Manufacturer Report 2019

Share this

For this year’s report, we’ve hand-picked a diverse selection of leading UK and overseas manufacturers, who have allowed us to take a look into their production, innovation and development. As you’ll see over the next dozen or so pages, these insights are every bit as diverse as the companies themselves.



Current staff: 267

Storage: 200,000 sq ft, with additional 125,000 sq ft.

2018-2019 T/O: £33m

MD: Julian Roebuck

Manufacturing is grubby, done by old men, in terminal decline and without investment (there’s nothing like a good cliché or two!). Our time with Bolton-based furniture manufacturer, Gresham, is a perfect example of this clearly not being the case.

Manufacturing in the UK is at something of a crossroads right now. Like most major advanced economies, it is a natural process of moving from heavy manufactured goods to service economy. In the UK in 2017, GDP was just over 18% from manufacturing and over 70% from the service sector. What remains constant is that those companies who are creating a product that has a high perceived value are winning. Having tight control over the production factors is key. Gresham is one such company.

In 1976, the year the UK and Iceland ended their Cod War and the Sex Pistols first shocked middle England, Gresham was founded.

Gresham, like its MD Julian Roebuck, gets on with things in a quiet and efficient way. In what some would say is typically ‘Northern’, Gresham has made its mark while going somewhat under the radar.


Five Year Plans
After a couple of years working for Gresham in business development, Julian led a Management Buy Out (MBO) in 2008. The next five years included the financial crisis and, more importantly, years of strife created by the good people in the financial services. Julian’s own admission is that this was a difficult and challenging period of time for the company. However, as their balance sheet of £33m turnover shows today, they not only survived but have since gone on to thrive.

The second five years for Julian were focused on analysing the business and making changes that would create a business ‘fit for the future’. With the senior management team and ‘work council’, they assessed the workflows, analysing the processes and bottlenecks.

One significant investment was to replace the four older edge banders (machine used to cover the exposed sides of materials) with a more efficient one.

This was repeated with the saws, while the most recent investment included a biomass heating system (the carbon in biomass is part of the natural carbon cycle; while the carbon in fossil fuels is not), which provides heat for the factory, offices and powder coating units. Solar panels are also evident across the factory and the wonderfully named ‘package on demand’ machine, more commonly associated with Amazon and Staples, which makes light of the most awkwardly shaped dispatches. A state-of-the-art powder coating machine completes a huge investment for the firm, this particular piece of wizardry allows painting to be done in a much shorter time and cuts cleaning time significantly, allowing colours to be altered without significant interruptions and notably with a tiny amount of waste.

Whilst most of the production is for its standard range, Gresham has recently housed its bespoke team in a large workshop, which most would envy. A cadre of apprentices supports the team on what is becoming a very significant part of Gresham’s offering.

Customers have also changed. Historically, universities and colleges were Gresham’s focus but, as the commercial workplace has changed, so has the world of education, demanding better solutions more akin to what their students will encounter in the real world. Whilst Gresham has a very strong and loyal following in HE and FE, with the help of high profile external product designers, such as Craig Jones and David Fox, its commercial clients are also growing. We are told to watch out for more exciting developments in the next six months.

Similar to many furniture manufacturers, much of Gresham’s business goes through the dealer route but Gresham has a very strong record of gaining business directly and through tender processes before the dealer is engaged.


The Next Five Years

Julian is a canny businessman who has overcome some significant challenges since the MBO in 2008, but his measured and stoic approach, along with the five-year plans, have served him and the team well.

The focus that Gresham has on investment to help both commercially and environmentally is evident and will put the business in a good place to achieve Julian’s plan to grow to a £50m company in the next five years. That’s no small feat, but if you get to meet him you are likely to have a similar view to us. You wouldn’t bet against him.




Current staff: 220

Facility: 145,000 sq ft

Founded: 1988

MD: Ciaran O’Hagan

The name Specialist Joinery Group has been associated with some of the UK’s most high profile workplace and coworking projects – but who are they and why have they been named Mixology Manufacturer of the Year not once but twice?

