We first met Panaz Group Chief Executive Tony Attard OBE at last year’s Mixology North.
We, the Mix editorial team, had certainly heard of Tony and Panaz, right back from the fabric manufacturer’s groundbreaking export successes of the 1990s. However, it was our Managing Director, Marcie, who introduced us – Marcie having met Tony through the IoD in the North West, where he is Chairman.
We’ve asked Tony to take a couple of hours out of his busy schedule to tell us all about both himself and his incredibly successful business. It’s a very welcome warm and sunny evening in London, so we take full advantage of the rare opportunity to chat alfresco.
Panaz is one of Europe’s leading suppliers of high quality decorative fabrics for the hospitality, healthcare and corporate sectors. For more than 25 years, the company has focused on design excellence and differentiation through technical innovation, resulting in a diverse and comprehensive range of beautiful, exclusive and durable fire retardant furnishing fabrics. Today, Panaz is proud to be included in the FTSE top 1,000 companies to inspire Britain.
We begin by asking about the exciting new initiatives we understand Tony and the Panaz team have recently implemented. ‘We wanted to do what we do now, but better,’ he explains. ‘That basically means driving efficiencies, driving productivity gains, making sure that everybody knows exactly where we’re going, really good communication and obviously ensuring we’ve got all the right systems in place – spending money on infrastructure systems. That gives us a lot more data and information.
‘We also wanted to look at new markets for our existing products – that was both opportunistic in terms of new market areas and also new geographical markets. So we put someone in the Middle East, for example, and we also invested in a new person for northern Europe and Eastern Europe and the East Coast of America.
‘Furthermore, we wanted to increase the product offering we had for our existing markets and also to produce entirely new products for our existing markets – moving into wallcoverings, for example.
‘I wanted to become a designer – or a painter, because that’s really what you know at that age.’
‘I have always believed that if you have the right model in place, whereby you have traction in different areas, then you have a great chance of succeeding. You’d be surprised at how balanced our sales are on a monthly basis.
‘When you’re a young business, you tend to have these massive peaks and troughs – and you pray to level those out. Market and product diversification was a conscious effort by us to level out demand. It makes a very big difference.’
We ask Tony to tell us a little about his background. ‘I’m from Poole in Dorset and I guess the usual route of going into business – becoming a lawyer or even an estate agent – wasn’t really me. I wanted to become a designer – or a painter, because that’s really what you know at that age. I went to work with an advertising design studio and absolutely loved it. I didn’t really understand the business side of it but – and this sounds a little weird – I really loved drawing fashion. I was studying fine art from a very young age and started doing life drawings from 15. I went to college with all these older guys and was doing these life drawings – which I thought was amazing.
‘I applied to Saint Martins in London and was accepted to read International Fashion Design. My tutor from school then phoned me to tell me about a new course in Manchester about Design Management – he felt it might really suit me.
‘So I went up to Manchester to have a look – and I loved Manchester straight away. It was grimy and raw and pouring with rain – it was the complete antithesis of where I was living in Poole! I used to revise on the beach – I was a beach boy!
‘I was offered a scholarship at Manchester to read Design Management by Courtaulds. I had to defer my entrance to university for 12 months while they sent me to all the different factories to learn all about fibre extrusion, polymer manufacturing, weaving, spinning – all aspects of textiles. In those days Courtaulds was a £1 billion operation – it was huge! I was seconded to one of the divisions and after the 12 months I went to university and did my degree. In the summer holidays I had to go back and work for Courtaulds – although they did pay me! Actually it was a remarkable opportunity, just fantastic.
‘Amazingly, they had never given a scholarship to a designer before. When you consider their business was about design! I had some great lecturers and they were convinced that design should be at board level – at the forefront of British industry to help drive it forward.’
After university Tony went into the industry with Courtaulds before being poached by Tootal. ‘I was one of their youngest directors,’ Tony recalls. ‘They sent me all over the world – and I was only in my early 20’s!
‘I was then approached by Unilever to work in a new division they were creating which was merchandising products from China and India, based in Africa. I took the job but had six months’ notice and started wondering whether I really wanted to do this. Did I really want to leave the country? So I put together a business plan, which was about creating Panaz. I was 27.
‘I got financing from a friend of mine’s father, who was an industrialist. He said to me ‘Give me a percentage of the business and I’ll fund it!’ It was everybody’s dream really.
‘It never crossed my mind that I would fail – that the business would fail. I just thought that this was what people did. Fear is a big driver – you don’t think about failure, but at the same time the fear of failure is always with you.’
We know from how difficult it has been to get our diaries together that Tony is still very much a hands-on, business-focused guy. We also get the feeling that this comes from his unwavering passion for and love of the company, the industry and business as a whole. In fact, it’s not just a feeling – it is quite obvious from the enthusiasm he exudes. There are no half-empty glasses on this sun soaked table!
‘I‘m very nerdy about design and business strategy – I love business strategy ’ Tony admits. ‘There are so many variables – it’s like design. The permutations and the opportunities in design – in this digital age – are just fantastic.
‘I got financing from a friend of mine’s father, who was an industrialist. He said to me ‘Give me a percentage of the business and I’ll fund it!’ It was everybody’s dream really.’
‘I’m also fascinated by what qualifies one design to be ‘worth’ X amount while another qualifies as Y amount. There are so many different intrinsic aspects that create a level of desirability. Sometimes it’s very difficult. For example, we produce a fabric that is stain resistant, antimicrobial, water resistant and flame retardant – four distinct, important USP’s. Now, getting a fabric that is stain resistant and flame retardant at the same time is extremely difficult because the technology used for one counteracts the technology used for the other. I sell that product at an extremely competitive price because that is the market it will go into and that is what the market will pay for it. You can go to Chelsea Harbour, on the other hand, and pay £300-£400 per metre and it won’t last 10 minutes. But you want it – it comes down to desirability. On the other hand, we sell many thousands of metres, so it is all scalable. Also, we can only get a foot in the door in our core markets if we have all that functionality.
We move on to discuss the corporate commercial sector. ‘I think there’s a fantastic opportunity for us here,’ Tony enthuses. ‘I also think there’s a desire for something new. There are key players in this market – and they are very good at what they do – but I think we can offer something different and I think designers are receptive to that.
‘We’re doing a lot of work in and around Clerkenwell right now and I’m certain we can increase that further. We’re now investing nearly £300,000 in a new state-of-the-art digital printing facility, and that’s going to be really interesting because it will give us the opportunity to produce some very bespoke pieces. We will even be able to programme in furniture shapes. We bought our first digital printer about 10 years ago – but this is on another level and is so fast in comparison. It’s very exciting.’
We love Tony’s enthusiasm – and we love his thirst for adventure (he still travels a great deal) and his amazing energy. He tells us that he still regularly visits his old alma mater in Manchester for seminars and lectures, where he also sits on the General Council and the School of Material Science advisory board. You never stop learning – and we’ve certainly learnt a great deal over the last couple of hours