‘It’s a three-pronged attack…’
Following a surprise exit from Bathroom Brands Group in November 2016, former director Darren Allison (left) has now joined forces with veteran product designer Barrie Cutchie (right), chairman of BC Designs. Aided by new backing from Roxor Group, which bought a 70% stake in BC last August, the pair have just launched mid-end traditional brand Bayswater London W2. Tim Wallace went to meet them…
“It’s made me want to get out of bed again,” Darren Allison laughs, as he gives me the full story of his troubled departure from Bathroom Brands just over a year ago – before his re-emergence, last July, at BC Designs.
“My wife keeps shouting at me for singing in the shower at four in the morning,” he says. “I’ve got a smile back on my face and a spring in my step. I’ve known [BC founder] Barrie Cutchie for 25 years and I knew I could do something for him. I like being out there and making it happen – I like protecting retailers, I like giving them brands they’re really proud of.”
Veteran product designer Cutchie is in equally ebullient mood as the pair talk me through their ambitious forward strategy. “Just don’t make me look like he’s got his hand up my back and he’s working me like Sooty,” Cutchie jokes to the photographer.
We’re sitting in a secluded area of bathroom showroom Tec Lifestyle in Maldon, Essex. It’s a former kbbreview award winner, and one of the many stores Allison is currently visiting as he looks to raise BC’s profile. Bathroom Brands is well represented among the displays, but that could all be about to change. “The guy here has sold his Burlington off because it doesn’t work,” he says, “it’s not right. The shops aren’t getting the margin. There’ll be a lot more of our stuff in here soon.”
Allison’s reasons for leaving Bathroom Brands, he says, were “a matter of principle” and have clearly left a sour taste. He still has plenty of respect for the company, but suffice to say founder Pat Riley’s plans conflicted with his own. So when Cutchie approached him in the summer, not long after a six-month departure from the sector, he quickly accepted a new role as his sales director.
“For me, Darren was perfect,” Cutchie explains. “You’ve got personality, sales technique, influence and a load of experience. So it was excellent. Darren and I know a little bit about baths, we’ve been doing it for 40-odd years.”
“I was known as Mr Bathroom Brands,” Allison smiles. “Bear in mind I was instrumental in every brand – Burlington, Clearwater, Zamori, Britton, Arcade, Clear Green… It was me that took them all to distribution – so it was like a bereavement when I left, but it got to a stage where I hated every day.”
That’s all behind him, though, and the idea from here is to develop BC Designs and add a selection of new baths.
But significantly, he’s also introducing a major new brand – Bayswater London W2 – offering a range of traditional products, including taps and basins, baths, showers, furniture, radiators and accessories.
“There’ll be a Bayswater part two and three and then we’re going to look at other brands to bring on board,” he explains. “The UK traditional market is worth about £80 million and we’ll certainly take 10% of that market within 18 months to two years.”
Bayswater is similar in style to existing collections on the market, including those offered by Bathroom Brands, but Allison claims he’s not going after a vengeful slice of their profits.
“This is not to take on Burlington, Heritage, Imperial, Lefroy Brooks or whatever,” he says. “This is something new. Bayswater is based on the Victorian era. We’ve taken existing and new product and put Barrie’s design slant on it. It’s mid-end, affordable and only available through distribution. We’ll take a slice of the market, but the market is still growing, certainly internationally.
“I don’t see myself as going up against Bathroom Brands. I just see an opportunity in the marketplace for something that’s very strong for the retailer – not available everywhere.
“The internet is there, but there seems to be more of a trend now for people to get a feel for what they’re looking for and then go into the showroom and find someone who’ll back that product up.”
The new brand will be distributed exclusively by Ideal Bathrooms who attended a launch event at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire last month. The two companies have invested a combined sum of over £1 million to help ensure the venture is a success.
