By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2021
It is a measure of the manic pace at which the Zanna brothers work, especially during the pandemic which has pushed revenue up considerably and advanced the interests of internet sales by 20 years, that it’s taken months to arrange an hour when I could get them both together to set down, for posterity, how Easyframe got to where it is. And even then they didn’t feel comfortable sitting down. So we didn’t.
Despite the leg-pull visual above, the brothers are like peas-in-a-pod, sharing not just DNA but a real sense of purpose and love of a business for which they take turns to roll up their sleeves a little like a wrestling tag-team. Moreover their love of each other, their mutual respect, was clear from the way in which they shared reminisces.
What emerged was a heart-warming tale of an extended family that didn’t enjoy overnight success but instead slogged together for the best part of 40 years to get where it is. A family that is, in one sense, only just beginning to go places.
The story starts in 1984 when Rob and Nick’s mum and dad ran a grocery and bakery in Clapham outside Bedford. They had some workshop space that they rented to the lads’ aunt and uncle who were running a business called ‘Houseproud’ in Bedford’s old ‘Boulevard’ shopping area (where TK Max is now) for which they made frames. That business was going so well that Rob and Nick’s parents took the decision to close the grocery and bakery, with them joining ‘Houseproud’ and running a unit on the Cambridge Road Industrial Estate in Bedford.
Fast forward to 1988, the Zanna’s upped sticks and opened a picture framing gallery shop in Rushden High Street and started framing in the garage at home. 33 years later and the same premises still operates as a picture-framing gallery - and is run by an original member of our team.
When Nick was out of work in 1992 his dad asked him to take on a new shop in Kettering as a way to expand the business. The next year the workshop relocated to Murdoch Road. And then in 1998 Rob joined as the family opened more premises in Luton’s Arndale Centre. Initially they were upstairs but moved downstairs before they quit altogether, feeling that the footfall didn’t justify the rents. They briefly tried out a site in Wellingborough too, though apparently this was eminently forgettable, before moving to Hitchin centre where rentals were more competitive and the clientele spent a little more freely. The family also, in 1999, had a ‘new workshop’ built in Dane Lane, Wilstead, though in comparison with the premises of today they ruefully admit it was a bit of a shed.
Skipping forward to 2004, with no intention of belittling the hard slog in the intervening years, the lads enlisted the help of friends from the world-famous ‘Only Fools and Horses’ cast, the snooty spiv Boycie (played by John Challis) and his gorgeous-but-flighty wife Marlene (played by Sue Holderness). The couple spent the day in the Luton shop meeting customers, signing autographs and generally publicising the business. On receipt of payment for their day’s work, Sue Holderness, promptly went on a shopping spree in ‘New Look’ directly opposite them in The Arndale Centre, purchasing some beautiful high-heeled shoes. That was the beginning of Rob and Nick’s long association with the ‘Only Fools and Horses’ fan-club that on 29th February last year held the first event that was attended by David Jason. He is on record as saying (during a BBC Radio 2 interview which I myself heard) that he was absolutely delighted by the reception he was given and enjoyed it so much he realised he’s been missing out and will definitely go to more.
The business set up in Hitchin during 2006, managing to run two shops for a while, then closed down in Luton. They also changed the name from ‘Gallery Gifts’ to ‘Zanart’ because they family had not been selling gifts for some time. Actually, as you’ll realise from the visual below, there was a public competition to generate the new name.
At that time Kettering was busy but Hitchin wasn’t. This left Rob frequently twiddling his thumbs. So he got a previously-owned ‘Tiny’ laptop. (Remember those? Because I don’t!) And a ‘how-to manual’ entitled ‘HTML for Dummies’. Then he enterprisingly taught himself to build a website between customers, having realised that the future lay in selling online. At that point, in around 2007, there were apparently only two or three online framers. So this presented an opportunity. And, by 2008, Zanart had an online presence.
