Written by Craig Turley, Finance Director at Gresham
What happens to an office furniture supplier business when the world media is claiming ‘the office is dead’ and home offices are here to stay? We caught up with Craig Turley, Finance Director at Gresham to hear about their story of resilience in response to the challenges of Covid and the changes their making to secure the future of Gresham.
We’re a longstanding, family run business providing the whole portfolio of office furniture to businesses across the UK. We primarily supply the public sector including the NHS, DWP, councils and police forces. We pride ourselves on our customer service, quality of our products and our true UK manufacturing roots.
Gresham underwent an MBO in 2008 where Ted Smith, the founder sold the business to Julian Roebuck, his son-in-law and now sole shareholder. This was unfortunately followed by the credit crunch and global recession, which meant the business struggled for a number of years and much of its efforts were focused on fire-fighting rather than growth. Since then we’ve really taken the time to look at the business, change up the staff and management and recognise what it needed to recover and succeed. We saw a number of years of really good growth, profits were up and 2020 was set to be a record-breaking year…and then Covid happened.
Our business is fairly seasonal and the summer is traditionally our peak time with Universities and Colleges wanting their furniture outside of term time. Unfortunately, the timing of the pandemic meant that we missed out on our summer spend and along with it our hopes of a record year. The government was issuing ‘work from home’ orders across the country and the media, were pushing the narrative that the office is dead and office buildings are redundant. As you can imagine this was a worrying time for an office furniture manufacturer and we faced a quiet 12 months.
However, we took this time to dig deep into the business, look at how it operates and change some of our internal processes to become more efficient. Our main objective was to adapt – both internally and externally.
We recognised that in order to survive the dramatic shift in work style we needed to offer new products and thanks to our quick lead times we were able to start offering acrylic screens and essential home working equipment within a couple of weeks. With the pandemic diminishing, companies are now exploring ways to encourage their workforce back to the office and with that we’ve seen an increased interest in collaborative spaces, acoustic booths and break out areas furniture. Our ability to act quickly and explore new avenues meant that our product range remained relevant and in demand.
The number one issue that we’ve faced post-covid is recruitment. When I’ve been looking to recruit new roles in the past, I would simply call up Four Recruitment and they would have 7-8 CV’s over to me in a matter of days, but now talent is much harder to come by. We also recognise that the expectations and desires of candidates have changed and there is more demand for flexibility. To accommodate this, we’ve changed some of our traditional processes to become more efficient, including a new ERP solution and are putting things in place to ensure we’re futureproofing the business.
Since last summer it’s been all systems go and from November 2021 through to February 2022 we saw record months - since then April and May 2022 have both topped that. It's clear to see that the efficiencies we made at the beginning of Covid when the business was quiet helped to achieve the success we’ve seen in the last couple of years. For me it’s about striking a balance. Yes, we need to recruit but it’s also important to become more efficient. At a time when recruiting is tough, we’ve opted to invest in computer systems, machinery and new processes in order to reduce our reliance on headcount.
It’s so important right now to develop and retain your current workforce. We’re proud to say that the majority of our team consists of long-standing employees but we still need to attract new talent. The entire employment market has shifted and candidates are looking for different things from a company. We understand the need to adapt and are currently exploring options such as flexibility to ensure we remain an attractive company to work for.
The model for Western business over the last 20 years or so has been focused on global supply chains with the majority of products coming over from Asia. Relying on these supply chains is likely to be problematic and expensive moving forward. As a true UK manufacturer we aim to source products closer to home which is more sustainable and saves on time and cost.
As a manufacturer there is a lot of emphasis on the environmental standards we need to adhere to, particularly when working with public sector clients. It’s a part of business that is becoming more significant and I would recommend every business to acknowledge its environmental impact. At Gresham we’ve invested over £1 million on sustainability initiatives including a new biomass boiler that reduces our reliance on gas for heating, the cost of running machinery and reduced the amount of waste we send to landfill. We also fitted solar panels, which are now contributing about 10% of our electricity requirements.
We’ve got lots going on at Gresham in the coming years. We’re currently in the process of setting up our factory in North Carolina, USA, which was due to open in 2020 but was of course put on hold due to Covid. We plan to be up and running by Autumn this year and are positive that America will be a huge market for us. We’ve also got a new showroom opening in London in the next few months which will help strengthen our UK presence. We’re investing in marketing, including a new website to support our growth and we’re working with a company to help us change the image of Gresham and break into new markets. We’re also investing in our factory with a new production line and more equipment to help increase our productivity.
Undoubtedly the next couple of years will be challenging for Gresham, as it will for most businesses. Turnover is high but interest rates and inflation are taking a hit on margins. Despite that we’re positive that the future of Gresham is bright and positive.