The exit of the once ubiquitous hearth rug nearly finished the Tankards, but switching to contract carpets saved them. Geoffrey Foster reports.
For people who make such thoroughly traditional, basic, down-to-earth, workaday products, the carpet manufacturers seem to be curiously accident prone. It is true that they are somewhat exposed, being always among the first to feel the chill winds of approaching economic lows. (Demand for carpeting responds quickly to a fall in the volume of new construction, and replacement purchases can always be held over for a year or two when householders are feeling the pinch.) But the industry has also had more than its share of shooting stars whose progress has been almost as brief as it was spectacular.
Remember Cyril Lord? No one can have forgotten John Ashcroft and his soaring Coloroll Group, which absorbed the John Crowther cluster before crashing to earth last year. And what about retailer Lowndes Queensway, which also believed that happy days were here to stay? But the swashbuckling cavaliers of the carpet world are actually a tiny minority. And at the other end of the industry the contract carpet makers - which by-pass the capricious high street and deal direct with the end user - are models of commercial propriety.
Manufacturing to order, and to a specification agreed with the purchaser (very likely an operator of pubs, airlines or other public places), the contract producer can generally buy its materials in response to a known demand. It is not as subject as the domestic carpet maker to violent fluctuations in the market. Nor does it have to carry huge backup stocks of what might turn out to be an unsaleable fashion line. Manufacturing to contract can thus bring all the inestimable benefits of stability - but it has its downside too.
The contract carpet manufacturer necessarily misses out on every consumer boom. Besides, the contract sector is a fairly small corner of the industry, accounting for around a quarter of UK carpet production as measured by volume. (These days, incidentally, domestic producers supply only about 55% of the carpeting laid in Britain: the rest is imported.) Consequently many of the bigger companies - and some of the lesser - attempt to cover the waterfront, reaching consumers through the retail trade while drumming up what contract work they can. While the processes of manufacture are identical, however, the domestic and contract markets are very different. "Domestic manufacturers often fall into disaster in contract," claims David Tankard, joint managing director of Tankard Carpets of Fairweather Green, Bradford. "They could be two completely different industries."
To prosper as a contract carpet maker calls for exceptional flexibility and fleetness of foot: which are exactly the qualities of the well managed small business. As it happens, Tankard is an excellent case in point. The company, which turns over some £7 million a year, is controlled and run by David Tankard and his brother Paul, and employs around 250 people at mills in Bradford and Dewsbury. It came into being - in its present form at least - just 22 years ago, when it was set up expressly to tackle the contract market. However, the choice may not have been an entirely free one. The Tankard family had ample experience of competing in the domestic floorcoverings sector up until the late 1960s. They were then overcome (almost fatally) by a combination of technological obsolescence and a changing market. Contract carpet making must have seemed the obvious way to earn a living.
The brothers' father, Jack Tankard, now dead, had at one time been Britain's biggest manufacturer of hearth rugs. He was a major supplier to Woolworths, among others. But after the war, demand for hearth rugs went into a steepening decline. The chronic post-war housing shortage encouraged local authorities to construct high-rise blocks, without open fireplaces. At the same time the introduction of smokeless zones rapidly cut down the number of households burning solid fuel. Householders tore out their grates and installed central heating.
They also laid new synthetic carpeting wall to wall. This was the heyday of Cyril Lord, whose direct selling methods rocked the carpet industry establishment. Lord made only tufted carpet, an American invention which could be manufactured at least 10 times faster than woven Axminsters and Wiltons - and at a fraction of the cost. Several of the old established companies joined together in a consortium to produce tufted under the brand name Kosset. And after years of hanging back, the rest of the industry scrambled to avoid being left behind as tufted literally swept the board.
For Jack Tankard, of course, no fireplaces - and floors covered by cheap fitted carpets - meant no hearth rugs, which equalled no business. He was obviously alive to the danger, and in the 1950s bought a carpet maker of a relatively orthodox variety called Whittaker's (Wakefield). "Whittaker's was a diversification," affirms his son David. The purchase had a bizarre history: its antecedents stretched back into the 19th century and to the manufacture and repair of coconut matting for circuses. At a much later stage it acquired a number of conventional weaving machines, but it never joined the stampede into tufted.
