Having left the island to study and work within the field of Interior Design in London and Los Angeles, Michele O’Reilly returned to Malta almost 21 years ago to join her family business. Today, she heads the creative design team at The House Shop, creating luxury interiors for residential and contract markets.
Looking back on the history of the business and her own relationship with it, Michele explains that The House Shop was set up by her parents over 40 years ago. “My mother is a formidable woman who juggled her working life with bringing up her four children. Together with my father, they spotted a gap in the market and set up The House Shop in Sliema, selling both locally made and imported furniture and soft furnishings, mainly for the residential market,” she maintains, adding that the company also operated a cane workshop through which it produced and sold its own furniture.
When Michele returned after 14 years living abroad, she worked together with her mother for some 12 years before taking over the business in 2014. “During this time I focused on design and introducing new product offerings and categories to the business, which, up until that point, was purely retail,” she says.
In fact, as the business developed, The House Shop introduced a gift registry service for brides, and also began offering interior design and project management services focusing on the high-end market. Eventually they moved to a second larger premises in Ta’ Xbiex in 2011, which is where the company is based today.
Looking back on her landmark career moments up until this point, Michele reflects that the first “really was coming back to Malta and being given a platform to set up what I love to do, and that’s to create appealing spaces for clients.”
Grateful that she was able to jump into a business that was already set up and had a good reputation, she goes on to list a number of notable projects she’s had the pleasure of working on, including the Manoel Theatre and a conversion of a Palazzo in Valletta into office space. “I’ve also been lucky enough on a couple occasions to have been given carte blanche by one client to design her apartment and another client who left the design of their boutique hotel in Mdina entirely up to me,” she continues.
Speaking of residential projects, Michele considers building her own house from scratch early on in her career as a huge turning point. “This was a huge learning curve and I made a few mistakes along the way. When you come out of college you know all the theory, but you really learn the most through experience and getting your hands dirty,” she smiles, adding that this is now advice she also passes on to interns in the business.
Reflecting on how the business landscape has changed in the industry since she started out, Michele comments that the whole world has changed. “For starters, interior design in Malta when I started was seen as more of a hobby than a career, and the general premise was anyone can do up their homes and there was no point in hiring someone else to do the job,” she attests, adding that as Malta continued to grow and develop in the early 2000s, and particularly after joining the EU, more and more foreigners began to settle here, property started booming and generating a lot of work in the industry.
Her shift from creative to business owner also brought about many changes for Michele on a personal level. “When I took sole ownership in 2014, I had to look at the business in a very different light,” she continues, noting that she had to understand the business on all fronts, and not just the creative side.
“All of a sudden I had to deal with the banks, understand a balance sheet, manage cash flows and hire the right team. There have been many bumps along the road but I love a good challenge, and always believe that anything can be overcome through hard work and determination,” she maintains, attesting that her discipline and organisational skills as an interior designer served her well in this regard. “I find this side of the coin very exciting. I’ve seen the change in direction and I like where this business is going,” she says.
Forming a large part of this is the shop’s contract division, which was set up in 2014 to tap into an expanding hospitality market. “This is fast becoming the most lucrative segment for us,” Michele reveals, explaining that the idea here was largely to apply what the business had managed to achieve in the residential market to the hospitality market.
“It’s the same in principle but on a larger scale, because when a hotel is redoing their curtains, or buying new furniture, you’re talking about a few hundred rooms not just a couple,” she smiles, adding that initially, it was hard to tap into, because price point was the main consideration and The House Shop’s model never catered towards cheap product and the lower end of the market. As a result, they didn’t start out by winning many tenders.
However, Michele is pleased to note that consumer sentiment in the Maltese market is shifting towards an increased demand for luxury and high-quality experiences and services, which augurs well for the business.
“This is an area that is moving upmarket, which is good for a company like ours. It’s an area that focuses on what we call the three Ps: Product, Pricing and Performance – it’s becoming a higher quality market where quality and design trump price,” she says, affirming that, in reaction to this shift, there is an increased appetite among hotels, bars, offices and restaurants for premium design services, products and furnishings. “That’s where we come in with our expertise and our product offering,” Michele smiles.
“We have created our own niche within the hospitality sector in either design and project management or procurement, since we represent a number of international brands exclusively, so we are able to source the best products at the most competitive prices for our clients,” she explains.
Within this section of the business, Michele is particularly proud of a prestigious project that has recently reached completion. “We have just completed the design and renovation of the new Pegasus Suites at the Phoenicia Hotel, together with the re-furbishing of all their existing suites. It was very challenging because we gutted and knocked through two rooms and two bathrooms on each floor, to make a larger suite, whilst also respecting the fact that the hotel was operational so we had to consider the guests’ experience during their stay. It was amazing to have been entrusted with this project and we were very grateful for the opportunity,” she says.
As a business leader, Michele believes that acting by example and behaving in a way that you would like your team to behave is key, viewing her people as a representation of the brand. “Communication is also really important,” she confides, with her primary leadership advice being to build a solid team and resist cutting corners.
Looking ahead, she says that while the current team can only take the business so far, she also has plans to expand. “We are looking into strategic investment and the right partner to take this business to the next level – someone with the right portfolio of properties, for example, can benefit enormously from a company like ours, and get a better return on their investments by having an in-house design team who would be able to supply materials at cost and execute enhanced interior designs and increase marketability.”
Another aspect that she’s turned her attention to is The House Shop’s online presence. “The downtime during COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to set up our online shop earlier than planned, and this is proving very promising. Online investment reflects growing consumer trend towards e-commerce and having already established a trustworthy and reliable reputation, our clients know what to expect from us, so this is one opportunity that has the potential to expand,” she says.
And while she considers the aftermath of the pandemic and rising prices to be the biggest challenge ahead, she looks towards the future positively, revealing, “we have had our best year to date.”
The interview forms part of the 50 Business Leaders 2022 project. The new online serialisation on MaltaCEOs.mt will feature 50 distinguished business leaders, CEOs, and emerging business minds to create debate and encourage business leaders to share their journey with our readers.
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