Ethnicraft: ‘Solid wood requires knowledge and craftsmanship’

Ethnicraft, a furniture maker based in Boom, has achieved global success over the last 25 years thanks to the timeless quality of its pieces. ‘All our pieces have to fit into different styles, age well and be repairable.’ Ethnicraft is now building a new distribution centre in the US with support from KBC.

The M rack, a shelving unit inspired by painter Piet Mondrian’s intersecting lines, has been a staple of the furniture maker's range for 20 years. Even after all this time, it is still one of the top ten best-selling items, says CEO Benoit Loos. ‘A perfect example of our philosophy: a timeless piece that works just as well in a townhouse as it does in a loft or a more traditional home.’

This is the trademark of the Boom-based company, which started 25 years ago and has since become a global player in furniture and accessories made from premium materials, with a turnover of 125 million euros. ‘We are fully vertically integrated, which is quite unique in our industry, and certainly in Belgium,’ Loos explains. ‘This means we develop the designs ourselves, make them in our own workshops and distribute them worldwide under our own name. We do this mainly because we work with solid wood, which requires knowledge and skill. By standing in for the producing ourselves, we maintain quality control.’

Loos makes clear that delivering timeless quality is not easy. ‘You shouldn’t jump on every trend, and you should certainly say no a lot. That’s something we learned over time. A few years ago, everything had to be thick and solid, but now it’s back to being elegant and refined. We stand by our principles and try to make only slight adjustments. All our pieces have to fit into different styles, age well and be repairable. What’s more, they should also hold appeal in the US and Asia.’

A US perspective

Ethnicraft not only sells through retailers, the company also does contract work making custom interiors for spaces such as offices, restaurants and hotels. The aim is for these activities to eventually account for 40 to 50% of turnover. ‘During the pandemic, we sold a huge amount through retail. The pendulum has now swung in the other direction and people are spending less on interiors and more on entertainment and experiences. By styling restaurants and hotels, we can also benefit from that trend.’

The Boom-based company has grown to achieve global success. Its products are developed by in-house designers in Belgium (‘wood requires special expertise’) and it boasts a large 20 000-square-metre warehouse and a 2 000-square-metre showroom, with further plans to expand. There are also distribution centres in Aix-en-Provence in France, High Point in the US, and offices in Indonesia. There are also factories in Serbia, Indonesia, Poland and Italy. ‘Each location has its own specialisation. The combination of handcrafting and machine work is a strength of ours,’ says Benoit Loos.

The largest project in the pipeline is the construction of a new warehouse and showroom in the US which will be around 25 000 square metres in size. ‘For the first 15 years, we served US customers directly from Europe, but that approach became cumbersome, especially since we always deliver from stock. Now we do our sales and distribution in the country itself. Last year, we made 25 million euros in US sales, and we’re aiming to double that figure in five years.’

In order to finance the US distribution centre and showroom, Ethnicraft was able to rely on support from its main bank, KBC Commercial Banking. ‘Setting up a project like this from scratch with a local bank in the US would have been difficult. A US bank will naturally see things from a US perspective, but KBC knows our history and looks at the bigger picture.’

A US bank will see things from a US perspective, but KBC knows our history and looks at the bigger picture

Benoit Loos - CEO Ethnicraft

An edge in IT

For a company like Ethnicraft, a domestic bank that also operates abroad is essential, according to Benoit Loos. ‘You need a bank that can help you open an account and that is familiar with the financing options and the property market, but that can still approach things with the Belgian frame of mind. Our project required several meetings with US lawyers, so a bank with knowledge of US legislation can move things forward.’

Providing a company with that level of support requires a bank to know the company inside and out, says Katja Van Genechten, Relationship Manager at KBC Commercial Banking. ‘I feel my role is to know what’s going on: how is the company or group doing financially, what are its objectives, and how might current events have an impact? We regularly challenge each other during meetings and presentations so that we stay on our toes. We’ll exchange ideas about the sector, discuss possible acquisitions, how the bank views the file and that sort of thing.’
The bank also assists Ethnicraft in its day-to-day operations. ‘We think that KBC has an edge when it comes to IT. We have lots of accounts and lines of credit, so it’s extremely useful that our expense reports are sent automatically to our accounting software, for example. As a result, we’re frequently in contact with the bank’s IT department.’

Leasing furniture instead of buying

KBC is also assisting Ethnicraft with sustainability, though this largely concerns reporting as the company already has its own clear vision in this area. That’s why it chooses to work with solid wood, a premium material meant to last a long time. There is also a project underway to use entirely natural protective packaging made from coconut fibres.

It also launched the Live Light service which allows customers to lease furniture through a subscription. ‘Once the lease period has ended, the customer can return the furniture to the workshop where it can be reconditioned and leased out again, or they can buy it at the residual value.’

The company also sells second-hand Ethnicraft furniture that has been refurbished in its workshop under its ‘Re-Loved’ label. ‘This extends the life of the pieces and puts the circular economy into practice,’ says Katja Van Genechten. ‘KBC sees this as further proof of Ethnicraft’s excellence in innovation and entrepreneurship, and a demonstration that they can deliver on their promises when it comes to doing business sustainably.’

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