However, there was no way of saving the hearth rug company. One by one the factories closed down (for a time the family had nine altogether, including Whittaker's) and eventually it went into receivership. This is not an episode that the Tankard brothers like to dwell upon, although the aftermath is commendably full of Yorkshire grit. Before the 1960s ended Tankard pere was in business again, this time with his two sons as equal partners. The vehicle was Whittaker's, which had not been legally part of the failed venture. Renamed Tankard Carpets, and relocated to Bradford, it recommenced trading in September 1969.
"We decided to specialise in high-quality contract work," says David Tankard. Yet the decision must have been heavily influenced, to say the least, by the company's possession of half a dozen Wilton looms. Far less Wilton is made or laid in Britain than any other principal type of carpet. Yet almost by the same token, Wilton is usually, in terms of wearability, the best woollen carpet available in commercial quantities. For a small business with 12 employees to have launched this high priced product on to the retail market - by now completely dominated by tufted - could have been corporate suicide. But if it could find a few commercial buyers needing a hard-wearing, good-looking product, and build a reputation for quality of service, the company might survive and prosper.
Which is exactly what happened. The first major customer was a hotel group (long since merged and gone from the scene) which needed to carpet bedrooms. Other hotels followed. So did shipowners, airlines, retail chains, banks, bingo halls, museums and government departments. The company supplied carpet for a Woolworths refurbishment programme in the mid-1970s. Tankard carpet went into the cruise liner Royal Princess. It was laid in British Airways' Concordes, and ordered for BA's new Boeing 747-400s. It is found in Rolls-Royce cars and Harry Ramsden's famous fish and chip shops. In the late 1980s Tankard won a contract from the Crown Suppliers to provide Wilton for the Palace of Westminster and sundry law courts, embassies and military establishments. The contract has expired but the company still sells to those parts of the public sector.
As the business grew, so did its capabilities. Axminster looms were added to Wilton. The original machines could manufacture only in 27-inch and 36-inch widths. These days Tankard can produce almost any width up to 15 feet. Such flexibility matters because customers have different requirements: hotels generally order their carpeting four to six feet wide; airlines prefer six to 12 feet. "We can make it," says David Tankard smugly. "A lot of competitors can't."
Recognition of the vital importance of a fast and flexible service was implicit in a major development which took place on the manufacturing front in the mid-1970s, when the born-again company was only a few years old. "In 1973 we had an enormous order book," explains brother David, who looks after the production side of the business. "But we were dependent on outside spinners and dyers, and because we couldn't get supplies we were letting customers go. So we bought spinning and dyeing machines and became self-sufficient." The second-hand plant, acquired from a local spinner (whose "lease had run out"), was installed in the Dewsbury mill, which the firm already owned and used as a warehouse.
Many carpet makers - and bigger ones than Tankard was in those days - buy their wool from specialist spinners and dyehouses. Taking in your neighbour's washing is a fine old Yorkshire tradition. Besides, in many industries, using suppliers is now preferred to keeping everything in house. Vertical integration does nothing for the rate of stock turnover. In Tankard's case that amounts to only two or three times a year. Also, a small change in output, up or down, can have a dramatic effect on the cost structure. But David Tankard would have it no other way. In-house spinning and dyeing lessen the risk of repeating 1973, and permit greater control - over quality and scheduling - all the way through the production process. "Many competitors haven't got the control that we have," he insists.
Backing yarns are bought out. Otherwise Tankard carpets are home made from the initial drawing and scouring of the wool to final inspection. The process goes even further back than that, for the company by-passes the commodity merchant and gets its wool direct from the auctioneer. Unusually for a manufacturer, David Tankard has been known to turn up personally to bid at British Wool Marketing Board auctions. Commodity markets are a minefield, he agrees. "You've got to know what you're doing. But wool was part of my industrial upbringing ... I pick out the lots I want and we target to buy these." Since every carpet that the company makes is made to order, wool purchases can ("in most cases") be related to particular orders and delivery dates. That, anyway, must help to prevent stocks from getting out of hand.
