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MFI was for many years the UK's biggest general furniture retailer ahead of DFS, as well as one of the country's biggest advertisers. It was known for selling a broad range of household fixtures and furnishings but specialised in low-priced fitted kitchens and bedrooms, arranging more than 12,000 installations each week through a chain of just over 200 stores, mostly large out-of-town outlets. It stocked a wide variety of own label products, sold under the Hygena and Schreiber brands, as well as leading third-party fixtures and appliances. After years of financial difficulty, it was forced to call in administrators in November 2008. No willing buyer was found and the chain closed its doors permanently a month later. In 2011, it was resurrected as an online-only business by ecommerce specialist Victoria Plumb.
MFI was launched in 1964 by entrepreneurs Noel Lister and Donald Searle as Mullard Furniture Industries. (Mullard was the maiden name of Donald Searle's wife). Initially they sold flat-pack furniture by mail order out of a single store in North London, but a chain of outlets was gradually established during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The company floated in 1971. In the 1980s, MFI acquired Hygena, a manufacturer of fitted kitchens first established in the 1930s, and by 1984 the company was the acknowledged leader in self-assembly furniture in the UK (until overtaken in the 1990s by Ikea).
In 1985, MFI merged with supermarket chain Asda, but that partnership proved unhappy and MFI's management bought out the business again in 1987, acquiring Schreiber Furniture a year later. The group floated once more in 1992. MFI moved into textiles and soft furnishings in the 1990s and established trade supplier Howden Joinery in 1995 to make kitchen cabinets and other furniture for wholesale to trade customers. In the early 2000s, the group began selling bathroom fixtures and fittings for the first time, as well as upholstered furniture following the acquisition of Sofa Workshop in 2002.
Like others in the sector, the main MFI retail business experienced difficult trading in the mid-2000s, and performance plunged during the second half of 2005. Rivals Courts and Furnitureland both went bust that year. MFI's problems were compounded by poor supply chain systems and over-ambitious attempts to expand internationally, primarily in France as Hygena, but also in the US and Asia. The various international operations were sold or closed in 2005 and 2006.
Ironically, as MFI itself struggled with declining performance, the Howden trade division went from strength to strength. As a result, the parent group put the loss-making MFI retail business up for sale in 2006 in order to concentrate on its wholesale arm. In the end, the group agreed to pay private equity consortium Merchant Equity Partners (MEP) a dowry of £75m over three years to take the retail operations off its books. High street retailer Sofa Workshop was sold on to furniture chain New Heights and the group company, now focused solely on Howden's, changed its name to Galiform.
Gary Favell was appointed as the new CEO of MFI Retail in 2007, with Chris Pavlosky as COO. However, the British economy continued to decline during 2007 and 2008 leading to a growing threat that the new MFI would be forced into administration. In September 2008, it was rescued at the 11th hour by its management team, who agreed to acquire the business from MEP for a nominal sum. After two months of further decline, the business finally collapsed in November.
The MFI name was acquired by Victoria Plumb, an online retailer of bathroom furniture, and the business was relaunched as an online-only reseller in November 2011.
Last full revision 14th December 2014
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