In times of uncertainty, we look for security in something closer to home, something we can rely on, something that over the years has given us reason to trust, that has made us feel safe.
Particularly within the hardware sector, we need look no further than our own doorstep at manufacturing, the birthplace of industry itself back in the late 1770s where we saw a major shift from traditional agriculture and handicrafts to an economy dominated by machine powered manufacturing. The mass production of goods became possible and output expanded on an unprecedented scale catapulting Britain to become widely recognised as the most technologically advanced country in the world.
As these advances in industry were adopted by the rest of the world, so the levels of output gradually dropped in Britain. However, over the last 60 years we have seen the resilient and innovative British spirit return and its manufacturing slowly but surely growing. The UK is the 6th largest industrial nation globally, employing almost 3 million people, and generating in the region of £360bn sales, with over 50% of these sales being exports, with experts forecasting that this will continue to grow over the next 20 years there is every reason to be optimistic.
While the industrial powerhouses of the early twentieth century have long since disappeared, we now have many smaller companies specialising in the manufacture of specific, high-value products. There has also been a move away in recent years from the mass import of cheaper, lower-quality products, with a growing consumer demand and preference for quality British made products.
One such of these companies is Croft Hardware, founded in 1847 in the heartland of British manufacturing, Willenhall, Birmingham. Crofts team of 50 multi skilled staff are “British manufacturers of the finest architectural hardware.” Croft and Door Controls Direct (the trading name of Spiller Door Controls) have enjoyed a close relationship over the last 30 years, so what better company for us to talk with and gather a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges of UK manufacturing whilst throwing in a few COVID-19 and Brexit curve balls, just to keep us all on our toes.
Brothers Paul and Nick Clifford are Directors of Croft Hardware and the 5th generation of the family to run the company. Earlier this year Gary Hewitt, Managing Director of Door Controls Direct caught up with Paul Clifford (PC)
GH: Why do you think British made hardware products are held in such high esteem globally?
PC: Speaking for Croft, you know that everything we make is cast to the highest possible standards, along with this we have invested a lot of time and energy to ensure that everything we do supports this. Annually 96% of orders are made ahead of schedule and we have a returns rate of just 0.6%. This is our differentiator. Croft is a family company that genuinely cares and has a deep desire to provide high quality products and service that we are all proud of.
GH: What have the biggest changes in manufacturing you have seen in the last 10-25 years?
PC: When we realised 10-15 years ago that we had an ageing workforce that had a high level of skills imperative to us and a younger generation that did not want to work in factories. To overcome this, we invested in a comprehensive apprenticeship scheme in partnership with a local college who tailored a course to suit our requirements. New skills needed would include understanding and creating CAD drawings and creating 3D prints, embracing new ways of working with modern technology such as programming new machinery. Then there was the need to be able to teach traditional skills and older methods, so there was a balance to be met. We have also found that students that go into higher education and then look for further development through an apprenticeship scheme are more likely to stay, so staff retention improved.
Also, our premises have changed over the years, moving away from an “old school” foundry to a more modern, cleaner working environment that suits everybody better.
GH: What have been the biggest challenges of recent times? COVID-19 or Brexit?
PC: COVID-19, by far. To be able to keep the factory running efficiently and safely was a big challenge. Back in March 2020 we scaled right back to just two of us, answering phones and adjusting before gradually started bringing staff back into the business 4/5 at a time. We introduced new gangways, dividers, staggered lunches and start times to allow safe working. Office staff were able to remotely work, but obviously the factory workers had to come in and had to be kept safe.
I think that we have all been shown how a more flexible approach to working from home can be useful and I would expect that to stay with us for some time as we continue to adapt. Also mindful that new staff joining the company could see this as a preferable way to achieve a work/life balance.
Brexit has not really affected us because we have complete control over our in-house processes and do not have to rely on external support. We did ensure we had more raw materials than usual, but we always have a high volume of raw materials anyway to allow for higher than usual volumes of sales.
GH: Are you optimistic about the future of British manufacturing?
PC: Yes absolutely. People are becoming more conscious about where the goods they are buying are sourced. They want to buy locally, from a family business, and for sustainability they want to buy less by buying better. To buy products from premium brands that will last a lifetime rather than the false economy of replacing a product time after time and throwing it into a land fill site.
In summary, British manufacturing has doubled since 1958 and Britain remains amongst the global leaders in technology and manufacturing and is projected to break into the top five industrial nations by 2025. COVID-19 and Brexit have brought numerous challenges, but they have also taught us how important it is to feel safe and secure by looking closer to home for our solutions.