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Is it crazy to manufacture in London?

by LLB Editor
24th Nov 11 1:05 pm

Seems not! An astonishing array of products from bikes to beds are still made in London, discovers Shruti Tripathi

What do gallons of Coca Cola, über-cool Dunhill bags, iconic Brompton bikes, posh Savoir beds and a whole host of new beers have in common? They’re all made right here in London.

Odd but true – London isn’t just the financial and fashion capital of Europe, but also a huge manufacturing hub. Even Chinese consumers come knocking at the capital’s door in pursuit of the Made in London tag.  

The latest ONS figures indicate that London’s manufacturing industry employs 115,000 Londoners and is expanding rapidly.

At a time where one in 10 Londoners is unemployed, one would imagine manufacturing would be of interest to the jobless. But sadly, that’s not the case.

“The sector’s got the jobs but nobody wants to take them,” says Miles Parker, chairman of the manufacturing network body, Made in London.

“The notion that manufacturing is a dirty, insecure and unsustainable sector is why you’d see question marks on everyone’s faces at the very mention of manufacturing in London.”

But then again, when the rents in the capital are sky high and finding a space to just park your car is an ordeal, why would you manufacture in London out of all places?

I pose this question to Iain Loe, manager of Campaign for Real Ale which represents London breweries.

“Give me one reason why we shouldn’t?” comes his reply.

Pint of something local, guvnor?

cmara

The 23 new London breweries and Fullers together make so many barrels of beer that “the capital might run out of beer mugs but it certainly won’t run out of beer,” says Loe.

Space constraints, labour shortage and rising rents made most breweries in the capital go bust over 30 years ago.

Close to 10 years back, a handful of businessmen saw a gap in the market and decided to overhaul London’s brewery scene.

“More and more pubs and restaurants want to put real ale on their counter. Londoners love it and so do tourists. And of course, the proximity to customers and markets in London rakes in so much more sales and profits than anywhere else,” Loe says.

As the number of breweries doubled in the last five years, breweries are definitely a manufacturing success story. 

Speaking about how breweries make profits despite expensive properties to rent, he says: “The demand for ale in supermarkets, restaurants and a market to export ale from London ensures that the brewers take a good profit margin home.”

Loe thinks The Kernel Brewery at London Bridge – that counts the St John Hotel, Selfridges and Hawksmoor as customers – is a fine example of how London breweries succeed by targeting an upmarket clientele.

The London origin of the frothy stuff is part of the appeal. “Nobody could imagine a brewery manufacturing ale quite literally a stone’s throw away from City Hall, but there you go!” says Loe.

“It’s funny how manufacturing is presumed to be a thing of the past because here are these breweries producing ale and making London a beer mecca.”

Even bicycles get made here

The much-loved foldable Brompton bike has been a huge commercial success.

With a factory based in Brentford, Brompton Bikes produces close to 30,0000 bikes every year – right here in the capital.

A testimony of its manufacturing genius is the number of awards on display in their factory – some from the Queen, the EEF and many more.

“We love to see how the bikes turn heads and start a conversation and we feel proud that we contribute to London’s manufacturing industry,” says Will Carley Smith, head of design, Brompton Bikes.

Speaking about why the company didn’t consider moving production offshore, Smith says, “The biggest reason why we never contemplated shifting base is that it wouldn’t do justice to our product.

“Saving a few quid on labour costs and taxes was never a big enough reason to move elsewhere. Our customers love the fact that we’re based in London and that’s what matters.”

Brompton Bikes is another big London exporter, and a prime example of how keeping a little more faith in manufacturing can help resuscitate the economy.

In a guest column on LondonlovesBusiness.com, Will Butler Adams, CEO, Brompton Bikes, writes, “70 per cent of our bicycles were sold overseas in 38 markets, from Japan to Singapore, Ireland to Israel and Argentina to Canada – every one of them handmade in London.”

Handbags, signage and beds, too

With each piece of its custom leather made at the Walthamstow leather factory, Dunhill’s manufacturing unit has called London home since its inception over 100 years ago.

dunhill

Speaking about why Dunhill never contemplated shifting base, a spokesperson of the brand tells me, “London is where Alfred Dunhill set up the business and it’s only here that we can be faithful to the origins of the brand.

