Midlands-based bath, basin and shower tray manufacturer Ashton and Bentley describes this year’s 10th anniversary as a pivotal point in the growth of the business. Tim Wallace hears more from owners Paul and Michael Kyriakou and the company’s ambitious MD, Edward Carey
We’ve become a bit wary of bathroom companies who claim their products are manufactured in the UK. All too often they turn out to be sourced in the Far East then rebadged as British to broaden their appeal. But Midlands-based Ashton and Bentley insists its range of baths, basins and shower trays are the real deal.
“We’re the only UK manufacturer of cast stone resin baths,” managing director Edward Carey tells me. “It plays into the whole ‘Made in Britain’ theme. It’s Ashton and Bentley-developed technology with Ashton and Bentley processes and tooling that’s subcontracted by a business partner. A lot of other providers have found an established manufacturer overseas and used it for the domestic market. These guys have sought out a UK manufacturing base.”
Our meeting takes place at the company’s Wolverhampton offices, which showcase its full range of products. These are manufactured in the North-East, he tells me, although the nature of the deal means he’s reluctant to say exactly where. It’s not a secret; they just prefer not to make it public.
“It gives us a strong competitive advantage and we perhaps feel a bit protective of that,” Carey admits. “But there’s an Ashton and Bentley sign on the front of the factory. It’s in Durham.
“We’ve developed the technology and we were working with designers and toolmakers before it found its final home. We’ve taken the technology and those skills, so they’re now exclusive manufacturers for Ashton and Bentley and those ties will only get stronger.”
The company was formed 10 years ago by former MD Paul Kyriakou, who joins our meeting with his brother Michael. The veteran entrepreneurs made their name in the fashion business, then went their separate ways before Michael saw the potential of the bath sector and invested in the business.
“Our clothing brand – Karmann Ghia – was one of the biggest outside London,” Michael reveals. “We innovated stonewash jeans – that was us! It was also called the Birmingham Bag, a wide jean. The brand just flew for years. We had over 100 staff.”
But the brothers then saw an opportunity to offer true innovation in the bath sector and began researching and developing a brand that could punch its weight against competitors they name as Victoria and Albert, BC Designs and Clearwater.
“We had to create our own matrix, which we call the Correro stone material,” Michael says. “It’s an ongoing R&D programme. There are manufacturers that produce the same way we do and others who spray the material. Ours is a homogeneous material with the same depth of colour. We developed a way of extracting the air.
“We are probably the only manufacturer in the world that can cast a metal finish on a stone bath. It’s not just putting something into a mould. It was a very costly exercise, and if you haven’t got the resources, it can be very frightening. That’s put a lot of people off. You couldn’t produce this outside the UK. It would never have been designed without a UK manufacturing base. We can offer a bespoke service to hotels and contracts.”
Carey was appointed MD back in July and is seen as having the experience the company needs to “push it to the next level”. The fundamentals and portfolio look to be in place. From here, the intention is to build the brand and embrace new markets, including online and export channels. A further range of new and innovative products are also said to be in the pipeline.
“I’ve worked in the automotive sector, aerospace, power generation and business services, so I’ve got a good breadth of experience,” Carey explains. “I spent many years transferring product to the Bric countries, but for the past few years a lot of businesses are bringing manufacturing back to the UK. As China and India grow, so do their wage rates and costs. That slowly erodes the competitive advantage it gives you.
“Then you’ve got the transportation costs. Baths are heavy to ship. Our quality is better and one of the reasons is we manufacture in the UK. You can’t do that when people are the other side of the world – time zones, language, culture, it’s just harder.”
The Ashton and Bentley brand name – plucked from the air as quintessentially English – is in around 250 UK showrooms, including the likes of CP Hart and Fired Earth. The aim is to grow this number by 10% by the end of March.
The online channel is one that Carey admits “can’t be ignored”, but it will be approached in the “appropriate way”, he says. “We’ve made a bath range at a lower price point to make it more affordable, but at the other end of the scale our top-end price points are also going up.
“We won’t sell directly online. We’ll take leads and hand them over. I don’t think we sell through Victoria Plumbing etc. They’ve got massive growth, but they’re at the bottom of the market. The problem with the internet is that when you start seeing your product being sold for pennies, it devalues the brand. I’ve seen brands on the internet and wonder how it can be sold so cheaply.”
The brand is also a favourite with the architect and design community and is specified in many apartment and hotel developments. Distribution is by Hertfordshire-based Davroc.
Push or pull?
So, with such a diverse CV, what’s Carey’s view of the bathroom industry? Is it as stuck in its ways and slow to evolve as some insist?
“It’s quite traditional and product-led,” he says. “Brands come up with a design and push it out with marketing. The automotive industry is more of a pull dynamic, where we ask what we can do to satisfy what our customers want. So we’ve come up with things like the Organic Techni range, where customers are saying they want something a bit bespoke. It all plays out into pricing dynamics.
“Another early impression is that the bathroom industry can be a bit of a ‘cost plus’ dynamic – you mark it up and that’s the RRP, whereas we look at how much the customer wants to pay and how much we need to manufacture it for to get to that price point. You can bring in things commonly used in automotive and aerospace, like design to cost. You define the overall features and what the customer wants and then work it back to how you can make it for that money.”
Carey shrugs off suggestions that the market will tighten as Brexit begins to bite, insisting the company is on a strong growth curve. Business is “doing very well”, he says and has been relatively stable over the past three years. “This year, we’ll look to increase and then beyond that we’re looking to grow by 30%. Our five-year plan is to grow fivefold in five years.”
But is that realistic in the current market?
“Yes,” Michael interjects. “We’re not worried about the state of the market. Quality always sells. We got stronger during the downturn when we were in the rag trade. We were designing what people wanted. People will always pay for quality. We don’t compromise – quality and design are absolutely paramount.”
Carey admits to “a lot of uncertainty” in the market, but sees this as an opportunity. “You still have the fundamentals,” he says. “People love their houses and are very aspirational. We’re seeing strong demand in the housing market.”
He’s also intent on building the company’s export channel, while accepting the challenges it presents. “We’ve got to be geared up to do it right,” he explains. “We’ve got routes into the European market, then you’ve got North America, then India and China. You’ve got a growing middle class in those countries and the British brand is strongest there. But it all comes with logistical challenges, so we’ll look at Europe first.”
Ultimately, there’s a feeling that the Ashton and Bentley brand is about to begin an important new phase of development, and that Carey’s experience will play a key role.
“This is a pivotal point in the growth of the business,” Michael agrees. “We wanted to build a portfolio where we have a bath covering classic and contemporary plus the organic range. Other portfolios don’t stretch as far. We can now drive forward and get into new showrooms and open up new territories. We’ve done our job, we’ve built our portfolio. What we need is a corporate attitude to drive it on. We’ve got a fabulous distributor, a fabulous manufacturing unit – it’s all there!”
- Main image: Founder Paul Kyriakou (left) with MD Edward Carey