Ellis Furniture
Tom Keighley

Member Article

The manufacturer's view: the family business

West Yorkshire-based Ellis Furniture is a family run manufacturing business with 200 employees. Bdaily asked Tom Ellis about the manufacturing landscape, and how Ellis have seen off some of the key challenges.

What are the UK’s biggest strengths in manufacturing?

In the case of Ellis Furniture our biggest strength is our people. We believe in a healthy apprenticeship scheme and we’ve had people stay with us working their way through the ranks for 50 years or more. Such individuals are invaluable; they understand British manufacturing and have lived through the changes and recessions and their product knowledge is impeccable. Also, they’re the best placed employees to continue to guide the new generations of apprentices.

Was Vince Cable right when he said we’re beginning to see a repatriation of the supply chain to Britain?

I think that we have seen some repatriation of manufacture from the far East to Britain, as companies have had their fingers burnt realising that whilst they may get some cost savings, quality and reliability are not up to our standards and lead times can be a significant issue. However I would say that this has had little if any impact on our business, as it tends to relate to commodity products. For us to benefit, we’d like to see further repatriation of the supply chain from Eastern Europe, and for the government to be promoting buying British, particularly in the public sector.

The automotive manufacturing industry is often held up as a totem of success - what is going to be the next big sector?

Technological advancements are completely changing our manufacturing business. We recently won Autodesk 2012 Inventor of Year in a competition to find the Autodesk user who has developed the most innovative design and functionality using the Autodesk Product Design Suite; a 3D CAD system that links fully with Ellis Furniture’s ERP system. We installed Autodesk Inventor two years ago to achieve greater levels of product customization in significantly less time. The result has been design speed increase, which enables us to rapidly explore new product design ideas for our customers, creating quality furniture that fits each customer’s precise needs and is built to last a lifetime. Since installing Autodesk Inventor we enjoy a far more rapid route to market with new products, helping the company maintain the edge in what is a very competitive marketplace; and in turn, Ellis customers maintain an extremely competitive offering of their own. We were chosen as the Autodesk 2012 Inventor of Year in recognition of our ongoing high standard for quality customized furniture and continued dedication to new and innovative technology, not bad for a 120 year old family business. We have a passion to be the very best in our industry, and investments in the best manufacturing software and machinery are essential for this, which is why we continue to self-fund progressive investment programmes to improve our efficiency and sustainability. We, and our customers, are reaping the benefits of these investments now and we are delighted to be recognised for these achievements.

What challenges has your business faced, and how have you remained resilient?

Well as a 120 year old family business we’ve faced some tough challenges, ranging from wars and recessions, to rapidly changing technology and an ever evolving change in furniture styles and fashions. A key to our successful rise through these challenges has been to maintain a strong foothold in a variety of different market sectors, some consumer markets, some business markets, some publicly funded and some privately funded, and we have a wide variety of product offers across all markets. This approach has helped us avoid the ‘eggs in one basket’ scenario and meant that lean times in one market haven’t had such a significant impact on our overall business. We’ve also remained focused on our core business principle of making very hard wearing and high quality furniture that is proven to perform in even the toughest of environments.

Training and skills are fundamental to manufacturing. Are we pointing in the right direction?

Yes I think British manufacturers are the very best at training, and we take that part of our job very seriously. Ellis Furniture has been running a very successful apprenticeship scheme for over 50 years, in fact a quarter of our existing workforce have completed our apprenticeship scheme, and we continue to invest in this area to pass on the skills and experience to the next generation of cabinet makers and woodworking machinists, and to ensure British manufacturing retains the skills that are envied across the world.

What more could the Chancellor have done for manufacturing in his Budget?

Promotion of British manufacture in the public sector. How many French police cars are not French – very few, how many police cars are British – very few! Let’s look after ourselves and not the world!

Whilst it’s not the Chancellor’s role, the government should be doing more to reduce the bureaucracy surrounding the manufacturing environment. Employment law (along with most European law) is ridiculous.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Tom Keighley .

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