Magazine article Management Today

Best Small Company: Richardson Sheffield

Magazine article Management Today

Best Small Company: Richardson Sheffield

Article excerpt

A lot of people believe, quite mistakenly, that the Sheffield cutlery industry died out about 30 years ago. It's a total misperception, says Gordon Bridge, managing director of Richardson Sheffield, the group whose Laser knives are now found in every good cook's cutlery drawer.

|The reality is that we're producing more steel here than was ever produced and more pieces Of cutlery, but both industries have changed dramatically. The steel is coming from seven furnaces rather than the 170 that were operating at the height of the war, and we're producing more pieces of cutlery from an industry employing 2,500 people than we were with one employing perhaps 30,000 people 40 years ago.'

Richardson itself produces about 50 million pieces of cutlery a year, 50 times the level of 40 years ago, but with only three times the staff. It has a turnover of 23 million [pounds] and has seen sales grow more than 13 % over the last three years in a market that has shrunk by 16% over the same period. To keep up that kind of performance it has had to get very close to its customers, the 2,000 or so major retailers around the world which stock its products. It is no good simply producing what you think will sell and expecting the customer to take it off your hands as soon as it's made. Today's customers are very demanding.

Reflecting that, says Bridge, the company's sales director, Kathy Sanchez, is regarded by the rest of the company as a customer herself. She is very much the client's advocate. |She's five feet tall and cracks the whip, |says Bridge. When she speaks we listen, because she's speaking on behalf of the customer. The whole customer service element of the business flows through her.'

Because customers are so demanding Richardson now encourages them to become actively involved in new product development. The Swiss company, Marcona, which runs a specialist catalogue offering subscribers innovative new products, recently approached Richardson with the suggestion that one of the company's sandwich knives might make an ideal |rucksack' knife if it could be converted from the standard fixed-handle design to a folding knife. The idea was that it should be a sort of cross between a sandwich knife and a penknife.

The new product director of the Swiss company came to Sheffield, was shown a mock-up of what Richardson thought could be done, and immediately asked for a sample to take back to Switzerland ... that night. The development team hand-made one before close of business. Having scrutinised it at their leisure, the Swiss asked for several design changes but promised an order oF 40,000 if Richardson could meet its specification. |Bear in mind,' says Bridge, |that we'd never made a folding knife before. It was completely new technology to us.'

When, in February (just a month before the Swiss company wanted delivery) the knife was finally sent to Switzerland it failed Marcona's |torture test'. The handle rivet would not stand up to extreme treatment. Richardson made 11th hour changes to make the knife sturdier. |The change was made and we delivered the product on time,' says Bridge. |It was so successful that we then repeated the promotion.'

Provided the sales prospect looks enticing enough Bridge and his colleagues seem prepared to take what look like hair-raising risks to satisfy customers' demands. …

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