The evolution from bespoke, to boutique, to mass production entails a series of tricky steps, any of which can lead to disaster. Which is why the news from Bolton’s Rothwell Audio that it has greatly expanded production and is moving increasingly into retail is surely good news for those who believe the UK badly needs more manufacturers in the MI sector.
It’s even better news, one imagines, for those retailers that have decided that now is the time to start selling this range of acclaimed FX pedals, as there is a definite buzz about Rothwell, with a noticeable increase in online chatroom interest and a continuing high profile in the consumer MI media.
Andrew Rothwell, the former aviation electronics engineer who is the brainchild behind Rothwell Audio, says his expansion into selling via retailers has been particularly successful since MI Pro last spoke with him, just over a year ago.
“We’re selling through a lot more retailers now, mostly because Tom Harrison from 440 Distribution is now representing us,” he says.
Appointing a distributor in your own country is a decision many small makers agonise over. The loss of margin on retail sales alone can be bad enough, but add in a distributor’s cut too and the mix becomes far too rich for some.
“It was a commercial decision I had to make,” Rothwell explains. “Do I go through a distributor in the UK and introduce another middle man, cutting your profit margin as thin as you can go? But Tom’s very good, he’s got our products into a lot more shops and I’m still supplying directly the dealer base I had before, so there’s a little bit more profit in those sales.
“But getting more stuff out there means the brand’s getting better known and there’s also the factor that the higher turnover makes for slightly more efficient production – so that helps.”
That said, 440 specialises in a territory from the Midlands northwards in addition to Northern Ireland, so any retailer in the South thinking now might be the time to add Rothwell to his arsenal, should contact Rothwell direct.
Another encouraging sign is that Rothwell’s export business is also expanding. “We’re doing quite a lot overseas, but most of our overseas customers (while they call themselves distributors) are really local retailers and don’t sell to other retailers. Now, I think we’re about ready to start looking for some bigger players for export markets.”
Asked if he could put a figure on the increased volumes, Rothwell is happily candid. “It’s certainly doubled in the last 12 months – possibly a bit more,” he reports.
“In some ways, scaling-up production is easy. Once the product has been designed, it’s just as easy to pick up the phone and order 1,000 circuit boards as it is to order 100, but if you’re ordering ten times as many you’ll get a much better price – as you do for just about everything you need to buy.”
Rothwell’s progress is all the more impressive when you consider the apparently never-ending proliferation of new FX brands arriving in the market. So how exactly does the company manage to stand out against this tide of new introductions?
“We’ve no magic formula – we just keep plugging away, trying to get as many reviews in magazines as possible, getting as many videos as we can on Youtube and just building it steadily. If I knew of a magic short-cut, I’d be using it but unfortunately it’s a case of keeping active – staying in touch with dealers, keeping in touch with the press.”
Of those activities, it is Youtube that produces the best results, Rothwell believes. “I was speaking with someone this morning who phoned up wanting to buy a product. I asked him how he had heard of us and, again, it was Youtube.
“When ‘Pro Guitar Shop Demos’ puts up a video on Youtube, it gets 1,000 views in the first 24 hours and of course it continues to get viewed for months and months after that. That doesn’t mean we don’t do magazine advertising, but let’s say that I’m aware there are alternatives and they need to be exploited as well.”
What about shows? The current trend seems to be toward smaller, more regional events – does Rothwell think these fit his business needs?
“I do the small Northern guitar shows because they don’t cost a lot of money to do. So far I’ve shied away from the national shows, simply because of the logistics and the expense – not only the expense of the stand, but staying in London for a few days, the need for a bigger stand, hiring stuff, a van to take it down there – and I’m really not sure how much business it would bring in.
“People tell me I should go over to NAMM, but, again, I’m not sure how much business that would bring in unless you’ve already got a distributor there.”
MADE IN BRITAIN
Leaving aside the products’ much-praised audio quality, Rothwell’s image has been carefully founded on the products being made in Britain. However, as business expands (he has taken on another member of staff, Phil Smillie, in the past year) could he see himself following the example set by companies like Blackstar or Dyson, to name just two, which manage to square a British image, despite being made in the Far East?
“So far I don’t think it would be practical on the scale we’re operating at and I can imagine there would be huge problems with communications. It can be difficult enough dealing with sub-contractors down the road.
“I’m not even sure I would want to go down the road of overseas production. Somehow it feels deceitful and I can’t say why, exactly. I wouldn’t like to call it a British product if it wasn’t made in Britain – even though it was designed here, I would just feel uncomfortable. And what I definitely wouldn’t do would be to badge-up an existing design from somebody else,” he explains.
Moving back to the state of the market, given the mass of brands and models out there, does Rothwell feel we could be approaching some sort of saturation point? And if we are, where does he go next?
“That’s a good question. We’re certainly not at the point where we’ve reached saturation personally, but we could do with expanding away from distortions and overdrives, because there are millions of those around. So we will get to chorus, phasers, modulation type things. The Love Squeeze compressor has been quite a success for us – not least because it’s not a distortion.”
Does he see any trends emerging in the effects market?
“No, not really – other than that everything is getting more expensive and I think that’s starting to get slightly dangerous because I believe that the bubble will burst. People are pushing up prices based on the fact that it’s a product imported from America, or because there’s a huge waiting list. And I think people will start realising that you can pay three times as much for a pedal but that doesn’t mean it’s three times as good.
“There could be a backlash at some point,” Rothwell points out.
With an average selling price around the £139 mark, that isn’t something likely to trouble Rothwell too much and it will be revealing to see if he is right about market resistance to the uber-pedals now regularly straying beyond the £200 mark.
What about the ‘tubes with everything’ movement? Could we see a valve Rothwell?
“Funnily enough, the first pedal I worked on was a tube design. It was sounding good and it was intended to compete with products like the Mesa Boogie V-Twin, but it was working out too expensive to make. And then I designed the Helbender – a nine volt battery-operated solid state device – and it sounded so good I decided we’d be better off producing that. The valve idea hasn’t been completely scrapped – it could happen in the future, but the valve would have to justify its existence. I think there are quite a few pedals where the valve is really just a marketing tool...”
So how about delays?
“We’ve two options there. Go down the digital route, or come up with an analogue pedal. But the chips that used to be common now aren’t, so reliability of supply would be an issue there. Digital is a possibility but I’m not sure the market would warm to a digital device from us – they might think we’d abandoned our analogue roots.”
Perhaps by the time MI Pro next comes to talk with Andrew Rothwell, he will have found the export distributors he’s starting to feel he needs for the next stage of growth and also added to the 30 new UK dealers he has acquired in the past few months. As one of that small band of British MI manufacturers, it’s hard not to feel he deserves encouragement
ROTHWELL AUDIO: 01204 366133