“From designing to machining, polishing, plating and assembly, we have complete control over the whole production process, so that we can oversee the quality of each product at every stage and remain faithful to our design principles,” says Managing Director, David Pick, on a recent visit to Samuel Heath in Birmingham.
The business, founded in 1820, generates £10m turnover, employing 130 people with a focus on preserving the craftsmanship innate within its manufacturing, whilst combining this with the latest design technologies. They turnover about £10m and employ 130 people in central Birmingham.
“We manufacture, market, sell and distribute our products,” says David. “ There is quite a bit of cost sitting underneath that and we can be easily distracted by things that don’t deliver value. Whilst there is a lot of talk about rebalancing and industrial strategy, on the ground we have to cope with a lot of red tape, bureaucracy and that takes our eye off sales and new markets which are priorities. Time is of the essence and we have a real commercial need to be out there.”
“We export about 40% of our output and so we have been affected by the currency moving in the wrong direction. We set our budget at the start of the year and our price lists and margin on the back of that and then when the currency moves, especially when even the experts didn’t foresee it, it is very challenging for businesses like ours. In accessing export markets UKTI helps us and has done over many years.
“In terms of new initiatives to help with ‘rebalancing’ I am not aware of any. I am conscious that government levers used to control the wider economy generally have had an impact on manufacturing going back quite some time now. Whether it was through Purchase Tax and VAT impacting on consumption and in turn British produced products, or with interest rates which of course impact on currency and affect us pretty instantly.”
For David Pick the company is proud to promote its unique heritage as well as embracing innovation and new technologies to drive new product introductions.
“The company’s appetite for innovation has helped us migrate from coffin furniture in the early 19th century into brass bedstead production, with the business becoming the largest manufacturer at the time,” he says.
By the 1890’s Samuel Heath & Sons was floated as a public company on the Birmingham Stock Exchange, but with the majority of shares remaining in the Heath family – and remaining so up to this day, the company has been able to remain in charge of its own destiny.
At the height of Victorian industrialisation the company moved into manufacturing locks, gas and electrical fittings and later as the automotive industry’s growth gathered momentum the business started making head lamps for motor cars.
In 1958 they acquired Perkins & Powell, producing high quality architectural hardware. In 1970 Sam Heath became their Chairman. With the acquisition of Holt Siron and W Adams they moved into the design and production of luxury bathroom accessories as taps and showers.
Having been established as a traditional brass founder, the business has refined its knowledge of plating technologies as applied to the European brass used exclusively in their products today.
“Each product is hand polished and plated in up to 34 individual processes to create a flawless finish,” says David.
“We have developed a layering process that is unique to us. The careful polishing and preparation of the surface and the thickness of each layer is very important in giving a lustrous finish, what we call a ‘mirror finish’. It’s what gives the products a true reflection, without any distortion.”
This plating expertise has enabled the business to produce a vast range of finishes to their brass products including bronze, antique brass, polished nickel, polished and satin chrome, brass – lacquered and un-lacquered, and matt black. More recently new materials have been added such as wood and crystal.
It’s clear to David Pick that vertical integration is at the heart of their competitive positioning. “None of our competitors operates with such a high degree of vertical integration,” he says.
“In developing new products we have in-house design engineers and a design team who work with our Product Design agency based in Cardiff. We’ve had a longstanding relationship with them, working with them for over 12 years, and they’re familiar with our design and manufacturing capabilities.
Our in-house team includes our Design Manager, a former BCU graduate with a strong engineering background who works with our new design graduate with a more creative background. We have been working with him to bring his knowledge of engineering and production up to where it needs to be for him to be able to make the full contribution. We are surprised sometimes by the low level of understanding some people have on graduation about the real processes and activities in businesses like ours.
“We’re immersed in design trends and shows and how we can interpret interior design trends in our brassware, but we’re also aiming for a balanced and enduring, not faddish approach. At present we’re seeing the trends moving back to base materials, unpolished, back to earth. We launched a new finish, Country Bronze which has been doing very well in light of this. This trend is unusual as it started in the US and has come to Europe.
“Recent developments in design and manufacturing technology are enabling us as manufacturers to push at the boundaries of what’s possible for us. CAD software means that we can undertake much of our design process on screen building virtual products in three-dimensions – shaping and testing for weight, volume and performance before they leave the screen.
