A willingness to learn, listening to customers and carving her role as a woman in the workplace has helped Deborah Drexler thrive in her career, and in business, at furniture brand Matt Blatt.
Deborah started the business with her husband Adam, a qualified electrical engineer who ran a successful furniture manufacturing business from the early 1980s.
But as China gained momentum and Chinese-made products began infiltrating the Australian market, they quickly discovered they could no longer compete.
“All of a sudden, it was cheaper to buy a finished product, landed in Australia, than it was for us to buy the raw materials we needed to make our product. The time had come to change our business model – we started importing” said Drexler.
So began a foray into the world of online commerce in the late 1990s, as Drexler and her husband sold imported furniture on eBay. It was popular and items sold out quickly.
Despite the fact that they were adventurous in their product selection and were bringing in items nobody else was selling, copycats soon caught on.
Drexler said they wanted more privacy and control and by the early 2000s, the pair decided to create their own website and sell direct to the public.
“One day a misspelled label on a box that was delivered to us read ‘matt blatt’ – it was meant to say ‘matte black’ – and that’s how we chose our business name. It was generic, it was quirky and it left us open to go in any direction,” she said.
By this stage, Matt Blatt had a website, a warehouse, and a small showroom where customers could browse and collect their online orders. It also allowed for more face-to-face interaction with customers.
“It started out as a humble, tiny business and grew sustainably over the years. I never thought we would ever have a space as large as a show room,” Drexler said.
But creating an environment where people could find inspiration and where furniture shopping could be pleasant was always a goal for Drexler and her husband.
“We wanted to make shopping for furniture a more enjoyable experience for people. I felt there needed to be more colour and variety, and people can certainly find that in our pieces,” Drexler said.
Career and business advice
Throughout her career, Drexler said she has had to work hard to carve her role within Matt Blatt.
“In running a business, I feel like I have a voice. But I also have to make myself heard in the workplace – especially in the boardroom, where I am the only female,” she said.
“I find that if I lower my voice and deliver my points in a very direct and factual way, what I have to say has been well received in boardroom meetings.”
Every facet of Drexler’s experience working in the business has pushed her to learn and grow, professionally.
“Since working at Matt Blatt, I have become quite business-minded, more strategic and more analytical over the years, which is not the way I have always thought about things.
“I’ve learned to analyse and I think that’s good because you want to be well-rounded and look at things in a holistic way. But you also need the emotion and the passion to feel driven. I care so deeply about what we do; the business is like my other child, it’s become part of me.”
Drexler said a huge part of her day-to-day decision making comes down to trusting her intuition.
“I think I have also had to learn to go with my gut feeling – a lot of business decisions I make are based on this. If something doesn’t feel right, you shouldn’t go with it,” she said.
Reflecting on her career, Drexler said one crucial skill she has learned was to listen.
“It’s important to listen. Listen twice as much as you talk. That includes listening to your co-workers and customers,” she said.
While staying abreast of furniture and design trends has allowed Drexler and her team to source unique pieces of furniture, listening to customer feedback has been crucial in growing the business.
“I think people have become more design-savvy over the years. They have such a way of knowing and embracing different styles, and we adapt our range based on customer demand and feedback,” she said.
A willingness to learn has been an important aspect of doing business too, Drexler said.
When starting at Matt Blatt, she didn’t have a background in furniture, importing or retail, so had to learn everything from scratch.
“I didn’t know the first thing about anything. I didn’t even know what products we were going to bring in. So, I went on this big learning curve,” she said.
“But we’ve always been true to the idea that if you buy something you love it will bring joy into your home”.
Striking work-life balance
Running your own business often means it can be challenging to draw the distinction between work time and personal time.
One thing that Drexler and her family sometimes do is hold meetings over a meal, so that they can get through work-related items while still enjoying some time together.
“We often come up with ideas and brainstorm over what I call ‘eating meetings’, where we discuss business stuff over meals,” she said.
Drexler said aside from eating well and making time to look after herself, she has to make a conscious decision to honour work-life balance.
“I have to be deliberate about striking a balance between work and life time. I do yoga twice a week and it is my time and I am so protective of that. It’s very important for me. Yoga helps me to recharge. It allows me to switch off and then come back to the business feeling refreshed,” she said.
“Adam and I also have our coffees on the weekend and look at the papers and have some time out. It’s good for us to have some mental time away from work too.”
Matt Blatt has multiple stores across Australia, including showrooms in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Adelaide and Canberra. Learn more about Matt Blatt here.