Friday, 25 February 2011

Emma Bridgewater - Making It Here!

Emma Bridgewater
Midlands Productive Heritage and Future

"So many exciting things can be made here in the Midlands and Stoke is the place to make quality, but there's been a mass blindness about making things in England," says Emma Bridgewater speaking in the hospitable surroundings of her Factory Shop in Hanley, Stoke on Trent. We're mulling over the demise of so many of our great brands born out of the West Midlands productive design heritage.

"It's not necessary, we can do it. It's sad to see so much of our manufacturing skills and heritage being lost. I like to work within a recognisable tradition. We have so much infrastructure - museums, art schools, all with the intention of making things, but somehow it doesn't seem to happen.

"What I've always found is when everyone's turning to the right, have a look to the left.

"Everyone told me you shouldn't go into manufacturing, so I thought, why not? I think I will.

"And you don't want to stay making in Stoke, everyone's going abroad. Why? I think I'll stay here. I don't think we should automatically do the obvious.

"I don't understand why there aren't more Emma Bridgewaters. We employ 180 people and we're recruiting at the moment. We've had two years of flabbergasting growth; in the year that just finished we grew in excess of 30% and that's on top of 30% the previous year. In 1985 we had a turnover of £30,000; by 2010 it was £11m.

"I think it's incredible that the Stoke on Trent pottery industry is rising again and I very much plan to be part of the future. I don't think we need to make everything abroad.

"I don't think our industrial base was anything like as sick as it was thought at time of last recession in the early '90s. There was a collective hysteria about making things cheaper. Make well and make them at the right price - this is what's really needed.

Emma Bridgewater in her Eastwood Pottery
 "There hasn't been enough independent thinking in management.

"Why is it that the ceramic firms in Stoke which have survived have been making for the catering or commodity markets and yet in spite of that have managed to succeed?Because they've been consistently well managed. Their strategies have focussed on producing distinctive designs to drive niche market positions. Most importantly they have been privately owned.

"CEOs of publicly owned businesses have been given impossible tasks to reach targets within the short time frames expected by the City. To achieve their bonuses they have had to do dreadful things.

"Bad habits have led to the closedown of many businesses that otherwise might have survived. Why, for example, did Wedgwood and Royal Doulton destroy each other with chronic indigestion? They both gobbled up all the competition, as was the fashion at the time. They lost focus on their customers and what they were really looking for.

"We're located here in the Eastwood Pottery which used to be the home of J&G Meakin, taken over by Wedgwood in 1970 and I very much regret the demise of other renowned potteries such as Masons.

"There is a way in which groups of people infect each other and the landscape here in Stoke was flawed by the 'buy and swallow' mania of the period.

"You're not just buying turnover when you buy a load of brands. How do you run 2 brands or companies effectively? It certainly doesn't interest me. I need to grow my own business - I might look to further diversify through licensed goods, but I have to keep in touch with my market, my customers and what they really want.

"Manufacturing is conservative by nature. There is no natural deviation from what has been produced in the past. But you have got to face the customers and be absolutely clear about what they want and how they want to live.

"All too often manufacturing is the tail that wags the dog. If you're not careful, and especially if you don't love the product you're making and are simply focussing on the numbers, you'll begin to lose touch with what your customer really wants. It's not enough just to have some slick marketing - this alone won't work and customers will notice. You have to be welded to the product, the customers will get that.

"At the root of it was the breakdown between buyers and makers. The makers had lost touch with the buyers and the buyers could find lovely china in much nicer surroundings than Stoke!

"Too often the ideas that people have in business about building something to 'get a result', or sell it on for a profit, are very reductive. What the economy needs is longer term thinking. Germany floats on a raft of family businesses. I haven't heard anyone talking much recently about family businesses, we still seem to be cow-towing to the City.

Emma's Background

"I read English at London University and my dad was publisher who had been building his business and took it public whilst I was at college. If I hadn't done this I had thought I might go into publishing - I wanted to be a literary agent.

"After university I worked for two girls doing knitwear, who were having a blast, with little pain who had huge success. I was in New York in the early '80's selling into high end fashion retailers. One of their designs, a red jersey, was worn by Diana Spencer on the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles. Overnight we went from selling 40 to 100 pieces a week.

"In the summer of 1984 I came up to Stoke and set up in business a year later.

"I had the 'kerching moment' when I was looking for a present for my mum's very nice kitchen in Oxford. I stood in a china shop and there was nothing there that I wanted to buy her. The nearest was some Portmeirion, but that was more like the sort of thing my great aunt had on her mantelpiece and just a little dated! In my head I could see what I wanted but there was nothing like it for sale.

"So when I arrived up here I wanted to hook up with someone who could make my ideas a reality. I found a mentor who had a workshop and he let me experiment with 3 or 4 of my own shapes and gave me the chance to learn how things were made. Within a few years I had acquired manufacturing facilities and before long we had expanded into our current factory on the Caldon canal which I run with my husband Matt.

Opportunities for young people today

"I think it's easy to get cast down. Of course there's a huge pressure on jobs at the moment.

"When there is no work you may want to make things that people want, to create your own job.

"You don't have to do what everyone else is doing, just find out what people want. There is no point waiting for something to come along. If you go along to a supermarket or warehouse there are nothing but opportunities to do these things more dynamically and efficiently.

"For design students leaving university I think a register of students and producers would be a very good idea - because there are people out there prepared to make things if you have ideas about what you would like to have made coupled with an understanding of market opportunities.

"Too often young designers don't seem to know what to do with their portfolios, but they do need to get these in front of potential partners and employers. It would be tremendous to provide them with the opportunity to interact with our authentic and much cherished brands in an uninhibited way.

"If I'm a maker with capacity I could enter my details onto a website and these could be searched by anyone who might want to make something - perhaps to meet seasonal demand or for the longer term.

"Too often people have too little interest in starting their own businesses and making things. I went to Magdalen School recently to give a talk. When I asked the students there if they had ever visited a factory, not one of them put up their hand.

"Art School should give you a good network to get together with a full range of contacts that'll give you the best chance to get your business ideas moving and there should be much more networking to support new business creation and survival.

"We also need to be conscious of how we are creating the environments that encourage young people stay on in our region after their studies. This is very much about the quality of life on offer.

"Usually university quarters are good places to be with nice sporting and recreational facilities, bookshops, art galleries and libraries - all the key elements of cultural life. To keep and attract the best talent we need to focus on continuing to develop places where people want to live and work."

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