Nigel Fulton of Fulton Umbrellas
When Her Majesty the Queen is one of your most loyal customers, you know you’re doing something right. Nigel Fulton of Fulton Umbrellas reveals the secret to his success.
When Nigel Fulton was first asked to join the family business after graduating from University, he shot down the idea. “It just wasn’t for me, I wasn’t into umbrellas,” he said, before embarking upon a career in accountancy.
Nigel’s father however refused to take no for an answer and was continuously asking him to get involved in the business.
“After graduating from University, I pursued a career in accountancy and joined KPMG. I qualified and stayed with them in their consultancy department for seven years.
“Even whilst working at KPMG my father was quite regularly asking me to join the business, but it wasn’t really for me. My aim was to stay at KPMG or setup my own consultancy practice.”
His father Arnold launched Fulton Umbrellas back in 1955. He was a mechanical engineer by trade and like many engineers, he had a natural fascination with how things worked.
He was inspired to launch the business in the early 50’s following a trip to Sweden where he went to visit his sister and brother-in-law who owned a small umbrella factory.
During a tour of the site he found himself asking questions such as, ‘Why are you doing it that way when you could do it this way?’ and ‘Why are you using plastic when iron would be better?’
He was finding lots of ways to improve their products just by walking around. When he returned home to London, he decided to give it a go himself and setup Fulton Umbrellas in Whitechapel.
Arnold ran the business for just under 40 years and grew Fulton into one of the UK’s most renowned umbrella makers, counting even the Queen Mother as one of his loyal customers.
It was in the mid 90’s however when he decided it was time to call it a day and started thinking about what the future held for the business.
“It got to the stage where my father wanted to take it easier,” Nigel said. “He hired a managing director which didn’t work out very well.
“He then hired a second which wasn’t working either and he rang me to say he was selling the business. He told me that if I had any interest in joining then it was time to say so.
“I said I’d let him know by the end of the week. He rang me on the Friday, and by the Saturday, I knew the answer. That was 20 years ago now and here I am today.”
Nigel took over the family business in 1997 and his first task, as with anyone taking over a new business, was to familiarise himself with the business from top-to-bottom.
“Initially, you don’t want to change everything. My view was not to sit and watch but to learn everything I could about the people, their different roles, how we operate, their processes, our customers, our products, it was a huge learning curve for me.
“As I got to know the business more and more and the people better and better, I realised there were lots of things we weren’t doing well enough and in this marketplace you have to be extremely sharp in every area of your business.
“We did undergo a lot of change – people being the main one. There were a few people who stayed on but by and large I just didn’t think we had the right people in the organisation. Our processes and the way we handled everything from stock control to manufacturing – everything was sharpened up.”
Nigel steadied the ship and Fulton started to pick up where his father had left off. Landing deals to manufacture umbrellas for the likes of Paul Smith, Aquascutum and Orla Kiely, Fulton returned to growth.
His proudest moment however came in 2003. One of Fulton’s biggest achievements prior to his arrival was the fact that the Queen Mother was one of the umbrella makers most loyal customers. She started using Fulton in the late 80’s and they became a permanent staple of her outfit whenever she was pictured in the rain.
Nigel was keen to capitalise on this and set himself a personal challenge. After noticing that Her Majesty the Queen had often borrowed her mother’s umbrellas when attending functions, he made it his goal to become her personal umbrella supplier. And he didn’t disappoint.
“The Queen Mother first started using our umbrellas back in 1988,” he said. “My father invented the birdcage umbrella, he was the first person to say, ‘Why don’t we make an umbrella out of PVC and make it a dome shape to protect the head and shoulders?’
“The birdcage really took off, he was working with Dame Mary Quant and developed a range specifically for her. Not long after however, sales of the umbrella started to dwindle and he decided to discontinue it. This was back in the 60’s.
“Then in the mid-80’s the Queen Mother’s equerry approached my father and basically said, ‘We love this umbrella but we can’t find one anywhere, where can we buy one?!’ He told them that the umbrella had been discontinued but said if they were interested in getting their hands on one then he would happily put it back into production again.
“The equerry said, ‘if you are to put it back into production again then perhaps we can work together to make it a little bit shorter, the Queen Mother would also like the sharper bit stronger so she can lean on it a little more.’ We made one bespoke for her and introduced the original birdcage back into our main range.
“Then, the Queen herself started using our umbrellas. At first she was borrowing them from her mother, which doesn’t qualify you for a Royal Warrant as you have to be a direct supplier. I made it my high priority to meet a lady who basically looks after all of the wardrobe for the Queen.
“I managed to get hold of her and we got on really well. We realised there was so much more we could do. Rather than the Queen borrowing them from her mother, we could make them even more bespoke by matching them to the colour of her outfits and by altering the depth of the borders etc.
“My persistence paid off and we started working directly with the Queen in around 2003 and were awarded the Royal Warrant to the Queen in 2008. It’s a huge personal honour that the Queen endorses our products.”