Nestled quietly in the rolling hills of Mid Ulster, this jewel of a company are known for their friendliness and family orientated culture, as well as for their beloved joinery work. For over 31 years, the company has been firmly established as the major local employer in the market town of Maghera. Their arrival in the London workplace strategy market in 2010 has been disruptive and lauded by many as a refreshing new era, quickly surpassing existing tier one suppliers to take the top spot on tender lists.

Operating from an unrivalled 145,000 sq ft green manufacturing facility, which is powered by sustainable heat and solar power, the Group deliver projects for main contractors and are specified by architects for works across the UK, with a select list of global client relationships.

The new facilities boast a staff wellness centre and gym, which is open 24 hours per day, in addition to breakout spaces, meeting rooms and on-site restaurant, catering for all of the company’s HQbased staff on a daily basis.


So what does make SJG different from other joinery manufacturers?

‘We are a bespoke manufacturing company, with collaboration at the heart of our service model,’ MD Ciaran O’Hagan tells us. ‘We have over 31 years’ experience in providing joinery products for commercial interiors and we also now have standalone group companies offering glass, metalwork, installations and solid surfacing, which are key components for commercial interiors projects. We’re lucky enough to have been over to Specialist HQ, and it’s certainly an impressive place. ‘Our facilities are unrivalled in the UK market,’ Ciaran proudly says. ‘We have invested over £5million in our capability and capacity in the last 18 months, positioning Specialist Joinery Group at the forefront of bespoke joinery manufacture and in the UK market.

We continue to grow the specialisms that we offer beyond traditional joinery work. Client needs are ever-changing and unique to each project. Therefore, we are challenged to stay ahead of the market by anticipating changes in materiality, engineering, integration and styles. We spend a lot of time with the design community, asking designers and architects what they want to see in the future and then taking that message back to our team. It is my challenge to provide a seamless process and perfectly engineered product as per their requirements.

We ask Ciaran about exciting sister brand, Specialist Glass. ‘Specialist Glass are big in the specification market at the moment,’ he says. ‘They are winning not just because of product quality, but also because of their flexible service and ability to translate concept design into technical solutions. What they do is very neat and the quality is superb. Their products range from standard back painted glass, to complex architectural laminated wire mesh glass. They spend a lot of their time with key architectural and design practices, developing design concepts into one-off project specials – anything from bespoke ‘crittall’ screens to glass art!!


What does Automation mean for the business – and does Ciaran fear that craft skills being left behind? ‘Everyone loves to ask me about the impact that automation is having on craftbased manufacturing and it is a very interesting conversation,’ he considers. ‘My answer is different to most, as I speak as someone who has completed a City and Guilds apprenticeship and managed our machine shop – so I have a unique take on things.

As a company, we look at automation and robotics as a way of enhancing our capability and capacity to deliver the most challenging and intricate bespoke joinery within demanding timescales. However, we are resolute that we cannot erode our craft skills development programme within the company and that it must be a twin-track approach. We champion craft skills development. Why? Because we must always be able to achieve things from a first principles basis – ie. with hand tools, technique and flair; as you grow and develop, it is this fundamental knowledge that helps you form the basis of your problem solving skills.

In the past 12 months, we have welcomed another seven apprentices to the Specialist Academy and introduced a new City and Guilds accredited NVQ 2 & 3 training programme. This has been a great addition. Our Leadership and Development Programme is now in its second year and has been rolled out across the business. It is centred on furthering our values-based culture as we continue to grow our team.

Let’s talk about specific manufacturing investment. ‘As well as the increase in our manufacturing space, key additions to our capability have been the introduction of the Sprayline, additional CNC, beam saws and automatic veneering plants,’ Ciaran tells us. ‘Alongside this, there have been software installations and bespoke programmes written to fully digitise the manufacturing environment. This is a complete capital investment totalling £2million, which sets the scene nicely for where the organisation is going in the next 3-5 years.

