- Tess Van Straaten Photography by Lia Crowe
Chris Rothery’s passion for furniture and design dates back to when he was still in high school.
“It might have started in shop class!” says the 45-year-old owner of Chester Fields, a high-end furniture store in Victoria and now Nanaimo, with a laugh. “I became interested in furniture in my late teens and I like doing something with my hands. I appreciate quality and I appreciate other people creating things that are beautiful and interesting and quality, so I’ve always wanted to be a part of that.”
After graduating from Camosun College’s fine furniture program, Chris spent a few years making furniture for different companies before starting his own custom furniture business, making dining tables, chairs, free-standing cabinets and other pieces out of a little workshop in Rock Bay.
“I then opened up a little gallery in Dragon Alley [where he was living at the time] and eventually, we moved out of there to a slightly larger place, and then another slightly larger place, and then another slightly larger place,” Chris explains. “I didn’t have much business experience, so I was just kind of winging it, but with just a lot of passion and care and love for design and interiors.”
The next progression for Chris was to move more into a retail direction, after he found his passion for creating furniture waning.
“I found that it was difficult to do it as a job and still love it,” he explains. “I was just trying to get by, and I felt very compromised making furniture. But I enjoy talking about furniture, and I enjoy interacting with people about it, so the retail aspect came from that.”
That store, Only Human Modern Furniture, would also teach Chris the toughest lesson of this entrepreneurial evolution. After a couple of hard years, he was forced to close the store in 2014.
“I was in way over my head and I think I let my passion interest rule everything, when really I needed to balance that out with a successful business,” Chris admits, saying it was the biggest mistake of his career.
“That was a very painful mistake at the time and the failure was excruciating. But in retrospect, it’s what got me to where I am now, which is a place where I feel comfortable, and I feel good and confident about what I’m doing. All the things that I’ve been picking up were worth something and they got put back into a package that is Chester Fields.”
Chris also decided to partner with Ross Taylor and Amber Leask, who had a lot more business experience, when Chester Fields launched in Victoria more than nine years ago, offering modern, high-quality, and mostly Canadian-designed furniture and lightning.
“We have a really unique offering in that what we sell here, with a couple of small exceptions, isn’t sold anywhere else in town, and probably 80 per cent of what’s in our showroom is designed by Canadians, which is a point of pride for me,” he says. “We’ve always been purveyors of things that are sort of on the cutting edge in terms of design.”
With people driving from all over Vancouver Island—from Campbell River and the Comox Valley to Port Alberni, Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley—to visit the Victoria store, Chester Fields opened the Nanaimo location in May, and Chris says the response from the Central Island market has been great.
“We get a lot of people walking in and they say things like: ‘Finally, there’s something like this!’ and ‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ and ‘Nanaimo needs something like this!’ So, it’s been very positive. And then there’s lots of people who are just seeing this kind of stuff for the first time.”
For Chris, who recently completed a Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurial Management at Royal Roads University, the biggest lesson in his small business career has been that you can’t be everything to everyone.
“You have to kind of stick to what you’re very good at and push that, and roll with it, and really go for it,” he advises. “Defining what we are—and what we’re bringing to the consumer—has been really important, so that we aren’t chasing something new all the time. We’re doing what we’re really good at.”
Chris says this all stems from the best advice he’s ever been given, which is to really understand your customer’s needs, and then be very good at satisfying that need.
“You really need to ask people what they want,” Chris says. “Don’t presume you know! Just because you think you have a good business idea, doesn’t mean it will work. Ask and make sure, and you’ll probably find you might be wrong or you can tweak something and really hit it out of the park.”
Chris says he did that a lot before opening the Nanaimo store, joking that any chance he got to talk to someone moderately interested in modern furniture north of the Malahat turned into a mini market-research session.
“There’s lots of research you can do without a budget and those answers are very valuable,” Chris explains. “They can make you a success and save you a lot of pain.”
With constant challenges from online competitors and more manufacturers moving toward a direct-to-consumer model, knowing your market is more important than ever in such a competitive landscape. Chris says having a physical showroom where people can actually sit on and feel things also helps.
“It’s a lot easier to buy a pair of shoes online than to buy a sofa,” he says with a laugh.
As for the career and successful business he’s crafted after many design iterations?
“It’s been a bit of a long winding road to get to this point and my advice to other entrepreneurs is to expect that things won’t be a straight line,” Chris says. “Be comfortable with uncertainty but at the same time, don’t be reckless.”