Emma Bridgewater is feeling optimistic about the Midlands, its productive heritage and future chances, clear in her mind that ‘Stoke is the place to make quality’, but decrying the ‘mass blindness there is about making things in England.’
“It’s sad to see so much of our manufacturing skills and heritage being lost. I really appreciate working within a recognisable tradition. We have so much infrastructure – museums, art galleries, schools, all intended to forge strong design for our own industries, but somehow it doesn’t seem to happen to the level it should. Maybe all our art schools should forge links with local makers so that their graduates are aware of what manufacturing is locally available. I know that my school trip to Earlys Blanket Factory in Witney in about 1970 had a lasting and far- reaching effect.
Emma Bridgewater and her husband Matthew Rice, have built their family business over 25 years, with revenues of £15m in 2014, up from £11m in 2012. They employ 240 employees in Stoke on Trent, climbing from 180 employed in 2011, “and we are achieving a decent net margin as well as double digit growth, says Emma.
“I have noticed a change of mood in the country regarding the value of manufacturing over the last few years,” she says. “People are always saying to me, ‘we’re so grateful and thrilled that you are making things here”; no one wants to see a significant part of our heritage lost through lack of interest. But at the same time, I don’t think they really believe that you can make money by manufacturing in the UK. If my business was just ‘design and marketing’, and the received wisdom was – and still is, that it should be, then I wouldn’t necessarily be making out of Stoke. But people say, ‘it’s so nice of you to support British manufacturing’, as of it was a purely philanthropic decision, which is crazy. We are making good money. Moreover, for selfish reasons I would rather be doing this than making out of, say, China….spending my life on a plane, in another place and in other people’s factories.
“What I’ve always found is that when everyone’s turning to the right, have a look to the left. Everyone told me you shouldn’t go into manufacturing, so I thought, why not? I think I will. But at heart I was just completely romanced by the creativity and the traditions of Stoke on Trent.
“And they said ‘you don’t want to stay making in Stoke, everyone’s going abroad’. But I felt impelled to question this dogma, why go abroad? I was doggedly resolved to stay in Staffordshire. I just don’t think anyone should automatically do the obvious. Sure, labour costs are higher here, but there are many practical advantages to making close to your market.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t more Emma Bridgewaters. I still find that too few people know what is made here and we do need to keep telling people about the great brands produced in the Midlands – Pashley, AGA Rangemaster, Brooks England, Smedley, Johnson Tiles, Triumph Motorcycles, and loads more, because people are always surprised to hear how many great brands are still home made.
“I think it’s incredible that the Stoke on Trent pottery industry is rising again and at EB we very much plan to be part of the future. I don’t think we need to make everything abroad. In fact I think it’s downright unhealthy NOT to maintain manufacturing capacity and skills. But we still seem very unwilling to move away from a dependence on the financial world- why are we still paying bankers to fail in their jobs? But I feel real fury and despair when I see another range of old factory buildings being torn down and replaced with a supermarket!
“I am very keen on the European model, perhaps most highly developed in Germany where factories are said to be an integrated part of urban life. In this country over the past five decades or so planners have pursued a policy of segregating industry and locating factories at a distance from residential areas on drab industrial estates, forcing us all to use our cars more, but more importantly, increasing the feeling that factories and workshops are ‘other’, dirty perhaps dangerous places we don’t want to visit. WRONG idea! Factories are fundamentally creative and inspiring and I firmly believe that no child should leave school without having toured a factory. Recently we have been working on how to get more people into our factory, and we want to strengthen local links. An exciting example of this was our first Literary Festival in June 2014, attended by around 2000 people from near and far, and of all ages. It was a full house at every event, and we had an amazing line up with Andy McNab, Joanna Trollope, David Starkey and Melvyn Bragg, amongst others. We have since launched a community project to find out what our factory has meant to the people who have lived nearby, or worked in or visited it.
“Too often the ideas that people have in business about building something to ‘get a result’, or sell it on for a profit, are very reductive. What the economy needs is longer term thinking and longer term investment strategies. Germany’ s Mittelstand economy is said to float on a raft of family businesses, whereas here the expectation is that we must be about to sell out at any moment rather than stay as a family- owned concern.
Retail and Internet
“One of the really big changes has been in internet sales. Our website now accounts for about 50% of our turnover. The pace of web-based sales growth has cooled down from the early years, when it was truly intoxicating. One of the central challenges is how we can sell at a reasonable margin online as it sometimes seems as if the web is all about sharing discounts. Social media play a vital role in recruiting and understanding customers, but boy, is it expensive to do this stuff well!
“Our Factory Shop has gone from strength to strength, accounting for a significant proportion of our sales. People love coming to Stoke and to the factory. Even with the internet growth I think destination shopping works. There has to be more to it – some theatre. It’s always so challenging to drive footfall and interest. But I don’t see any point in doing a Factory Shop without the factory- no soul.
