Magazine article Management Today

Russell's Broadway Hit

Magazine article Management Today

Russell's Broadway Hit

Article excerpt

The casual tourist visitor to the Cotswolds town of Broadway could be forgiven for believing it to be just another English 'Sleepy Hollow'. But tucked behind the famous Lygon Arms, where Oliver Cromwell spent the night before the Battle of Worcester, is a manufacturer whose sales are growing dramatically and whose products have a worldwide reputation for quality and design.

This is home to Gordon Russell, maker of high-quality office furniture, though its salesforce are as likely to use phrases from the current jargon such as 'executive desking' or even 'personal harbours' when they talk about what their company does. Its founder, Sir Gordon Russell, was one of the great design gurus of this century. He is sometimes inadequately described as the Terence Conran of the 1930s: he devised utility furniture for blitz victims of the last war, headed the Design Council in the 1950s and was still designing furniture until shortly before his death in 1980. Seen as the man who linked the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement of William Morris with Conran and his contemporaries, Russell has been described by Conran himself as 'one of those peculiar English geniuses not given the recognition they deserve'.

Today the Gordon Russell business in Broadway consists of 100,000 sq.ft of manufacturing, design offices, a showroom and a museum dedicated to the founder's art. The Broadway plant has hitherto concentrated on making office furniture at the top end of the range, much of it handmade using all the traditional skills which its founder fostered, much of it desks and boardroom furniture considered appropriate for top executives. But from June of this year a highly efficient and successful volume production operation based in Swindon -- systems office furniture made of wood -- will be transferred to the Broadway base. Some [pound]600,000 is being spent adding new facilities to the plant to accommodate the men and [pound]3 million worth of modern computer-controlled machinery coming out of Swindon.

It all began at the turn of the century when Russell's father bought the Lygon Arms for a mere [pound]4,000 and found he needed craftsmen to repair the hotel's antique furniture. Russell and his two brothers developed both businesses over many decades. While winning many design accolades they also undertook routine manufacturing tasks in wood: in the second world war the factory made wings for fighter planes and pre-war made the veneered cabinets for Murphy, Ekco and Pye radios -- now collectors' items. Family ownership of the businesses ended in 1986 when the Savoy Group bought the hotel for [pound]4.7 million and the factory was sold to a Welsh office-seating firm called Gyroflex which enlarged it and took it to the stock market as Gordon Russell plc. In 1989, it was bought for [pound]63 million by Strasbourg-based Steelcase Strafor -- a joint venture between the French manufacturer, Strafor, and the world's largest office-furniture group, the US Steelcase Inc.

As the name implies, Steelcase's expertise is in metal desks while Gordon Russell's skills were all in wood. It might seem to an outsider that the culture of a modest Cotswolds company could not survive the clash with its brash new giant owners from Middle America and France. Au contraire. Under the new regime the Gordon Russell name and tradition is being pushed hard. Dominique Artaud, who runs the Steelcase Strafor operation in the UK (it includes metal desks made in Margate and office-seating in Wales) is confident that the Gordon Russell wood furniture share of total Steelcase Strafor sales will increase from 1993's 15% to 20% in 1994. The volume-produced product range aimed at middle managers is proving highly popular. Artaud says: 'We are anxious to turn the wood-system furniture under the Perform brand into a Europe-wide product.' Artaud, whose earlier career had included stints at Olivetti and Coca-Cola in France, came over from Strasbourg to run the UK operation of Steelcase Strafor in January with a brief to concentrate all wood-furniture production in Broadway and to pull together into one marketing organisation the different sales forces working on Gordon Russell brands. …

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