Nurturing a Hong Kong boutique into a global brand

Kate Babington joined eco chic furniture store TREE as managing director in 2005. She has since grown it from local hero into international homewares label

Kate Babington knows a thing or two about stylish homes

My father was in the Hong Kong police force, so I grew up in a government apartment on Mansfield Road. I went back to the UK for university and then into my first job with Body Shop. I was part of the global sourcing team, so was back and forth to Hong Kong. I was then offered to move back on an 18-month contract, and I haven’t left since.

When I returned from the UK, I wanted to be live near the Hong Kong Football Club. I’ve been a long-time member and have many happy memories of the club. So I rented an apartment in Happy Valley and loved the thriving local community, but when I decided to buy I had to move to neighbouring suburb Tai Hang which suited my budget a little better.

I joined TREE on the premise that I would only need to work three days a week. My good friend Nicole (Wakley, TREE’s founder who now lives in Australia) promised that would be all it would take to keep things running smoothly. This was not in fact the reality and we still joke about it today.

It’s exhilarating to see how far TREE has come since taking root in 2005. When I first joined, I focused on implementing a strong internal structure and back office team so we could grow as a company. I still work closely with each team to keep things ticking over but our strength in numbers means I can steer my attention to partnerships with property developers and our expansion strategy. We’re currently scouting new locations in the city to ensure we’ve got all of Hong Kong covered, and through our distributors we’re looking to strengthen our global presence.

Social media is more important than ever for communicating with and engaging with customers. Instagram was the perfect platform for us to dip our feet in the social media realm. We’ve recruited a team of individuals (I like to call them the marketing youth!) to integrate digital marketing into our business. We’re open to exploring all mediums, but we want to ensure it’s done in the right way.

We’re beginning to see a shift in consumer habit. While fundamentally people buy a product they like, we’re seeing customers placing higher value on brands and what they stand for. We’re absolutely committed to giving back to the environment in any way we can. Our furniture is made from reclaimed teak or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified solid wood and we also support the non-profit Trees4Trees and its reforestation initiatives.

Being involved in the sourcing process allows me to witness production from start to finish – from visiting the village where it was created to the meticulous craftsmanship it entails. Whenever I’m sourcing new products, I always look for handcrafted pieces with a unique story to tell and that I would want to have in my own home. I don’t have any favourite pieces but I do love our TREE originals that are crafted from recycled teak and boat wood; they each bear naturally unique markings and are full of individuality.

In terms of trends, this year Ultraviolet (Pantone’s colour of the year) is one to watch. It’s a bold shade, and although many of our customers lean towards neutrals, there are plenty of ways to inject this enigmatic hue without overwhelming a space. Opt for purple florals to freshen up a room, or finishing touches such as vases or cushions that can be swapped out over the seasons. If you’re keen on being a little more adventurous with colour, go for an accent wall, which helps create a focal point in your room and can be painted over if you have a change of heart.

When I’m not working, I love to escape the hustle and bustle with a hike along Dragon’s Back. Otherwise, you’ll find me playing a game of netball, catching up with friends, or getting a foot massage in Happy Valley (a ‘must’ at least once a week for me!).

I love to eat at Alto, which offers incredible views of the city. Crystal Jade is my go-to for local classics and Zuma is my eatery of choice if I’m in need of a delicious brunch. Of course Jimmy’s Kitchen is the obvious choice for old-school comfort fare.

I adore so much about Hong Kong. I love the people and the diverse cultures, the wide variety of food, the warm climate (although we do get the occasional cold spell), and its convenient location that allows for a weekend getaway in Asia.

The pollution does drive me nuts. Although we have certainly made some progress, there is still so much we can do both as corporations and as individuals to improve air quality and create a greener environment.

This time of year is peak season for retail and sourcing. I’ve got six travel destinations lined up between now and Easter, so I’m looking forward to a little staycation and some downtime at home for the spring holidays. I think it might do me some good!