Britain was forced to get out of the manufacturing game years ago wasn’t it? Tories decided that in order to crush union-organised working-class dissent that the UK would revert to becoming a service industry and we would all become like Richard Branson and create our own space-yacht businesses. Plus it was much cheaper to get Asian schoolkids to make stuff. But there are still a few traditional souls in the MI trade that are proud to sport the Made in Britain stamp on their products. Gary Cooper found out who they were and how and why they’re still doing it…
Rotosound’s Jason How has something on his mind.
Being the chairman of one of the UK’s most successful MI companies is only one of How’s distinctions. Another is manufacturing the overwhelming majority of Rotosound’s products here in the UK. What is bothering How is that he feels he is one of only a few who seem to feel the latter is important, either when they are planning their own manufacturing enterprises, or buying products to sell.
But is it still financially viable to manufacture music products in the UK today - and does it actually offer any advantages to those companies who do? Why does Jason How think it is so important?
“For all sorts of reasons, not least the historical in our case, because we have made stuff since 1958 and we’re still doing it - increasingly successfully for the past ten or fifteen years. There are a lot of benefits from manufacturing in the UK, for example the control over the product that it gives you. We’re exporting about 70 per cent currently - a higher percentage than it has been in the past. We’ve been particularly successful in the last year because we’ve put together a really excellent export sales team.
“And being able to say ‘made in Britain’ does help with those exports. We’ve got some of the best machinery and quality control we’ve ever had and we’re employing people and bringing foreign money into the country, which we need to do more of. In Germany and the USA, people are proud of making things in their own countries, so why don’t we have the same attitude over here? “
A cynic might say that it’s easier for a string maker to manufacture in the West, because strings are products with high margins which makes the labour content a relatively small proportion of the overall price. Does How accept that?
“In a way, but there are two routes you can go. If you buy everything in, you know for certain that your prices are only ever going to go up. But if you’re an engineer, you know that you can devise ways to make things faster and that controls your labour costs. So you know that if you become more efficient you can always drive costs down.”
Why does he feel so much production has switched to the Far East - particularly amplification manufacture, which was once a British mainstay?
“If you take the amplifier market, once one of the big names makes the switch and moves production to China, what alternative do you have but to follow, if you want to remain competitive? At the moment, the major string makers all make their products in their home countries and none of us has yet moved to China.”
One amplifier maker who has held on to manufacturing in the UK is Orange, whose redoubtable Cliff Cooper is proud that so many Orange products are manufactured here.
“Well over fifty per cent of our amps are still made in Britain, if you discount the Crush range,” he says. “The big valve amps, the top quality products and almost all the cabinets are made over here, too.”
So why didn’t Cooper switch to China along with some of his major competitors?
“I think we were nervous about China,” he admits. “Particularly about the quality and it wasn’t until we built a factory there that we were able to take a proper grip on the quality of manufacture. Quality is very important with top of the range valve amplifiers and we really wanted to be completely in control of that. Some of the smaller valve amps and the Crush range have to be made in China to remain competitive, but quality control has to be very strict.”
And this quality issue isn’t mud-slinging, as many retailer readers will be painfully aware. Indeed, it is a subject MI Pro will be returning to, soon.
Control over the manufacturing quality is one benefit Orange gets from UK manufacture, but does Cliff Cooper find having the ‘made in Britain’ legend on an Orange amp help him sell?
“Most definitely and that applied to the OPC (Orange Personal Computer) too, where being able to say it is made in the UK meant a lot. British engineering is still admired around the world. We considered moving some of our production to the USA at one point, but our American company advised us to keep production in the UK because it means a lot to customers there, having it made in Britain.”
Another company that would agree about the benefits is Percussion Plus, whose MD, Paul Cobbett, shares a similar view about the importance of manufacturing in the UK.
“Some 64 per cent of our products are made here in Market Harborough,” he says with obvious pride. “There has always been an obstacle in terms of the price barrier between goods manufactured here and in China but Percussion Plus has been held up as an example because of the quality of the products we produce. Going forward, we’re removing yet another barrier for the UK consumer by offering directly to the schools a repair service for the lifetime of the school - not just of the product. That is something that has never been offered in the UK. We recognise that there are budgetary constraints and so we’re saying, if you buy British we will support you as a school by offering to repair the products which we have made here in the UK.”
Like Cliff Cooper and Jason How, Paul Cobbett finds the ‘Made in the UK’ label gives him an advantage in export markets.
“It certainly seems to. We buy some products from the Far East and there are still major quality issues with products made there sometimes - and there are also pricing issues. We’ve seen price increases of between 15 and 19 per cent from China this year alone, but you’re not getting an increase in quality to go with this and because of that we’re pulling some products back from China to our own factory. After duties they can be equal in terms of cost and I would rather employ people in the UK to make them.”
Howarth of London, meanwhile, is one of the few to have survived in the orchestral and educational markets with top-end products, manufacturing world class oboes in Worthing and retailing from its magnificent shop in London’s West End.
William Ring, who among other tasks looks after the company’s marketing, says: “We are probably the last major woodwind manufacturer still building instruments in the UK. There are about 25 of us in the workshops in Worthing and everything is made here - we start with sheets of wood and blocks of metal. All our instruments are designed and built in-house and a substantial and growing percentage of these are exported.
““For us, being able to say ‘made in Britain’, along with being handmade of course, definitely has a cachet, but having said that there are fewer of us, since the decline in piano and other instrument making in recent years, so we are a fairly unique creature. What has worked in our favour is that we are a niche business - very highly specialised. And the success we have as a supplier to professionals obviously has an influence on the success of our student instruments - a trickle down of quality and reputation. Quality is the key and that is our strongest point.”
Shaw is another British brand with a tradition - a percussion supplier dating back to 1866, Shaw is today owned by The Music Shipping Co, which is ramping-up Shaw’s UK production, having sold the Natal brand to Marshall, in 2010. MSC’s Craig Fenney accepts UK manufacturing has certainly had its problems but says they can be overcome. “When we had Natal, the only manufacturing we could do in the UK was the very top-end product and we only did it for the kudos of artists’ products. The bulk of the sales came from products made in Thailand. That was the model then but I think it has changed.
“With Shaw, we’re looking at small percussion accessories and I think Britain is more competitive now than it was. Working with tool makers can be incredibly difficult compared with in Taiwan, say, where you tell them what you want, they give you a price, its then 30 days for the tooling to be completed and 45 days to first production - and it never goes wrong. In the UK, you just have to take a guess. Having said that, it has got better and I have to say we’ve had a lot of help from the chamber of commerce and the Manufacturer’s Advisory Service. Certain people in the UK have suddenly woken up it seems and realised we are doomed if they don’t compete - not necessarily in terms of cost, but in terms of reliability, You’ve really got to want to make stuff here because it’s harder. It’s also more expensive but it is getting closer.”
Far from the doom and gloom that pervaded the UK’s manufacturing scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, enthusiasm seems to be sparking again. Made in Britain clearly does confer an advantage for exporters, product quality is easier to control, and even the great bugbear - price - isn’t always the obstacle that it was.
The last word goes to Jason How: “I’d say to retailers, just think about what you are doing. When you are buying a British product you’re boosting the UK economy and that seed needs to grow. I’d say ‘buy British’ and if you have any doubts, put a set of our strings on and see for yourself.”