"It's fortunate we're right here in Bradford," says Tankard, meaning that it is handy for the wool auctions. In 1977, while spinning and dyeing were still quite new, the rest of the company moved into its present home in York Street, Fairweather Green. York Street is pure old-fashioned West Yorkshire: a broad, cobbled side street bordered by two-storey stone terraces. At the end of the cul-de-sac York Mills looks in character. Inside, the weaving department on the upper floor might not have changed much this century - if you allow for one or two machines of incongruous appearance to meet modern demands like fire proofing - but the ground floor is unexpected.
From the street, the visitor steps almost straight into a large open-plan office. David Tankard, a short, thick-set man of 54, sits over to the left in his shirt sleeves, facing the wall. Brother Paul's desk is hidden towards the back of the room, among the sales and marketing staff. No suggestion here of the Bradford mill owner in his parlour. The brothers are in the thick of it. "We run the company as we used to run it" - before their father died 12 years ago. "This is a hands-on affair," adds brother David unnecessarily.
It has to be. Lead times are generally short. When a hotel, for example, is renovated, carpeting is often the last thing to be thought of. Then, even if the pattern has been designed and agreed, the wool will need to be dyed (it could have to be bought first), and the carpet made and delivered in time for it to be laid before the reopening. "Normally our order book is six to eight weeks forward. It's difficult to get buyers to place orders much further forward than that," David Tankard points out. "But we can usually carry a job through in four weeks without any problem."
It is when problems arise that hands-on management - and quick reactions - really matter. The company once flew a rapid replacement to the United States after a carpet - in its container - had been swept from the deck of a ship. The brothers can produce sheaves of unsolicited testimonials saying (as one of them does): "Thanks very much - you have got me out of a hole." On one occasion when they failed to complete an order on time ("a ridiculously short time"), they arranged to deliver a temporary carpet - and kept the order. "We hardly ever lose a customer," boasts Paul Tankard, the younger of the two at 45.
But first they have to find the customer - or discover when a former customer is in the market for new carpeting. This is where the computer system comes in. Many companies in Tankard's position might have put production scheduling on computer. That will come next, although the existing "very simple" production control procedure is regarded as adequate for the time being. What goes on to the computer is marketing records.
The company tracks, from press and trade gossip, all of the information it can about potential customers' investment intentions, planning consents, invitations to tender, etc. At each point a member of the telemarketing team makes contact with the target, seeking to identify the chief decision maker in the vital matter of carpet buying. Only when the computer reveals that a critical stage has been reached is a salesman sent to call. This is a sophisticated system, and was set up and programmed by David Tankard's son John. He also has a daughter in the firm, a designer who works as a saleswoman.
However, telemarketing is too precise a weapon to be of much use in the dense undergrowth of world markets, which is where Tankard has scored numerous hits in recent years. Export sales began, in a small way, with the company being selected by architects and designers of hotels and other projects in far-flung places. For many years Paul Tankard used to treat exports as incidental to UK sales. But by about 1984, when exports passed £500,000, they began to be taken seriously. These days the export department numbers six - plus agents - each possessing mastery of a formidable array of languages, including Russian and Japanese. Last year the company won a Queen's Award. That was after exports - direct and indirect - topped £4 million, or 60% of turnover, in the 12 months to February 1990. It was a record year overall, but a poor one in the UK.
Last year itself was a poor one both at home and overseas. "You've got to bob around like a cork on the waves," says Paul Tankard philosophically. "You've got to take the market as it comes." This year the brothers claim to be "back on target" to £7 million of turnover. Anyway, the company looks stable enough. It makes £500,000 of pre-tax profits in a good year. But where is it going? Three years ago it was heading for the stock market. Not any more. Like Richard Branson at Virgin, the brothers have decided that they prefer unfettered control. "We both enjoy what we're doing," says Paul Tankard. Evidently.