Kate Babington is obviously a hands-on Managing Director. It is 10 a.m. and she is brimming with energy as she greets us, clad in jeans and flashing a disarming smile. Tall, she wears only the barest trace of make-up, and with long, blond hair that is constantly in motion, Kate resembles the women in commercials who proclaim that the only thing that ever touches their skin is soap and water. We soon find out Kate only uses skincare from The Body Shop – products she trusts implicitly. The Body Shop and its "flawless ethos" is also the company for which she worked many years as manager of the Far East purchasing office. She loves the brand that submits all its products to strict certification procedures in order to ensure they completely uphold sustainable and ecological practices. She has implemented the same principle since early 2010 when she took over the management of a company that has brought her even closer to nature. TREE - Hong Kong's first eco-chic furniture boutique with products made out of 100% recycled teak wood.
"Reclaimed, recycled, reloved” is the house motto.
The furniture is produced by Indonesian carpenters in local co-ops. And, as if that in itself were not already sustainable enough, the company also contributes to various environmental foundations and has, to date, had more than 20,000 trees planted in Indonesia and Thailand. TREE was founded in the year 2005 by Kate's best friend Nicole Wakley. Of British extraction, Nicole was relocated to Hong Kong in her capacity as a lawyer and, while living there, enthusiastically traveled throughout the Far East. In the process, she fell in love with Indonesian wooden furniture and suddenly realized that what she really wanted to do was bring the incredibly beautiful old pieces of wood available there to her adopted home in Hong Kong where she would use them to manufacture new, simple furniture, benches, or chairs.
"And this while she knew next to nothing about purchasing and sourcing." The mere thought still has Kate shaking her head in disbelief. Fortunately, they already knew each other back then — and Kate was able to provide some helpful advice. In those days, no high-end, sustainable wooden furniture was available in Hong Kong, nor were there any workshops to create pieces with the clean, simple lines that she had envisioned. And so, Nicole and Kate were forced to journey to carpenters in Macao where they had furniture made to order. Meanwhile, they have revolutionized the Hong Kong furniture market. "It looks like something from TREE," is now a common expression used in the city to describe wooden tables with a similar aesthetic touch.
We support local carpenters and communities that use only sustainable sources and natural materials, thereby also enabling them to keep their rich traditions alive.
They could be mistaken for twins except that Nicole is brunette and Kate is blond. "And we have almost identical taste," Kate adds. Which simplifies her present undertaking considerably, as, in the meantime, she is in sole charge of TREE's growth. Two years ago, Nicole, her Australian husband, and their two little boys moved to Australia where the boys are growing up on a remote ranch in green hilly territory surrounded by the rain forest. "Today, Nicole breeds sheep and keeps chickens for eggs," Kate laughs.
Has their friendship changed now that she is responsible for Nicole's brainchild? Not a bit, Kate assures us. They speak on the phone at great length at least once a week, and every six months Kate travels to the wilds of Australia to talk to Nicole about their favorite subject without any distractions. To date, there have been no disagreements. Of course, Kate says, the brainchild had already outgrown the initial, uncertain starting phase and was confidently forging its way when Nicole moved. All Kate had to do was improve the structures, enlarge the marketing department, and step up the training of the sales personnel. Processes in which her legally-trained friend had no experience. But Kate Babington is also expanding the product range and sourcing new suppliers. Fancy-free and without the responsibility of a family, she travels to China, Vietnam, Thailand or Indonesia nearly every month. Due to her passion for accessories, whenever she finds lamps, ceramics, or singular wooden objects that appeal to her, she buys up largish quantities. With the result that the showroom has become much brighter than it used to be.
How I would describe the TREE feeling? For us it’s passion, fun, integrity, giving back. Ethical, eco. A combination of all those things. Handcrafted. And beautiful.
Kate was born and raised in Hong Kong. After going to university and beginning her career in the United Kingdom, she chose to come back — in part because she missed the colors and smells of the Far East. She had collected vivid memories as a child of when she was taken along to the markets in China, Vietnam and India. Now, she can visit them again. "Without any concrete plans, I have found my absolute dream job at TREE."
And people in Hong Kong love their brighter TREE. The large showroom with the attached workshop teems with life. It is on the top floor of a high-rise full of interior decorating shops. Yet, in contrast with the other high-end design boutiques, visitors are pleasantly relaxed in this one. There is no implicit pressure to make a purchase. Just a friendly "make yourself feel at home" exuding from the 40 employees who have 10 different nationalities between them.
In the kids’ corner, two mothers and their babies have taken a seat. The moms are having cake and coffee while their little ones cheerfully roll about on the soft, snuggly carpet. Kate Babington greets the newcomers like old friends. Rearranging the café was her idea too. Now clients can see directly into the workshop and, while enjoying a chicken avocado sandwich, comfortably look on as their piece of furniture is finished according to their personal choice.
Sometimes the styles that village carpenters use need tweaking for our market. We taught them to simplify the lines.
The unfinished furniture comes from Indonesia where specially trained teams source suitable material such as old doors, parts of boats, and railway installations. Indonesia has an abundance of old wooden objects as the locals husband them carefully. And so, not one TREE object is an exact copy of another, and each has its own story. One of the most beautiful treasures in the shop’s space is a discovery that Kate Babington herself made in Indonesia: a three-meter long table where the sales personnel sit with their customers to discuss details. Carpentered from rough beams that had been used as railway ties it must have been a huge chore to get this beast up to the 28th storey. Over and over again, customers ask whether this item is for sale. One of the rare moments in which the normally obliging TREE customer service remains firm.
My dream role? This is it actually! I’ve always been a Jack of all trades. I love to juggle with different tasks.
Whether we’d like to take a peek behind the scenery, Kate wants to know, already opening one of the heavy sliding doors behind which the smell of freshly stripped wood awaits us. After passing through the workshop and the storage room, we finally arrive at a number of nondescript offices. Kate Babington says that she cannot wait to get here in the mornings — and her packed desk seems to confirm that. From her office it is only a few steps to the graphic designers, the marketing specialists, or the carpenters. Satellite-like, she routinely orbits from one to the next. And what if Nicole were to come back. "That would be absolutely wonderful for both of us," she says in a tone of deep conviction. With its solid roots and convincing products, this tree has certainly grown large enough to provide space for two charismatic bosses under its canopy.
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