Acquired by a multinational in 1989, Gordon Russell might have feared for its designer origins. But the Cotswolds-based office-furniture manufacturer is thriving and its eponymous founder would have been proud.
The casual tourist visitor to the Cotswolds town of Broadway could be forgiven for believing it to be just another English 'Sleepy Hollow'. But tucked behind the famous Lygon Arms, where Oliver Cromwell spent the night before the Battle of Worcester, is a manufacturer whose sales are growing dramatically and whose products have a worldwide reputation for quality and design.
This is home to Gordon Russell, maker of high-quality office furniture, though its salesforce are as likely to use phrases from the current jargon such as 'executive desking' or even 'personal harbours' when they talk about what their company does. Its founder, Sir Gordon Russell, was one of the great design gurus of this century. He is sometimes inadequately described as the Terence Conran of the 1930s: he devised utility furniture for blitz victims of the last war, headed the Design Council in the 1950s and was still designing furniture until shortly before his death in 1980. Seen as the man who linked the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement of William Morris with Conran and his contemporaries, Russell has been described by Conran himself as 'one of those peculiar English geniuses not given the recognition they deserve'.
Today the Gordon Russell business in Broadway consists of 100,000 sq.ft of manufacturing, design offices, a showroom and a museum dedicated to the founder's art.The Broadway plant has hitherto concentrated on making office furniture at the top end of the range, much of it handmade using all the traditional skills which its founder fostered, much of it desks and boardroom furniture considered appropriate for top executives. But from June of this year a highly efficient and successful volume production operation based in Swindon - systems office furniture made of wood - will be transferred to the Broadway base. Some £600,000 is being spent adding new facilities to the plant to accommodate the men and £3 million worth of modern computer-controlled machinery coming out of Swindon.
It all began at the turn of the century when Russell's father bought the Lygon Arms for a mere £4,000 and found he needed craftsmen to repair the hotel's antique furniture. Russell and his two brothers developed both businesses over many decades. While winning many design accolades they also undertook routine manufacturing tasks in wood: in the second world war the factory made wings for fighter planes and pre-war made the veneered cabinets for Murphy, Ekco and Pye radios - now collectors' items. Family ownership of the businesses ended in 1986 when the Savoy Group bought the hotel for £4.7million and the factory was sold to a Welsh office-seating firm called Gyroflex which enlarged it and took it to the stock market as Gordon Russell plc. In 1989, it was bought for £63 million by Strasbourg-based Steelcase Strafor - a joint venture between the French manufacturer, Strafor, and the world's largest office-furniture group, the US Steelcase Inc.
As the name implies, Steelcase's expertise is in metal desks while Gordon Russell's skills were all in wood. It might seem to an outsider that the culture of a modest Cotswolds company could not survive the clash with its brash new giant owners from Middle America and France. Au contraire. Under the new regime the Gordon Russell name and tradition is being pushed hard. Dominique Artaud, who runs the Steelcase Strafor operation in the UK (it includes metal desks made in Margate and office-seating in Wales) is confident that the Gordon Russell wood furniture share of total Steelcase Strafor sales will increase from 1993's 15% to 20% in 1994. The volume-produced product range aimed at middle managers is proving highly popular. Artaud says: 'We are anxious to turn the wood-system furniture under the Perform brand into a Europe-wide product.' Artaud, whose earlier career had included stints at Olivetti and Coca-Cola in France, came over from Strasbourg to run the UK operation of Steelcase Strafor in January with a brief to concentrate all wood-furniture production in Broadway and to pull together into one marketing organisation the different sales forces working on Gordon Russell brands. 'The decision to close Swindon was not to save costs in terms of the head count, but rather in terms of the buildings - and to achieve greater synergy.' Artaud insists that because Broadway is 'the historical roots of Gordon Russell we feel it is better to have the expertise of both plants - volume production and handcrafted bespoke products - in that one place'. He intends to make Broadway 'a selling tool for the company. We will retain the museum and all the historical aspects of the factory which the founder built and, at the same time, we will expand the showroom and give it a full-time manager.' There is little doubt that the eponymous founder of the business would have approved of these changes and would be delighted to see the business thriving as never before by focusing entirely on office furniture. Edward Cory, who ran the company for three years until the end of last year, says: 'There were really two strands to the tradition Gordon Russell created: a strong skill base with a great emphasis on quality and craftsmanship. This he coupled with an ability to innovate new products with good design. Essentially this is the story of a moderately successful British business taken over by a foreign multinational and given a new lease of life. Some multinationals would have just absorbed Gordon Russell into the main business but we felt it extremely important to keep it separate, keep its values and promote the brand name to a much wider market.