“In the factory, one person is responsible for the construction of each individual piece, ensuring ownership and pride in each piece that is produced. We attach a leather card stamped with the name of the Londoner who produced the piece of luggage, to make a statement that ‘Made in London’ is the identity of the Dunhill.”

The proximity of customers can also be a lure for London-based manufacturers. Display specialist Octink Solutions makes displays for some of the biggest brands in London. Customers include The Shard, RHS Chelsea Flower Show, SuperDry and Mace are to name a few. And yes, their kit is all made right here.

Octink

Octink Solutions’ Halloween display at The London Eye this year

“London’s so big on brands and events that advertising hoardings need to be set up round the clock,” says Will Tyler, director of Octink Solutions.

“One of our biggest clients is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. While the show is on, sometimes we get just two hours to produce a display hoarding and I bet you we wouldn’t be able to deliver that if weren’t based in London.

“London is the place to be to manufacture. You’ve got a huge client base, in addition to the respect you get as a manufacturer contributing to London’s economy,” he adds.

There’s also a buoyant luxury market to service. That’s what keeps luxury bed manufacturer Savoir Beds based in London.

The 100 year old manufacturing business exports to China, Germany, France and India. Customers include Emma Thompson, Liza Minnelli, the Aga Khan and King Hassan of Morocco.

factory

The Savoir factory is based in Park Royal – adjacent to Willesden Junction station.

Savoir Beds director Alistair Hughes says, “At a time where there is so much of bad news around business around manufacturing, we feel very proud in saying that yes we are based in London and yes China is a customer.

“I think one of the paramount USPs of our business is the ‘Made in London’
tag, there’s no place else we’d rather be,” he adds.

Why don’t we see more Made in London products?

Quite evidently, not everything is hunky dory in London’s manufacturing sector. While some feel red tape burns a hole in the sector, others say that the dearth of a labour workforce is frustrating.

Lack of marketing by the industries which operate in London is one issue.

“The first step to boost London manufacturing is to boost its promotion and get people talking about it. For years London was starved of breweries. But by talking about the return on investment you can get on starting a brewery and explaining the growth of survival rate, the breweries resurrected,” says Loe of CAMRA.

There is also the education issue. Astonishing figures of youth unemployment have made headlines everywhere, yet many young Londoners don’t see manufacturing as a career option.

“If more and more universities work in tandem with businesses to teach courses that equip student with the requisite skills to get a job and build a life, I think both the manufacturing industry in London and the unemployment [situation] would be in good stead,” says Miles Parker of Made in London.

Savoir Beds too complains of the difficulty it faces in recruitment. It had to look abroad for staffing. “It’s so frustrating to not find skilled workforce in London. Only last month, we had to recruit four people from Poland out of desperation to not hold back the production.

“It’s so unfortunate hear that 16-24 year olds struggle to find jobs when we’re sitting right here in the capital trying to recruit people,” says Hughes.

Red Tape is more than a moan – it is a serious cost.

“The first agenda on the government’s list ought to be shafting the millions of pages we need to fill up in order to start production. We’re here for manufacturing and not filling up pages.” demands Will Tyler of Octink Solutions.

Tyler says that 60 per cent of Octink Solution’s training budget goes in health and safety.

“Nobody’s arguing for a work environment that is less safer but I think some employment legislations are ridiculous, and the government should take action to cut the day-to-day red tape and help manufacturing in London a bigger, better and faster process.”

Mishcon de Reya recently launched START, a business package for start-up companies interested in manufacturing.

Nick Davis, head of corporate at Mishcon de Reya, thinks supporting businesses by advising them about renting office space and legal paperwork would encourage manufacturing in London.

“Starting a business can be such a minefield and therefore we decided to launch START. Helping manufacturing businesses with the initial capital outlay and expediting the process of starting a business will get the ball rolling,” says Davis.

London’s manufacturing businesses are a resilient lot. Even though London’s manufacturing industry doesn’t have it’s own heartland like Oxford Street or Canary Wharf or Silicon Roundabout, the sector is nowhere close to being dead and buried. The prominent success of London’s manufacturers are living proof that it is possible to make all sorts of products here and compete with global rivals.

So next time you buy something, don’t be surprised if you spot a Made in London stamp.

Know of any other great products made in London? Let us know by leaving your comments below.

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