“ Its a time of huge change, isn’t it? In retail everything is fragmenting so much at present- with big vans on winding country roads delivering tiny parcels or just an envelope to a remote cottage. When you think of all the millions of internet-inspired purchases making their way to their destinations, it seems that more evolution is inevitable, and the effect on traditional bricks and mortar retail is very challenging- with haberdashers and hardware shops ( my favourites!) closing fast, to be immediately replaced by another cafe where people who are lonely sitting at home shopping online can sit amongst other people shopping online- all staring at their iPads- strange days indeed.
“We know we should be exporting more and we are looking to do this, in the first instance we see the US and EU as target markets. This is an area we haven’t really focussed on yet.
“We have been doing quite a bit on the licensing front. Some partnerships flourish, others wither or simply jog along. We did a high profile licensing arrangement with Sanderson which has been very exciting.
Design and Manufacture
“I don’t think our industrial base was anything like as sick as it was thought at time of the recession in the early ’80s. Maybe there was a collective hysteria about making things cheaper. Make well and make them at the right price – this seems to me to be a stronger strategy. Mulberry – and many other good brands -are making this formula work for them, aren’t they?
“Maybe there hasn’t been enough independent thinking in management. Why is it that alongside mass close downs, some of the ceramic firms in Stoke have performed strongly, year in year out? Some of these success stories have been making hotel ware- in fiercely competitive world markets -so making in the UK hasn’t been a negative for them. I would suggest that this is because they’ve been consistently well managed. Their strategies have focussed on producing distinctive designs in well understood sectors. Most importantly perhaps, some of these are privately owned.
” The management teams of publicly owned businesses tend to be given relentless targets and short time frames to generate the profits expected by shareholders, and in order to achieve their bonuses they are almost certain to act without thinking of the future of their business long term. It makes me so sad to think of the closedown of many great names in Stoke on Trent- Coalport, Masons, Adams, and J and G Meakin, whose factory in Hanley we now occupy , and so many more- that might otherwise have survived.
It’s one thing to make well, but quite another to have the right product, ready in the warehouse, on the right day, for delivery on time. Besides, to meet these challenges, you have got to know your customers really well, and be absolutely clear about what they want and how their habits change. Manufacturing has to be tightly controlled, but it can be the tail that wags the dog if you’re not careful. And it’s not enough just to have some slick marketing – this alone won’t work, you have to be welded to the product, the customers will respond to that.
“I read English Literature at London University and my dad was a publisher who built up his business throughout my childhood- he sold the company successfully while I was at college. So I suppose that I knew about an entrepreneurial career from the inside. If I hadn’t discovered the world of pottery, I had some unformed ideas about books and publishing – I thought that maybe I might work for a literary agent.
“Instead, after university I worked for two girls designing and making knitwear, Muir & Osborne, who were having a good time, with lots of fun and creativity and considerable success. I was in New York with them in the early ’80’s selling into high-end fashion retailers. One of their designs, a red jersey with sheep on it was worn by Diana Spencer at the time of the announcement of her engagement to the Prince of Wales. We had been selling 100 a week up to that time, and if they had wanted to they probably could have grown this to thousands as the demand was feverish. I was able to get involved in every aspect of this small fashion company and subsequently based the early structure of my business on this one. In the summer of 1984 I came up to Stoke and set up in business almost immediately.
“I had the ‘kerching moment’ when I was looking for a present for my mum’s kitchen in Oxford. I stood in a china shop and there was nothing there that I wanted to buy her. The nearest was some Portmeirion, but that was more like the sort of thing my great aunt had in her kitchen, lovely, but at the time, dated. In my head I could see what I wanted but there was nothing like it for sale.
“So when I arrived in Stoke I wanted to hook up with someone who could make my ideas a reality. I found a model maker who had a workshop and he modelled and cast 4 of my own shapes and gave me the chance to learn how things were made. Within a few years I had acquired manufacturing facilities and before long we had expanded into our current factory on the Caldon canal in Hanley.
Emma’s husband, Matthew Rice, trained as a theatre designer, and subsequently designed bespoke furniture. He also produced a range of stationery and desk accessories featuring his watercolour paintings of Venice, country houses and farms. Born in 1962, Matthew is the only son of textile designer Pat Albeck and theatre set designer Peter Rice. Matthew went to Chelsea and then to the Central School of Art. He set up furniture design company, David Linley Furniture with David Linley, an old school friend from Bedales, in 1985. After marrying Emma, Matthew left David Linley Furniture and in 1989 set up his own company, ‘Rice-Paper’, but Emma and Matthew joined forces after their marriage. Today he manages the business, collaborating on designs in partnership with her.