The joint owner of Scope Bathrooms in Glasgow, Derek Miller, explains why partnering with UK brands may make sense in a post-Brexit Britain
As 2017 draws to a close, KBB retailers across the land are bracing themselves for an inevitable onslaught of price increases from international suppliers in 2018 and beyond.
With this challenging prospect in sight, should they instead consider buying British, thereby potentially mitigating the worst excesses of these price hikes? This, of course, raises an interesting question: if every KBB retailer in the UK decided to buy 100% British, would there even be sufficient manufacturing capacity to meet demand?
A cursory glance at current UK bathroom manufacturing shows that some market segments fare better than others. There are very few manufacturers of sanitaryware or brassware left in the UK, bar one or two niche specialists. However, fine companies such as Roman, Matki, Kudos and JT serve the enclosure and tray market well; Thomas Dudley makes flushing systems as good as any other manufacturer; Utopia produces a fine range of furniture from its base in the Midlands, and Carron creates an increasingly stylish portfolio of bathtubs from its plant in Falkirk.
I enjoy great trading relationships with all of these British firms. Indeed, more than 30% of Scope’s annual contracts procurement value stays in the UK. Fond as I am of all of them, my softest spot is probably reserved for Carron – a firm based just 30 miles from Scope. It has not only survived the toughest of market sectors, but has actually thrived.
I have been a friend and customer of David McMorrine, the owner of Carron, and his sales director and son, James, for many years. Rather than speculate as to why the firm has done well, I decided to speak directly to the men to get some insight as to what it takes for a UK manufacturer to operate successfully, against the odds, when others have folded?
David acknowledges the lure of Chinese-sourced products to many British suppliers, however he firmly believes that comparisons are not like-for-like, with savings arising from the inferior quality of Chinese products. Carron has refused to cut back on specification and has avoided a battle based purely on low pricing. To support this strategy, the firm has changed the balance of its business and switched from being, historically, a supplier of contracted OEM baths, to one with 80% of its output now dedicated to its own expanding brand portfolio.
All of its baths are available as either standard acrylic or with reinforced Carronite – a superb product, especially where showering over the bath is required. Concentrating on its own branded baths has allowed Carron to dictate and set its own specification standards, something that is very important to the McMorrines.
Another key strength of Carron over the past few years has been in the area of product development – something that many UK manufacturers failed to do in the past. Despite tooling costs of around £50,000 for a new family of tubs, Carron has succeeded in bringing new collections to the market, reflecting key recent design trends of fine line minimalism and soft square. David and James both acknowledge that emerging design themes are driven by the famous European sanitaryware brands, but that Carron monitors such trends closely to ensure that new tub ‘family’ launches reflect up-to-the-minute styling.
Underpinning Carron’s position has been significant investment to ensure production techniques are industry-leading. David confirms that some £4 million has been invested since 2002 in plant, machinery, tooling and other processes – a very significant sum for a private, family business. However, this investment, coupled with strong, long-term relationships with a small amount of key distributor partners, has kept Carron ahead of the curve and able to get most of its products to retail customers on next-day delivery – no mean feat.
As a long-standing customer of Carron, I can confirm that this single-minded business focus is apparent in all the company’s products and business transactions. Carron delivers products on time; its quality is highly consistent; its designs are first-class; the depth of its product portfolio covers all requirements and eventualities, and its pricing is extremely fair. On that basis, why would I need to look further afield for a strategic partner, when the best one is on my doorstep in central Scotland?
But what of my initial question – with the price of imports rising sharply, can UK manufacturers offer stability to the marketplace? Unfortunately, David confirms what I was starting to suspect. British manufacturers aren’t sheltered from the effects of the falling pound, as many raw materials are sourced from Europe and the Far East, so production costs are badly affected by the unfortunate currency situation.
Generally speaking, however, if my experience is anything to go by, the price of UK-made products has risen less sharply than those from Europe or China over the past year or two. So, depending on their raw material sources, there may be some opportunities here.
Our manufacturers are well-run and financially stable and they are as good as any in the world. I wish them all well and encourage KBB retailers to buy British wherever possible. Indeed, I hope to feature more UK success stories in my columns throughout 2018.