Matthew Armstrong and Simon Vinton

BA (Hons) Furniture Design, 1999

Alumni of the Year 2011: Enterprise and Innovation

At a time when many businesses in the home interiors sector are struggling, two graduates from Birmingham City University are going from strength to strength by targeting the very top of the market.

Matthew Armstrong (pictured right) and Simon Vinton (left) established Armstrong Vinton Furniture together 10 years ago, shortly after graduating. The company makes bespoke high-end furniture, turning over just under £1 million last year: Matthew and Simon treat their famous clients with the utmost discretion, but newspapers have whispered that they include names like Madonna and Prince Edward.

Their beginnings were not so easy, taking whatever work they could get in the early stages, but their ultimate aim was always to go for the exclusive end of the market. They applied for support from The Prince's Trust, and gained not only a loan of £2,500 each but also an expert mentor in Bruce Enders, formerly of American industrial conglomerate General Electric, who helped teach them the basics of running a business.

(c) Rebecca Reid, Evening Standard

Simon said: "We both came down to London after university and worked for different companies for three to four years, getting to grips with the industry, then we both found ourselves out of work at the same time and we decided to go into business together.

"We went for the loan from The Prince's Trust and they also gave us a mentor for three years - Bruce Enders, the former CEO of General Electric. He knew nothing about furniture and we knew nothing about business, but he made sure we were on the right track with issues such as tax and bookkeeping - things that every business needs to get right but where we did not have any experience."

Matthew added: "We needed some money to get the idea off the ground, and the low interest rate on the loan was the initial attraction to The Prince's Trust, but we were very lucky to also get a business mentor of that calibre. We had monthly meetings with him for three years, as he advised us in the early stages, and we're still in touch with him now. Having his support was one of the biggest helps we had in the early years."

The next stage was building a customer base and, while they had to be flexible in their early years, the long-term intention was always to target the exclusive end of the market. They have built their reputation largely through word of mouth and personal recommendations, with most of their work now coming through architects and designers who are looking for something special for their latest project - although they do also get requests from individuals looking for a particular item for their home.

Simon said: "The business was all built up through word of mouth - we have never advertised and initially it was a case of contacting people in the industry we already knew, and since then most of our work has come through repeat business or personal recommendations. Our advertising is our last job, and we're only as good as that."

Matthew said: "Because the work we do is bespoke, each process is quite different. Sometimes we'll be given a very general brief, with just the functional requirements, and it will be down to us to do the whole design while in other cases the designs will already have been done and it will just be down to us to make those work. Most of the work will come from architects or designers who require a particular feature as part of a new build or refurbishment, but we will also get asked by individuals to create a specific piece of furniture that they require."

While Simon and Matthew have come a long way from their time studying in Birmingham, they agreed the course gave them a solid grounding for their current work.

"It was the combination of design and manufacturing that attracted me to this course - some universities focused on one more than the other, and I was keen to gain knowledge of both," said Simon. "The course was a good foundation for what we're doing now - it taught us the whole process from design to production as well as working with different materials. While we mostly work in wood, we occasionally need to commission some work in metal or plastic and it helps to have an understanding of those as well."

The business is continuing to go from strength to strength, with the top end of the London property market remaining buoyant. Over its first decade, the business has grown to employ 18 people, and the duo have ambitious plans for the future, with proposals to launch their own range of furniture to go alongside the bespoke projects.

Matthew said: "We have doubled in size in the past 18 months and we have recently undertaken a major investment programme to make sure we have the latest machinery. Looking forward, we're also planning to launch a new range of custom-designed furniture, alongside the bespoke work that we will continue to do, and other than that our aim is to just continue increasing the range and size of architects and designers we work with. Ultimately, our aim is to become known as the foremost manufacturer of these products in the country."