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Total Lifestyle Retailing At Acanthus

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Tim Badgley and Dean Howlett built a group of home furnishings stores in the same town connected by their vision and personal touch.

Tim Badgley and Dean Howlett built a group of home furnishings stores in the same town connected by their vision and personal touch.

Its A Total Concept... Everything for your home and outdoors, for the holidays and giftgiving. The concept involves one's entire lifestyle, your whole personal world.


There are certain small Ontario towns that charm your socks off. Visualize shady streets and heritage homes with Gothic windows, stained glass, gingerbread, stucco, native stone or patterned brick set in manicured, jewel-like gardens. Many of these little settlements boast rivers with the attendant, quintessential mill, a few still operational. Others, like Port Hope, enjoy summer breezes from Lake Ontario and bask in the warm and fuzzy memories of bustling economies dating back to the early 19th century.

City fathers then saw Port Hope as the likely principal city of Upper Canada, the eminence now claimed by the metropolis of Toronto. Wealthy American citizens sailed across the Lake and built sumptuous holiday cottages along the shore. Some of those retreats have been lovingly preserved as imposing residences or welcoming bed and breakfast establishments.

As a child, Tim Badgley spent halcyon vacations at a cottage on Little Lake, just east of Port Hope. Eight years ago he introduced his partner, Dean Howlett, to the irresistible attractions of the area and, just a few days later, they discovered and acquired a classic Ontario cottage built in the 1850s. Immediately thereafter the partners leased space for Acanthus Interiors, their first enduring enterprise. They had begun to evolve a dream.

Dean, a born retailer and Tim, a talented designer and display merchandiser, are naturals. They exude contagious enthusiasm. The 1992 recession and bankers' unresponsive attitudes failed to dampen their resolve. After pooling personal assets they raised $80,000 to kick-start their multiple ventures. Since then, they have maintained steady growth.

Acanthus flows through two floors of yet another 1850s former residence on Port Hope's John Street. The stately 2,400 square foot structure boasts large bay windows, a graceful winding staircase, classic balconies, and an elegant entrance with double transom doors. The lower floor is devoted to the partners' highly eclectic home furnishings collections, upholstery, casegoods, lighting, antiques, rugs, flower arrangements, mirrors, artwork, candles and accessories of all sorts. Think brass, gold, yellow, cream, black and brown, a sophisticated international pot pourri of shades and tones. Dean explained, "When clients walk through Acanthus I want the ambiance to reflect to them how everything might look, how it might be placed, in their own homes." The decor plan changes at least twice a year.

Upstairs the residential and commercial design service is housed, a vast array of tempting fabric swatches, an on-site workroom where custom draperies, bedding and upholstery are fabricated and more showrooms packed with accessories.

This Other Eden, their 1995 brainchild, a highly successful garden accessory venture, is located in the outdoor space directly behind Acanthus, and is open from May to September. Items are as unique as the home furnishings, statuary, wall hangings, planters, fountains, and birdbaths interwoven throughout the flower beds.

Also in 1995, the Port Hope entrepreneurs conceived Your Christmas Gift Shoppe, a unique concept that rotates store locations. The shop is open each year between October and January, so they seek out new retail space to lease for this period only, saving considerably in overhead. There is one strict rule; no red is ever used. "We do a lot of gold and ivory," said Howlett.

Across John Street from Acanthus you'll find Retreat, the partners' lush bed, bath and linen shop, opened in 1997. Retreat's mood, appropriately, is calm and soothing in muted shades of blues and greens. Here the partners stock luxurious linens, fixtures and decorative accessories, fragrant soaps, feather beds and duvets and even a design-feature functional sink, great for customers to try product. Special linens for hard to fit beds can be custom ordered.

And they're not stopping there. Next year they plan to celebrate 2001 by adding an additional 3,000 square feet devoted to furniture and accessories.

The shops' activities are all interactive; one attracts or complements the other. "It's a total concept. Everything for your home and outdoors, for the holidays and giftgiving. The concept involves one's entire lifestyle, your whole personal world."