Over the next few years sales took off. There was a lot of investment in terms of both cash and time. But it was reaping dividends. It hadn’t been long before the majority of sales were being made online rather in a retail outlet. In recognition of that, and feeling that the business was now in safe hands though it was better going in a new direction in which they had no experience, mum and dad realised it was time to hand on the baton and they bowed out.
Now Rob and Nick closed the Hitchin shop though Nick ran the still-successful Kettering store whilst Rob concentrated on internet sales. Then, in 2014, they moved into a new unit - indeed where they are now, and they have no plans to move although they’ve outgrown it - which allowed their parents to sell the old workshop as a site with planning permission for housing.
What followed involved considerable investment in machinery and good staff. In 2017 the www.easyframe.co.uk domain name finally became available after many years of waiting, so EzeFrame became EasyFrame.
In 2019 Rob and Nick took a monumental decision to sell off Zanart in Kettering. They had realised that it needed two staff and that an arguably-superfluous tier of management made it a poor investment with opportunity costs (since they would be better focusing elsewhere). But the staff concerned had been loyal and hardworking so to facilitate a buyout made sense. Thus Zanart became a separate entity, with its own workshop and staff who are so capable that they have consistently made the podium in framing competitions.
Speaking of which, Easyframe itself has recently carried off first prize for a winning entry incorporating a pair of ‘Those Damn Crows’ drumsticks and more in the ‘Get Framous’ competition run by one of multi-billionaire Warren Buffet's companies, Larson Juhl UK, itself a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway.
As our meeting begins to come to a close Rob and Nick start to reminisce. A lot of that is about hard work and ungodly hours. They speak of their dad being up at 3am to make bread and how they themselves would get up at 4am to sell pictures from market stalls as young teenagers during the 80s, with Rob going to Finmere and Nick to St Ives. Rob tells of being lucky enough to do his job-experience with his dad at 'Houseproud'. And they clearly bristle with pride at the thought that this sort of induction is exactly what the next generation is going though now in a business that needs to work from 5am to 5pm if it is to keep pace with orders.
What is the secret of their success if it's not hard work?
Rob says "Although we are still skilled picture-framers, nowadays we are more makers of picture-frames than we are framers of pictures. Because the online service we provide allows the end-user to assume the role of the picture-framer. We've created a great media presence that allows us to sell the same product as picture-framers do but at half the price".
Nick adds "And the pandemic has been kind to us. People stuck at home are more likely to invest in framing and reframing. So we are successful. But we're always looking to the future".
One way they are doing that is by creating a huge resource for students and lecturers, pupils and teachers, in respect of the Pearson Edexcel History of Art A Level. By September, as the new academic year starts, on the Easyframe website there will be a specially-commissioned article on every artist and artwork to feature on the extensive syllabus. This represents a considerable investment by the brothers but is unique and will certainly loom on the radar for many future movers and shakers in the art world. If you want to know more scroll down the homepage at www.easyframe.co.uk.
Over the decades there have been stand-out moments for the brothers. Some of those that spring to mind include:
In short EasyFrame is, at its heart, a family business. One that employs family-members with Kerry being the latest recruit. And it has a business that has successfully edged its way forward for 37 years to date during which it has consistently demonstrated an ability to adapt well and promptly to circumstances and trends. This is why it has been consistently successful in a competitive marketplace, continuing to outperform rivals in a way that Warren Buffet, if he turns up to give the lads one of the prizes they are going to keep winning, ought to note. Though I’d be willing to bet that Nick and Rob would be in no rush to sell off the family silver even to him. For them, and for their team, Easyframe never was, nor ever will be, just a business.
if you want to contact Rob or Nick to pick their brains on framing, or just for a chat, EasyFrame is on 01234 856 501 and emailable via sales@EasyFrame.co.uk.
Finally, though, if you are framing anything precious it’s always worth going straight to a professional framer like EasyFrame for advice. They will enjoy chatting with you and charge nothing for advice.
Article Posted: 30/03/2021 08:16:45