“Rapid prototyping enables us to ‘print’ three dimensional models of our products using layers of powdered resin providing a means of producing quick, easy and cost-effective prototypes in-house in our tool room.
“We can see how rapid prototyping can become a future means of producing customised products – even those made from various different materials, such as stone and metal – with some machines already able to weld them into shape – although quality will always be a key concern for us.
“CNC (Computerised Numerical Controlled) machines have also enabled us to test complex design ideas that might never have made it past the drawing board in the past – for example modelling and testing the internal workings of products to test intricate design ideas.
“These processes are reducing lead times in terms of new product introductions. However for new taps and showers it can still take up to two years to bring a complete collection of new products to market. These developments have also been reducing the need for continual new product testing leading to more sustainable processes reducing material wastage.
“We believe, as a British manufacturer, that we’re able to attract new customers through our focus on quality, our constant product innovation and by remaining true to our integrity and provenance.”
Sales and Promotion
We have moved on from our Four Graces campaign now. That was designed to be a show stopper. To get people looking again and to find out more about us. It worked really well for us, stimulating a lot of interest and comment. Having raised awareness we are now focussing on the products using beautifully taken product pictures to place our range in people’s minds.
The Four Graces was certainly a departure for the business when it was launched in 2011, designed and created for the business by Midlands-based Cogent Elliott.
“We were looking for a new creative agency,” says Vanessa Allan, Marketing Manager. “Having talked with a number Cogent stood out for its understanding of the needs of high end brands having worked with AGA, Jaguar and Land Rover.
“Richard Payne, their Creative Director, came up with the idea of using the purity of water as an analogy for the purity of the materials we are working with.
“Richard wanted to build on the Greek myth of the Three Graces to create four female forms out of water, representing the charm, beauty, creativity and desirability of Samuel Heath’s key collections.
“The idea was to begin with an element as pure as water. By focussing on its purity and how this reflects the pure and flawless brass at the heart of all our products and from which they’re all are produced, Cogent began crafting images of women inspired by water patterns.
“These water images were merged with images of models representing the spirit of the Four Graces and captured using a high-speed flash, capable of photographing a speeding bullet.
The frames were then layered to merge fluidly with the models and the water-like texture of their dresses representing the timelessness of high-end design.
“The campaign has been well received by our largely independent retailers with really positive feedback from consumers too. We see it as key to driving understanding and further clarity in terms of our market positioning.”
New Routes to Market
A noticeable change for Samuel Heath has been in the rise in importance of working with interior designers and specifiers in getting to market. The business opened a showroom at Chelsea Harbour which has been a great success. They work with far more interior designers than they did previously. They specify products for clients and these are then purchased through their traditional retailers. It has worked well for them given their flexibility and range. “We are even able to produce bespoke products,” says David Pick, “thanks to the vertically integrated nature of our production. We would never have this flexibility if we had outsourced.
“Of course being at Chelsea Harbour we are with other design businesses and exposed to all the latest trends which are so important to our business. If there was trends centre in Birmingham where you could access information on fashion, textile, interior and auto trends for example, that could be very interesting for a business like ours.
The other feature that has changed in the past three years or so has been the huge increase in social media. Working with interior designers they are always posting and blogging about new trends, products and ideas and this has really given us a great exposure and dialogue with the market and great customer insight.”
Summary and Conclusions
Despite government policy on the importance of manufacturing and rebalancing it has not had any meaningful impact on Samuel Heath. In fact the policy stance on interest has in fact had a detrimental impact on a small business exporting 40% of its output into Europe and the US markets.
The company continues to innovate, expanding its product line and in-house design team. Trends are having a growing impact on the business as they work with interior designers and specifiers to reach upmarket clients from both private and commercial sectors. Vertical integration has enabled them to retain the flexibility to be able to produce new product lines, new finishes on their products, and even to produce high end one offs or limited runs. It also enables them to keep tight control over the quality of their product with oversight of every stage involved in the production process.
New technologies combined with craft skills in making and designing are improving flexibility in terms of time to market. The company has gained some competitive advantages through this which give it the edge on many others in its marketplace.
This increased flexibility means they have more opportunity to talk with their market, especially with the interior designers and in turn for them to talk to their customers promoting products and ideas via social media with great immediacy so the chances of catching clients in the middle of projects are increased.