The interior design element of Acanthus' service has developed hand in hand with the retail outlet. "A lot of our furniture is placed in our clients' homes, an advertisement in a sense, since it shows what we can do.

"We don't follow trends at Acanthus. We make trends. We express the unique." Clients fully endorse their inspirations and rely upon them to build decor environments.

Items, they told us, are usually reordered once, twice sometimes, but never more than that, so all stores remain cutting edge. Acanthus product turns six times a year for smaller items and two or three times for sofas and chairs. Retreat records four to five turns annually.

Dean and Tim shop the High Point Market every April, the two major Canadian Furniture Markets in January and June, and the January and August Canadian Gift and Tableware Shows. "If we like it we buy it. And we make our decisions quickly. Our suppliers include Highland House, Universal, Regency House, Chelsea House, and Canadian companies, Concordian Chesterfield, Vogel and Korson. It's our intent to expose our customers to the best product available anywhere."

Howlett and Badgley have not yet developed a computerized inventory control system. This will come soon but, in the meantime, they gather their staff once a year and, by hand, inventory all stores.

Client/storekeeper relationships are very personal. Clients may leave the area but they remain loyal and continue to buy. Receipts, Dean tells us, are written by hand.

Demographic study shows the average customer is between 25 and 55. Single incomes are "around $50,000 and up" and "doubles range between $100,000 to $150,000". The Acanthus Group attracts clientele from a huge orbit in the province of Ontario. Port Hope is located east of Toronto on the lake shore but people travel from as far west as Windsor across the river from Detroit, and north as far as Collingwood on Lake Huron.

Acanthus does little print advertising and no television or radio promotion. However, they keep excellent preferred customer lists and twice annually invite a total of 3,500 people to attend catered open house events. "The Christmas two-day promotion is very lucrative." They do two fifths of their business during this time. The second event takes place in May, just before or right after the Victoria Day long weekend and, of course, This Other Eden is the featured locale.

And you will find them in unusual publications like the Garden Travel Journal in the area, reviewed as "a hometown delight not to be missed".

There are nine full time and one part time employee at Acanthus. Three are seamstresses who create draperies and cushions. "We treat them like the professionals they are," said Dean. Retreat has one full time and two part time people, while This Other Eden poaches from Acanthus. When in operation, This Other Eden is staffed by one full time and one part time employee. All staffers are paid above minimum wage and are offered sales incentives. There is very little turnover. January 1999, Dean and Tim treated their full time staff to a five-day all expense paid holiday in Las Vegas and, at Christmas, a Holt Renfrew shopping spree.

Community involvement in small town Ontario is vital and the partners have been very active with renovation fund raising for the historic Capitol Theatre. "We have given both time and money to this cause. And we've sponsored evenings for Friends of Music."

That gorgeous Ontario cottage is now fully renovated, so dramatically that it was featured in a recent issue of Century Home Magazine. As you would expect, the landscaping is equally engaging and includes two koi-populated ponds. Dean, as a child, had ambitions to be a vet. "The koi and finches in the house help to satisfy that dream. And the newest member of our family, Madison, our gorgeous black and white Border Collie, comes to Acanthus with us every day. People drop by the store just to see Madison," he smiled.

In 1999 the Acanthus Group won the prestigious CGTA Eastern Canada Retailer of the Year Award, and was recognized by the Port Hope and District Chamber of Commerce with a Business Excellence Award.

Centers like Port Hope will never lose their appeal. You are cordially invited to participate in the Acanthus Groups' upcoming Christmas event, Saturday and Sunday, November 11th and 12th. (This year the location is a lovely old house at 57 John Street.) Put it in your daytimer. And on Saturday, December 2nd, the partners are heavily involved in Port Hope's Annual Christmas House Tour.

Dean says, "The houses are an interesting mix, two new homes and four heritage homes. The charities are the Children's Wish Foundation and the Capitol Theatre, the donation $20. Please come!" You owe yourself a Canadian adventure!

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.