But how does the relationship work? You can’t imagine the Queen just arriving at the factory one day and picking three to take home with her can you? Nigel said: “I meet with this lady a few times a year. It can be at very short notice or with a lot of warning depending on what the Queen’s schedule is – and she’ll just say ‘these are the type of umbrellas we would like’.
“We match the colours, handle and border to the Queens clothing, we get a brief into what colours she is going to wear whether it’s a piece of fabric or a pantone number and we produce prototypes. Once they’re approved, we’ll make however many they have asked for.”
Having already established itself as one of the UK’s leading umbrella makers, supplying the likes of Fenwick’s, Harrods, Selfridges and John Lewis, the endorsement of Her Majesty the Queen was the icing on the cake for a brand which prides itself on being quintessentially British.
It is this Britishness which Nigel, who is set to celebrate his 20th year at the helm this year, puts down to the company’s most recent growth spout which has propelled the company onto the global stage.
“I think the Queen’s endorsement has helped our export business but I also think it is heavily down to our British heritage,” Nigel said. “We’re a very long established (1955) British company. We’re known for our weather here in Britain and I think the brand has a nice story which helps sell our produce overseas. 30% of our business is now done overseas with our main markets being Japan, China, Canada and Russia.
“They’re the markets where the Royal Warrant is majorly appreciated and European fashion is really sought after. In China and Russia you also have increasing capacity for people to spend, we’re not the most expensive of brands but we don’t produce £5 umbrellas either, you need a reasonable amount of affluence in society to desire our brand and the Asian markets, especially in Southeast Asia in China and Korea, really have an appetite for Fulton.”
As with any manufacturer, Fulton always likes its products to look the part – they have to be aesthetically pleasing. However, its main USP is the performance of its umbrellas. Innovation might not be the first thing you think of when you picture umbrella making but you’d be surprised.
Not only do they continuously trial new materials and ways of manufacture but the Fulton team also product test all of their new ranges with almost as much vigour as you’d trial a wind turbine. Using a wind tunnel at Imperial College London, each new design is tested with extreme pressure to measure how much force is being put onto the umbrella at various angles.
The idea is to mimic what it feels like to hold onto the umbrella in the wind. Nigel explains: “Our unique selling point is undoubtedly the performance of our umbrellas from an engineering and technical aspect. Umbrellas are fundamentally a performance product in the sense that you can buy a designer umbrella for £200, I saw one a while ago in Hong Kong and when I looked at it, it had a beautiful wooden handle, fantastic woven fabric from France but a cheap Chinese frame.
“I know it’ll fall apart in the first gust of wind. It doesn’t matter how beautiful an umbrella is, if it doesn’t perform, it ends up in the bin. We look at it the other way around - it’s all about performance. We only launch a new product when we know the performance is right.
“We test in wind tunnels and go through lots of prototypes, developing unique frames etc, because there’s no point in going any further until you’re 100% happy with the actual frame itself and how it performs.
“Whether it’s a tiny handbag umbrella or a huge wind proof umbrella, we’re only happy if it’s the best in its class. Once we’re at that stage, we can layer on the fashion side, which I think is our second USP if you like.
“We have a design team who follow all of the latest fashion trends, they go to trade shows in Italy and France etc and we produce these bi-annual collections. The end consumer knows they’re getting a well-built umbrella when they buy a Fulton umbrella but they also want it to be fashionable.”
Fulton’s dedication to innovation has also seen the company attempt to produce a bulletproof umbrella as well as an umbrella with a built-in parachute. Yes, that’s right, bulletproof!
“We prototyped a bulletproof umbrella but it had quite a limited market,” he chuckled. “It was quite a heavy thing but we had bulletproof Kevlar fabric which we made it out of. It was very fun to do but never really took off.
“We also made a parachute umbrella which was inspired by 9/11. We wondered if you could use an umbrella to jump out of a window, similar to an ejector seat in a fighter plane, to land safely. From our research we realised that to have a decent parachute effect, the umbrella would need to be so much larger than a usual umbrella, it would have to be 6m wide as opposed to 1m wide, it just wasn’t practical so we put an end to that development.”
Despite their failed attempts at creating bulletproof and parachuting umbrellas, Fulton have certainly succeeded in creating umbrellas for the masses. If their recent sales are anything to go by, their constant strive to innovate and push the boundaries of umbrella making are certainly paying off.
Nigel concluded: “We employ 30 people in the UK and have offices around the world where we have additional staff. Last year we turned over around £11m and over the next year we’re looking to increase that by around 15%.
“Looking forward however, there is plenty of room for further developments in umbrellas. There are also other markets we would like to break into such as the US market. That’s a huge market that we do very little in at the moment. It’s number one on our list of things to do.
“We’ve also recently launched our ecommerce store which is just gaining traction, we hope that will further increase our retail offering as well helping establish ourselves overseas.”