And where is that? ‘Growth! We have our eyes set on growth – and this is by no means an aspirational target. It is a case of how much and by when. The group ambitions are supported by an extensive land bank, rich skills-base, automated manufacturing, stronger-than-ever order book, sound financials, a deep empathy for our customers and commitment to helping our clients achieve their goals. This is our secret; listening to the customer and delivering to commitment.




Current staff: 41 (7 office, 4 sales 30 Factory)

Storage: 25,000 sq ft, with 5,000 sq ft of storage

2017-2018 T/O: £4.4m.

MD from 2014: Toby Davison

Revenue: Consecutive revenue increase since 2014

Thirty or so miles northwest of London lies High Wycombe, about as far as imaginable from the concrete and bustle of the Capital. In the Chiltern Hills, High Wycombe was once the chair making capital of the world – a title held until relatively recently. The Windsor chair was the most famous product of the trade, one of several different styles of regional chairs, such as the ladder back, which was developed in the 18th century to satisfy the market created by the labouring and artisan classes.

High Wycombe grew from a handful of manufacturers to 150 by 1875, making an estimated 4,700 chairs a day. As tastes changed and production moved both overseas and to other parts of the country, big furniture names left the area, including: G-Plan, Glenisters, Parker Knoll and Ercol. Today, along with Verco and William Hands, Davidson Highley remains one of the high-profile firms still producing world-class products.

When we caught up with Davison Highley, it was clear that not only do they have a proud heritage, they are a modern business with a reputation for handmade quality furniture for the commercial workplace.


The business’ origins were rooted in London as far back as 1929. Founded by Marshal Davison, they moved out of London during WWII and later, under the new leadership of Barry Davison, found their current home in Piddington. So, in 1979 – the year that Margret Thatcher came to the throne – Davison Highley as a brand were born.

For the older readers, the first major piece was in 1981, with the Classic sofa and armchair range bringing together the brand’s upholstery and frame expertise. For many years, Davison Highley were synonymous with individually customer-focused pieces of furniture, making over 70% bespoke pieces, with the remainder being from the standard range. During this period, Toby Davison, son of Barry, was the Production Director. When Toby took over the leadership in 2014 he realised that, to maintain their reputation for craft, they had to ensure their model was commercially fit for the next 40 years, creating a business based on design, price point and sustainability.

Davison Highley spent their time listening to the market, particularly the loyal A&D following, adjusting the range to make it relevant and desirable. They were also perfectly in time to take advantage of the changing nature of the commercial world. Gone were the £1,000 desks and in were beautiful booths and sumptuous fabrics that you would recognise more from the world of hospitality than the workplace.


Whilst Davison Highley were not the only ones to take advantage of the significant shift in workplace design away from ‘hard’ and into ‘soft’, they were sure to move quickly to confirm their market position. Whilst their ‘standard’ range now makes up their majority of production and ‘bespoke’ the smaller percentage, they have made sure they have flexibility through their tailored solutions. Asked for an example, we were told how they reduced the height of their booths by 100mm to fit a client’s office that had a natural level around the entire space.

One of their best selling products is the highsided Skylon work booth, which illustrates the changes in the last five years at Davison Highley.

The company’s products have changed, the workplace has changed and so have their conduit to market; the demographic of the A&D market has also changed, and their knowledge grown exponentially, often being central in choosing fabrics for most pieces. The other key route to market, through dealers, has changed beyond all recognition in recent years, both in terms of their services, their involvement in the process, but also the considered feedback to help product design. We were told to look out for the new Eevie chair and sofa range, which was a direct result of market feedback.


Balance is key to any manufacturing process and Davison Highley are clearly on the side of quality, but at the right price. Getting the right balance between great value products and environmental impact is one for all manufacturing to consider. Davison Highley’s choice of frames is FSC sourced WISA-spruce plywood, giving them both flexibility and strength using robust 18/25mm ply. The choice of metal, when used, is aluminium and their glue is water-based.

Over the years, Davison Highley have built up a supply chain where all their components are sourced from within a 40-mile radius, whilst few companies will be 100% immune from Brexit, Davison Highley have clearly helped their cause from an environmental and transportation cost point of view.

