Thursday, 13 May 2021

Let's Get Down to Business: Stef Socki, proprietor of the Charming Restorer

Let's Get Down to Business: Stef Socki, proprietor of the Charming Restorer

STEF SOCKI is the proprietor of the Charming Restorer in the Hambleden Valley. He was born in Philadelphia, the youngest of nine children. When he was four his family moved to rural Pennsylvania, which gave him the opportunity to work on farms. He learned to drive when he was 14 and developed a passion for cars. He then took a course in carpentry and mechanics and joined the US air force at age 21. He trained as an air traffic controller and was posted to the UK, where he was stationed in Upper Heyford for four years. Now he lives in Upton Close, Henley. His partner Jo works in HR. Stef has a vintage gentleman’s river yacht, Sea Saga, moored on the river in Henley, which he is restoring. He and Jo love walking.

Describe your business

The restoration of old things, preserving them sympathetically for future generations to appreciate. I work on assignments ranging from the restoration of listed buildings and period properties to repairing and restoring antiques and furniture. I also design, build and install bespoke interior and exterior joinery, furniture and windows, and undertake cabinet making and carpentry projects. I enjoy challenges and am always ready to take on difficult projects.

How many people does it employ?

I use four contractors depending on what I’m working on.

What did you do before you started this business?

As a child, I loved mending and restoring old things, especially antique furniture, machinery, motorbikes and classic vehicles. Initially it was just something I did in my spare time. After my time in the UK I had fallen in love with England and returned to work in aviation at Stansted airport, looking after private jets. I then worked for an IT recruitment company but it closed. So I studied for a degree in antique furniture conservation at the Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College in High Wycombe.

When did you start your business?

In 2005.

What was your objective?

To do something I was passionate about. The business has grown from there.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

I took my inspiration from Thomas Chippendale as I just love his style. Jo gives me so much guidance and support.

What would you do differently if you could start again?

I would have loved to have done a history of arts degree as it could have opened more doors for me. If I wasn’t running my own business I would still be in air traffic control, which I loved. It was like playing a video game and being paid for it.

How is your business doing?

Extremely well. I’m booked up through spring/summer. I currently have about a six-week lead time but I’m always able to take on plenty.

How do you market your business?

Primarily through word of mouth but I’ve used social media. I regularly attend the Henley Business Partnership 3FM meetings.

What’s the best thing about running your own business?

I’m in control of my own destiny. I’ve been able to save money and bought my boat and Jo and I intend to buy a house together within the next two years.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

Sometimes meeting deadlines can be stressful, particularly if I have a heavy workload, and it is often difficult to know how long some projects may take.

Where is your business headed?

My plan is to develop the timber-framed window restoration and repair side of my business but I won’t stop doing other work because I enjoy it.

Do you have a five-year plan?

Yes. I plan to finish restoring my boat and hire it out for corporate and family events. I may need to recruit my own team because at the moment I’m working flat out six days a week. I also want to set up a craftsman networking group in Henley.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

I’m gradually learning to say “no”. In the past I’ve often taken on too much.

What advice would you give someone starting a business?

You could do all the homework and research and still go wrong so my advice would be to just keep at it and don’t allow any negatives to affect you.

What three qualities are most important to success?

Be brave. Look for solutions. Keep things simple.

What’s the secret of your success?

I’m patient and I love a challenge. I have the ability to diagnose how best to restore something in a sympathetic way. I love to see customers’ faces when they see what I’ve been able to do for them.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

Several years ago I had a disaster with an exhibition stand that had a design fault which I wasn’t aware of and it collapsed!

How organised are you?

I do need to improve now my business has grown.

How do you dress for work?

I am never without a blazer when I’m out but in my workshop it’s grubby clothes often covered in glue.

What can’t you be without every day?

Cocoa butter, hairspray and a hairbrush.

Lunch at your desk or going out?

At the work bench or during the winter sitting in my workshop with my feet up on the woodburner.

Do you continue to study?

I want to do a masters’ degree in conservation architecture.

What do you read?

I have a large library of books on architecture in my workshop, but I also enjoy reading books by Bill Bryson, Dan Brown and Dean Koontz.

How are you planning for retirement?

Eventually I want to “get off the tools” and work more on a consultancy basis. I also want to learn to sail with Jo around the Mediterranean.

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