Another big, and very obvious, attraction for Allison was the increased financial backing BC now enjoys. Back in August, Halifax-based Roxor Group acquired a 70% share in the company, with Cutchie and Allison owning the remainder. Roxor also owns Ultra Finishing, of course, the bathroom supplier at the centre of the CMA investigation into price fixing back in 2016.
“With the CMA, we couldn’t believe that the rules were as stringent as they were,” Cutchie admits. “It still doesn’t make sense that someone who’s committed big time to your showroom displays can’t make a proper margin. We thought ‘surely they can’t be enforcing it?’ But they did in the end.”
The new Bayswater range is currently in the Halifax showroom, but Roxor has just bought the Astracast building in Bradford, so the plan is to move it there.
“The thing about joining Roxor was they were one of the only people I spoke to who weren’t bloody frightened of Patrick Riley,” Allison laughs. “When I went over there, I was absolutely blown away. I saw them making shower trays and valves, and brassware and furniture. I just thought wow! It’s so undersold. They’re employing 140 people in a manufacturing facility in Halifax. They’re completely under the radar. It’s Barrie’s objective to get them back on the radar.”
One of the great things about Roxor, Cutchie adds, is the long experience the company has in making great brassware – shower valves in particular, which come with long guarantees. “We know the quality is there,” he insists. “They’ve also been making sanitaryware for a good number of years. We’ve just added some other products that will complete the brand. We’ve chosen some good colours to be very much on-trend and we’ve given them a bit of knowledge on the bath side.”
Allison re-emphasises that Bayswater will be stocked at the distributor’s premises, not sold to dealers direct. This is the only way, he says, to give showrooms confidence that BC won’t end up being “all things to all men” – an industry trend that’s seeing suppliers looking to exploit every channel possible to drive profit. It’s a strategy that probably appeals to Bathroom Brands too, given that the company will need to show a spike in sales if it’s looking to float.
Allison claims Bathroom Brands’ existing distributors would like to have partnered with the new venture, but says he “doubts very much that will ever happen”. You can well imagine the politics involved in distributors trying to extricate themselves from long-standing agreements.
As expected, the pair are hugely optimistic on where BC Designs can go from here. But with Brexit uncertainty still clouding the market, and growth still strong in the online channel, how realistic are their lofty ambitions, particularly in the short term? What’s the mood among their retail network?
“We’re 11% up on last year on turnover,” Allison responds. “Profit is higher. I’ve seen 100 showrooms in eight weeks, just to give them a flavour. Dealers say there’s less volume out there, so margin is key. When there’s a race to the bottom, it’s about product that gives them margin. There’s a shift – I’ve seen some showrooms with signs saying, ‘we only sell at internet prices.’ What are they doing!? What about their overheads?”
Cutchie agrees: “If a showroom sells a product and hasn’t made money, they don’t want to answer the phone. The margin conversation with retailers is coming in more and more. It’s almost a start-off point. We have to rehearse the answer and know what it is.”
The pair shrug off Brexit fears, saying if anything suppliers are putting prices up unnecessarily to drive more growth.
“Manufacturers are probably making more money now than before,” Allison says. “They’re taking advantage because they don’t know where they’re going to be. Is Brexit going to be hard or soft?”
So what’s his gut feeling on how it will all pan out?
“At the end of it, there will be very little difference,” he insists. “If anything, prices will have gone up, interest rates will go up, but I don’t think it will be detrimental. I hope not, or we’re all looking for a job!”
“I’m not 100% sure Brexit will even go through,” Cutchie says, laughing off Allison’s suggestion that it would cause civil war. “I don’t think so,” he says, “we’re not protesters, we don’t burn sheep like the French. We’re too tolerant.”
Ultimately, with Roxor’s backing in place, the pair remain convinced that they’ve hit on a formula for growth that will protect independent showrooms. “We’ve got a great framework,” Allison concludes. “You’ve got Roxor doing the manufacturing and the major investment. You’ve got me running the front end of the business and you’ve got Barrie very integral with the design element and very respected in the industry with BC Designs. The three-pronged attack here can be very successful.”