Over the last five years, Toby and the team have built their collection and reputation. Their biggest challenge as a business is being perceived as a high-cost, bespoke manufacturer, when in reality they produce approximately 80% standard and 20% bespoke annually. The next five years may just be the most exciting, as more and more companies realise the true value of this jewel of a family manufacturer in the Chiltern Hills.



Steelcase Learning and Innovation Centre 17-0087420

Founded: 1912

Current staff: 12,000

President & CEO: Jim Keane

Revenue: $3.4 billion (FY19)

Not all manufacturing innovation comes from the ‘kit’ that makes the furniture. When you’re the global leader, you can even develop specialised innovation centres.

Established as the Metal Office Furniture Company, its very first patent was for a metal wastebasket, intended as a safety measure for office workers – in crowded cities where fires spread quickly, replacing wicker with steel was a lifesaving innovation.

Founders Peter M Wege, Walter D Idema and David D Hunting built the business in Grand Rapids, Michigan – a city then known as ‘The Furniture City’ because of its many wood furniture manufacturers.

By 1919, the company began to establish its dealer network, making desks, cabinets and other products available nationwide. Officially known as Steelcase Inc. from 1954, the company grew globally and executed the largest single shipment in the industry in 1973, providing over 400 truckloads of furniture for Chicago’s Sears Tower. Today, Steelcase is the number one furniture manufacturer globally, boasting brands such as Coalesse, Designtex and our very own Orangebox in its portfolio.

In 2017, Steelcase opened its new Learning + Innovation Centre in the heart of Munich, capping a multi-year planning effort and bringing together employees from across the region in an amazing 14,400 sq m space designed to promote learning and spark innovation.

As organisations recognise the importance of face-to-face interactions and shift back to centrally located business hubs, Steelcase opened this new facility to propel growth within its own organisation – and to give customers a first-hand look at how space can impact work.

This development comes at a time when leaders and organisations worldwide are focused on staying ahead in a disruptive economy. To stay competitive and effectively innovate, organisations must become more agile and speed up the flow of information and cycles of learning to take risks and make better, faster decisions.

‘Creative work and innovation happens when trust is built. So, we designed a place where people could come together from all over Europe to build relationships, learn, fail and grow together,’ says Jim Keane, President and CEO of Steelcase. ‘We believe this is central to innovation, but it’s not just for us – it’s for our customers too. It gives them a place to experience real work as it’s happening and to see how space can support and accelerate business results.’

The centre brings together over 230 employees representing 25 different nationalities from groups previously dispersed throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Munich’s geographic centrality, superb infrastructure, transportation capabilities and thriving design scene contributed to the site selection, enabling Steelcase to create a primary space connecting people in pursuit of learning and innovation.

Steelcase Learning and Innovation Centre 17-0087431

The Campus

A diverse, international team of experts, including Henn Architects from Munich, Patrick Jouin and Manku Design from Paris and the Steelcase Design Team, designed the three-building campus.

Features include a centrally located WorkCafé, which provides a dynamic space that revolutionises the traditional corporate cafeteria. With a coffee bar, barista and an eclectic collection of settings spread over two levels, the WorkCafé is a place for workers to interact, work or take time to socialise and rejuvenate.

Steelcase’s executive team is located near the WorkCafé, on the first floor in an open plan space, where people constantly pass through and meet. Its location and informal design makes the executive team more visible, encouraging frequent interactions with employees and visitors and helping leaders stay closely connected to the business.

Cloud-enabled technology throughout the campus allows ideas to travel from space to space and make it possible to include remote participants from around the world in the innovation process.

A virtual reality tour provides visitors a look at product development and gives them fresh ideas for their workplaces.

An ecosystem of interconnected and interdependent environments has been purposefully designed to support the needs of both individuals and teams by bringing them together and seamlessly integrating the technologies they need in order to work efficiently.

Multiple informal spaces throughout the centre and several specialised classrooms promote collaborative and individual learning. A distance learning classroom and video conferencing rooms ensure learning happens both globally and locally throughout the day.