'The impression of Gordon Russell as a craft-based business is not the full story. In fact Sir Gordon wanted to make good design available to the masses and was a pioneer in recognising the value of machinery in automating certain processes.' This tradition clearly struck a chord with Steelcase back at its base in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It also has its own proud design traditions. In its early days it had worked closely with Frank Lloyd Wright, America's most famous architect and the reputed inventor of the concept of the workstation. Lloyd Wright insisted Steelcase made office furniture to echo the lines of the buildings he designed. Its business had grown rapidly since the late '60s from sales of under $50 million to over $2.5 billion today. That growth had been achieved by producing a well designed range of systems furniture just as that kind of workstation environment became fashionable for the major corporations. It had successfully tagged along when American multinationals opened up operations around the world and it now has a network of manufacturing units in Britain, France,Germany and Spain through its 50-50 joint venture with the French. Across Europe Steelcase Strafor makes an estimated 2,000 desks a day.
Steelcase Strafor had bought Gordon Russell because it wanted a UK manufacturing base, a bigger share of the UK market through Gordon Russell's much larger dealer network and also because it wanted to acquire the company's expertise in wood. The fashion for natural 'green' products means that wood now has 70% of the office furniture market in Britain - among higher management levels wood has an even larger share. (Whoever heard of a boardroom table made of anything other than wood?) Already those wood-based products with the Gordon Russell label are starting to enter overseas markets.
Today when companies talk about reorganising or even re-engineering their businesses, that frequently means removing layers of management and putting more emphasis on flexible teamwork. Office furniture then has to be reconfigured to reflect the new set-up. The fashion to reorganise helps explain why the business has been doing well in the past couple of years. Peter Austin, Gordon Russell's sales manager, says: 'If a company has cut back from five floors down to only one, it may well decide to invest in new office furniture for that one floor. It is investing in the people it has retained. There is so much job mobility these days and the office environment becomes very much part of the package needed to keep those quality people you have retained.' Since they bought the company the aim of the management has been to recreate Gordon Russell with its own style and personality. It was given a separate identity from the rest of Steelcase Strafor in the UK: its own board of directors, its own enlarged plant, its own product range and product development programme. At the same time it has used the marketing power of the larger parent to sell the product through a much broader distribution network.
Trevor Davies, the factory manager at Broadway, joined the company from the motor industry two years ago. He has the task of applying the latest in production techniques - including just-in-time manufacturing to minimise work in progress - while retaining and improving the skill levels of the workforce. He has to deploy his 100-strong workforce to meet the demand for unique products designed to the customer's own specification as well as fulfil the standard product orders. It is a bit like building custom cars alongside the Escorts on the Ford shop floor at Dagenham. 'Because we never know what kind of work we are going to do next we have developed a training programme to give the workforce a range of skills,' Davies explains.
The multi-skilling programme began two years ago with the promotion of shop-floor workers to run teams of 12 to 14 people to 'give us the flexibility we need to complete the range of orders we get without running into skill bottlenecks', he says. 'We have got to have this ability to move people backwards and forwards between different jobs. One order might want a tremendous amount of inlay work while another might require more cabinet making.' The multi-skilling programme is making a big impact and should be enhanced further by the arrival of the additional workforce and new machinery from Swindon. 'In recent months there has been a 100% record of delivering on time,' Davies says. 'Four or five years ago a customer would have had to wait six or eight weeks to get a standard item of furniture. Now it is down to three weeks.' To exploit the big switch in demand from metal to wood in office furniture which has developed over the past five years, Gordon Russell has launched new standard ranges of office furniture systems aimed both at top and middle management. And if efficiency has been the watchword in manufacturing, it has also been applied to design. The Perform range, created and priced to give the Russell brand a wider market appeal, took only nine months to get 'from a blank sheet of paper to the marketplace'.
In keeping with companies' current obsessions with reorganising and the need for flexibility, the Perform range has been designed to be easy to move to ensure its cost-effectiveness as a management tool. And as sales director Pierre Pouletty puts it: 'We need to design our furniture so that it keeps looking good even when it is frequently taken apart and moved.' Sir Gordon Russell might have seen that whole process simply in terms of the pursuit of quality - of the company's products and of the working environments they help to create. He ended a famous lecture entitled 'Skill', at the Royal Society of Arts with the words: 'Any improvement in the work men do, rapidly and inevitably leads to an improvement of the men who do it.'.