Magazine article Management Today

Reviving the Dearly Beloved

Magazine article Management Today

Reviving the Dearly Beloved

Article excerpt

Sometime last year, David Hewitt found himself faced with a nasty problem. Hewitt is in consumer electronics -- 'the radio business, we used to call it,' he growls -- an uncomfortable place for an Englishman to be in these brutal times. Japanese giants -- 'I don't normally talk about competitors,' Hewitt observes, 'but there is a company called Sony' -- have recently been peppering the market with a remorseless barrage of technological innovation: notably with troublesome things called 'graphic equalisers' and 'digitalised tuning', all backed by titanic advertising budgets and R&D spends. If Hewitt wanted to remain in the radio business at all, he was going to have to prove that occidentals, too, are capable of innovation, to snatch some consummately British brand from the white-hot furnace of new technology.

So Hewitt picked up his telephone, dialled his woodworking unit in Suffolk and asked if they still had a template for the R200, a best-selling portable built of mahogany, red leatherette and brass, and pioneered by the company in 1958. 'They said they had, so I ordered a thousand. The response from the trade', concludes Hewitt, triumphantly, 'has been staggering. We've called them "Revival" and already sold four thousand of them. They keep coming back for more. Of course,' he adds, with a faint air of apology, 'the new model does have an aerial. The old one just had a turntable, so all you had to do was point the set in the best direction for reception.'

There is a moral in there somewhere. As the more attentive (and elderly) of you will have guessed, David Hewitt is chairman of Roberts Radios, that last little corner of the consumer electronics field that is, forever, England. While other great names in British radio manufacture have dissolved, one by one, into the ether, Roberts has gamely gone on turning out its solid, obstinately retardataire portables in West Molesey for 60 years -- the last UK firm still in the business. The company was founded by Harry Roberts in the same year as that other beleaguered stalwart of Anglo-radiodom, the British Broadcasting Corporation, received its charter. Indeed, Roberts' best-known product still retains the flavour of a 1930s Auntie Beeb: one twiddles with its brass-capped tuning-knob in the vague expectation that a black-tied announcer will read out the day's Spitfire losses.

That one is, in fact, rather more likely to tune into rap singers advocating the timeless joys of shooting policemen nicely underlines the dilemma facing Hewitt last year. Times have changed; Roberts' Radios had not. There were a variety of reasons for this. When Hewitt, recently retired as chairman of Comet, took over the firm following the demise of his old friend Dick Roberts--the last family member actively involved in the company -- he found himself running a firm whose ethos was overridingly familial. 'I suspect,' says Roberts' new chairman, diplomatically, 'that you have different priorities if you are an owner-driver. With no disrespect at all to Dick, he could afford to say "Let's sell to our mates". I had to say "Where's the market? Let's go and look for it".'

What Hewitt found in his search was alarming enough: 'I examined the market and thought, "Christ: it's dying,"' he recalls. Nor is he speaking metaphorically. For anyone interested in the phenomenon, the precise location of Roberts' sizeable radio-buying constituency -- the company's 3 million [Pounds] annual sales gives it a surprising 17% of the UK portable market by value, compared with Sony's 33% -- must increasingly have become something of a mystery in recent years. 'The market today perceives of all consumer electronics goods as being shiny and black,' says Hewitt. Roberts' radios remained stubbornly matt and wilfully claret. They are also expensive. When the quintessential portable-radio-buyer is typically tuning in on the 25 [Pounds]-40 [Pounds] band, Roberts' wooden-cased range starts at 85 [Pounds] and ends up at nearly three times that sum. …

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