‘We wanted a place where people could come together to build trust, collaborate and learn. All of these activities propel new ideas and different ways of thinking to help us grow,’ Jim Keane adds. ‘We’re excited to have Munich be the heart of innovation for Steelcase. Not just for Europe, but for everywhere.’




HQ: Green Bay, Wisconsin

Current staff: 3,000 approx.

CEO: Dick Resch

Group Managing Director EMEA: Jonathan Hindle

2017-2018 T/O: £650m approx.

Founded in 1941, KI (Krueger International, Inc) remains employee-owned and has grown to become one of the world’s largest, most respected furniture manufacturing groups.

KI’s EMEA headquarters and showroom in Central London are supported by an established network of manufacturing facilities and distribution partners across the UK, Europe and the Middle East.

The manufacturing sector was the catalyst for enormous social transformation during the first industrial revolution. Now, as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR or ‘industry 4.0’) takes off, it seems the tables have turned. In a world that demands agility, flexibility and collaboration, manufacturers are having to reinvent themselves to stay competitive.

Traditionally, manufacturers were overhead-heavy, with fixed production processes that relied on producing high volumes of products over a long period to help reduce high capital expenditure.

Now, technology allows us to redefine the concept of mass production and ‘minimum order quantities’, making customisation realistic, affordable – and expected – at a much smaller scale.


Technology and innovation don’t just affect what we produce. They impact how, and why we produce it. Reducing environmental impact and creating circular economies can’t be side-lined anymore, by anyone along the value chain. New software enables far greater optimisation of materials and process when producing flexibly. New materials, enhanced production processes, sophisticated logistics and buyer expectations are all playing a role in reshaping manufacturing for the 21st century. The production line still exists, but it no longer resembles Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’, punching out the same widget over and over.

It has always been true that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, but it has never been easy to deliver it. Striving towards this has long been a core tenet of KI’s manufacturing philosophy. This is reflected in our ongoing investment in design innovation rather than traditional manufacturing facilities. In Europe, KI has a distinct advantage of being supported by a large parent company, yet we maintain the agility of a local producer, with the benefits of having a diverse supply chain. Enjoying the best of both worlds, this allows us to work with multinationals as well as being relevant locally as a partner for co-creation, rather than simply a supplier of furniture.

Our in-house design and engineering team’s combined expertise leverages our investments in product modelling and specification CAD infrastructure, in order to better develop new products and bring them to life. Whether working alongside a customer on a specific project or developing a new line of products, the team has access to our established network of manufacturing partners all over the world – not just our parent company’s extensive facilities in the USA.


Advances in 3D printing and laser cutting, for example, have made rapid prototyping and small-batch manufacturing possible. Improved material yield and waste reduction save cost and reduce environmental impact. The flexibility of our dynamic supply chain allows the team to form new partnerships with companies, offering the latest innovations as and when they arise, quickly and cost-effectively, without the need for us to make expensive capital investments.

This model of manufacturing is very much the norm in aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics – it is about time the furniture manufacturing industry caught up. The British furniture industry in particular must do so for a number of reasons. ‘Buying British’ should not be dismissed as nativism; it makes a lot of business sense, too – especially if the appropriate investments in technology, skills, innovation and infrastructure are made to support it. It is this investment that will drive competitive advantage, rather than lower labour costs. Even in traditional outsourcing destinations, rising wages are eroding their competitiveness so they too will be quickly looking to adopt more progressive ways of manufacturing.

What’s more, longstanding arguments against offshoring still stand – having a robust manufacturing base close to customers helps alleviate supply shocks and currency fluctuations.

Importing products adds shipping costs, increases carbon footprint, and compromises day-two service and support. This is particularly pertinent in the context of circular economies, which are becoming an important consideration for many buyers. Without this capability, KI would not have been able to deliver on extensive refurbishment programmes, such as last year’s project with PwC to support their agile workplace strategy. Through efficient logistics and manufacturing processes, we were able to repurpose over 2,000 lateral file storage units into lockers – minimising environmental impact whilst helping PwC make significant cost savings compared to replacing the units with new furniture.