We go away for a management meeting every quarter and last quarter we did a murder mystery evening, which was fun - we were all dressed like Peaky Blinders. I got a beautiful coat from a charity shop which I loved wearing. You’ve got to have fun and play. We've taken the team out to tree tops, we've been paddle boarding, wine tasting, shooting, go-karting, fly-fishing... I'm aware we do drive the team quite hard so it’s important we have fun along the way.

We also keep the team and the management team motivated by looking ahead at what’s next. It becomes a personal challenge to then achieve that. The demand is high, but the commitment is high and I've selected people over the last 6, 7, 8 years specifically for their tenacity, their energy, their skillset, their drive and their self-motivation to achieve great things. If you've got a collective of those great people, then you've got group motivation and you've got a group dynamic to go out and achieve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do you make time for the stuff that you love doing?

 

I don't need much sleep. I've never really needed much sleep. I’m very disciplined - I think it comes from my training. I'm very well trained and therefore I have a good physical tenacity and a good mental tenacity. You need to have both - one looks after the other. I also use my time wisely. If I went on holiday, it wouldn't be to laze around on the beach - that’s a waste of time for me. It has to be an experience like going on a safari in South Africa or going on a city break to Rome. ​​I want to always be learning, experiencing, doing. 

'What does a typical weekend look like for you?

 

Last weekend I was splitting logs in the rain by 9.30 in the morning. I had a bunch of family up so we all had breakfast early and we went out logging in the rain. I get everyone involved. Then I was carting my grandchildren around to wherever they needed to go - Basketball, friends houses etc.

We had a big dinner party that evening with 20 people there so that went on late.

I did four hours of sorting out fencing down by the forest on my paddocks. I do fencing or land management or tree management or logging for at least four or more hours every weekend because I'm preparing all the land for the chickens and sheep.

And then on a Friday / Saturday / Sunday evening, I'm always either at someone's for dinner or people are at mine for cards - I play everything you can think of; Bridge, Canaster, Texas Holden Poker, Wist - most card games in fact.

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If you weren’t running 15o8 what would you like to do?

I’d do a PHD in Politics and International Economics.

 

Favourite album? 

 

Cream

Cats or dogs? 

 

Dogs 

 

Your last meal

Starter - Prawn Cocktail

Main - anything with Broccoli. I love it and eat it every day. It keeps me young.

Dessert - Spotted Dick and Custard

Lastly, I'm interested to know, why are those leaves on your windowsill?

 

These are from a maple tree - absolutely beautiful - and when I first picked them up they were green. I’ve put them here on the windowsill to watch them change colour and slowly they’ve gone from green, to orange and red and now they’ve dried out completely but they’re still beautiful. I was going to make a picture out of them and put them in a frame to hang on my wall here in the office. A touch of nature. I love appreciating the small things, it gives me great pleasure.

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