Tema Home – The discreet charm of wood

on Oct 1, 2008 in Portuguese success | No Comments

Stephan Morais’ Tema Home is a world of creativity and success, with some of the best Portuguese designers creating furniture for clients as illustrious as the King of Norway.

Stephan Morais passes the factory, explaining what the enormous machines are for. Men can be seen dressed in white from head to toe in a room off limits to the public. They are painting furniture with the utmost care, making sure not one grain of sand passes from their fingers on to the pieces they have created. “This is our mission control”, jokes our part-time guide.

The tour continues. The background noise is deafening. Ready-packed furniture is piled everywhere. The manager has just returned from the main office in Lisbon to the factory which lies some 150km further north in Tomar. He takes time to say hello to every employee and asks how things are going. As our visit draws to a close the noise becomes muffled. Outside the office is a blank wall with a calendar and photographs of smiling faces taken every month for the last two years. These are employees who have been rewarded for their hard work. Awards for excellence. And excellence punctuates the history of the company, Tema Home, which has ventured into the highly competitive market of high-quality furniture.

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The man who didn’t want to be an engineer

Stephan was born in London. His parents were outward-looking Portuguese lawyers. He could have embarked from there on a journey to more far-flung climes.

He spent his childhood in Portugal. Private schools and burgeoning ambition led Stephan to train as an engineer at the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisboa. He spent his final semester in Paris. Once graduated, he turned his back on engineering completely, and chose a different path. At 23, he joined the World Bank, where he worked on privatizations in Africa, Asia and South America. Later, he returned to London to work in strategic consulting.

At this point, he should have consolidated the knowledge he had gained, but being the exception to the rule, Stephan abandoned the financial stability he had achieved. He won a grant to go to the United States. At Harvard he did an MBA specializing in risk capital and investment funds, which prepared him for a career change. “When I left, I came to work in Portugal for the first time”. The Portuguese government invited him to work on the winding up of a state enterprise and he then got involved in the reorganization of the energy sector. Once this was complete, he was invited to join Energias de Portugal (EDP), where he ended up running the President’s office. Stephan won the confidence of one of the biggest companies in Portugal and was asked to direct a firm belonging to EDP in Bilbao, the Basque country.

It was here that things changed again for Stephan. In mid-2006, an unknown Portuguese furniture company was losing its investors. Ever alert, Stephan saw his opportunity. He assembled a management team and bought out the company with the help of some Portuguese investment funds. He began restructuring, starting with the factory and finishing off with a new identity. Tema Home was preparing for the future.

The mother of all reinventions

As with all success stories, Tema started out a long time ago, in 1981 to be precise. Born of an interesting Norwegian and Portuguese partnership, for many years Tema made kitchens, wooden panelling and the like. It supplied other names, notably IKEA. In the mid-1990s, the Swedish marvel abandoned Portugal (whence it would later return under its own name) obliging Tema to look for markets elsewhere. Having lost one of its most faithful clients, the company turned to international furniture fairs. Needs must and so it started to invest in “Scandinavian-influenced design, with clean, minimalist contours” and, slowly but surely, began to make a name for itself abroad. Appearing at trade fairs like Milan and Cologne, it started off along the path it treads today with impressive sales volume, 90% of which is for export

Despite undergoing profound change, the brand has not forgotten the lessons learned over the years. In almost three decades of its existence, it has had to deal with the cyclical crises of the furniture market. The reason is simple: the rise in interest rates has lowered consumer purchasing power. Fewer houses sold obviously means less furniture. What led Stephan to invest in Tema? And how has he managed the Herculean task involved?

Designer to the King

The transformation followed several stages. At the beginning, they created their own design team and managed to get recognised designers working with them both at home and abroad. “If we let the big name designers dictate the pace, they will use us simply as suppliers, and we don’t want to be mere suppliers, we want to add value, and this starts with the design itself. Then, it became obvious that we needed to look upwards, to a higher market segment, and to invest in quality. In recent years, China, formerly a slumbering giant, turned outwards, taking its place on the international market. The Chinese ability to sell goods cheaply has made it difficult to compete at that level. The “certificate of quality” has become part of the company’s vocabulary.

The next step? Differentiation. Tema has constantly come up with new, more daring models to respond to the needs of the market. Differentiation has led to “the management of external suppliers, allowing new creations to materialize”, which could not be made at Tema’s factory. This is why, these days, it is associated with the most varied products, from beds and sofas to lamps and even rugs. Tema is present throughout the home. This is not only furniture design, more a way of life. Which brings us to its latest development: the brand.

It won’t have been easy for this company to go from brand to consumer brand, but the aim was “to communicate with the end user”.

Identity, brand, differentiation. Concepts which bring us back to design, something which has made Tema up their game. Right from the start, they got together a team of young designers, who had stood out in the academic world. Then, they worked with prominent designers like Filipe Alarcão and Miguel Vieira Baptista. What’s more, they created their own competition – which they hope to repeat every two years – for young Portuguese designers. The winner gets the chance to work in-house to develop his or her idea, with the aim of launching it worldwide.

When asked if it was difficult for a Portuguese company to get a foothold in such a competitive market, Stephan Morais admits there may have been “an initial lack of confidence, but that is overcome as soon as people get find out about our quality”. And like someone returning home, in the company originally created by Norwegians and Portuguese, King Harald V of Norway, on a recent state visit to Portugal, made a point of taking home a piece of furniture designed by Miguel Vieira Baptista… and made by Tema.

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By Pedro Filipe Pina

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