A tough conversation in a car factory in the mid-1960s changed Martin McDonagh’s life. It led him to pursue a career in precious metals – creating one of Britain’s top silverware companies. Steve Dyson reports
Back in 1966, Martin McDonagh was a keen apprentice at the automotive firm Howard Clayton-Wright, of Wellesbourne, Warwickshire. The firm was a key supplier to Austin, making bushes and trims for the Mini and other vehicles, and Martin had a placement at the huge Longbridge car factory – then employing around 250,000 workers.
He remembers: “We had all sorts of experience working in the tool room and various departments, including a ‘time and motion’ work study. As far as I knew I was doing fine – it was potentially a good career. But one day a production manager took me to one side and said: ‘Bit of advice, sonny. There are 300 apprentices here and, to be painfully honest, if you were to stay you’d never make it. What do you want to do?’
“I just said: ‘I don’t really know.’ This chap replied: ‘If it was me, I’d go and find a small company to work for. You’ve got a good understanding of manufacturing, but you’re never going to be a toolmaker or anything like that for us. Find a small company and you could do well.’ I was only a teenager, and someone giving you advice like that changes your direction in life.
“So I went off and bought the Evening Mail and looked in the job adverts, and one of the smallest ones was for Pepper & Hope, a Birmingham silver maker looking for a ‘time and motion’ work study person, with a background in engineering, for more money than I could dream of. I’d just had some of that experience at Longbridge, so I applied for the job, was given an interview, met the owner, Dennis Hope, and he took me on as a 19-year-old.”
At Pepper & Hope, Martin was immediately confronted with real shopfloor characters who let him know that he wasn’t going to last long if he walked around with a stopwatch. Instead, he listened to what they had to say, closely watching and learning their trade. They took a liking to him, showing him what was needed to help improve working practices and to get the best out of staff.
“I’m talking about highly-skilled tradesmen,” says Martin. “They really knew how things were done, why things worked, what could work better, and from them I learned a real appreciation and love for silverware.”
For a few years, Pepper & Hope did well. It bought Four Star Tableware, a former subsidiary of the renowned Elkington & Co in Birmingham – where George Elkington developed the electroplating process that revolutionised silver-making from 1840. And then it was decided to open a new factory in Ireland and young Martin – having proved himself – was chosen to set up and head the operation.
This was a huge opportunity for Martin, still in his mid-20s: negotiating with the Irish government, employing previous farmers as workers, starting the factory up, getting to know the Irish market and what products would sell. The real challenge was finance, but here Martin struck lucky with his wife, the French-born Mireille, whom he’d met when she was came to the Midlands as an au pair. She was well-educated in accountancy, and so with Martin’s production management skills they made the perfect pair as they headed to Waterford, in south-east Ireland, to set up the new factory.
“What a great experience,” recalls Martin. “We needed to find ways of finding staff and producing items that could be sold in that market. There were problems and issues that we had to overcome, and it was Mireille’s knowledge in terms of figures that was hugely helpful.” After three years of this steep learning curve, the McDonaghs returned to the UK – Martin to London on the marketing side of Pepper & Hope, Mireille to become a senior accountant for a French steel company. For Martin, this turned out to be another period of valuable education.
“I was working with Charlie Phillips, sales director of what had been the Four Star Tableware company, a main supplier of products to hotels and restaurants. I’ll never forget what I learned from Charlie, taking me round all the big hotels, meeting top chefs and managers. It was awe-inspiring. I’ll always remember going in through The Savoy’s main entrance, treated like guests, and meeting the main buyer, who said: ‘Our front door’s always open to Charlie.’ But before we left, he had a quick word in my ear: ‘It’s the back door for you next time, my son.’ A good lesson in the ways top hotels worked back then.’”
Before long, Pepper & Hope decided to sell to an American firm and Martin “didn’t gel” with the incoming vice-president. He’d enjoyed being his own boss in Ireland, and decided to start a family business – Heritage Silverware Ltd. It was 1976, and with initial capital of just £50 the firm’s first base was a small 8ft-by-8ft room opposite Key Hill Cemetery in Soho, Birmingham.
Martin went around big hotels and restaurants, mainly in London, offering to repair silverware, bringing the work to his brother and another worker, then delivering it back to customers. Within a year, business was so brisk that Martin decided to rent a 2,500 sq ft factory in Green Lane, Small Heath.
He’d picked up detailed knowledge of the hotel and restaurant trade and was in London every day, from 5am to late at night, seeing customers, delivering repairs and establishing firm relationships. “The hotel industry expects products instantly,” says Martin, “but they also want something a bit different. We needed to go into manufacturing, and we needed more people. What had started as metal spinning and polishing grew to doing everything from taking in the original sheets of metal, to designing, creating, shaping, finishing and plating the final product.”
Heritage Silverware soon needed even larger premises, moving up Green Lane to its present base, first buying 4,000 sq ft and then expanding to what today is a 1.5 acre site with a 24,000 sq ft factory. But it’s not all been plain sailing. The market changed dramatically in the 1980s, with the influx of stainless steel to hotels and restaurants that had previously relied on silverware. Heritage reacted quickly, and although stainless steel needed an entirely different process, they bought the new tooling and continued to compete.
Larger stainless steel companies in Germany offered cheaper products from mass production, but Heritage became known for always making bespoke products – as it had with silverware. But then the industry was hit again, this time by cheaper production in the Far East. Martin says: “German and Italian companies were going to the Far East, taking over the factories and putting their own technical people in so customers couldn’t tell the difference. They made good quality but with very low production costs – and far higher selling prices. We couldn’t compete with that. We were a British factory and proud of it, but we struggled for a while.”
This changing marketplace in the 1990s didn’t only hit silverware, it was also destroying the British china industry – where Martin found a new strategy. “I’d worked with china companies like Royal Worcester, and they were in trouble and closing their doors. But lots of hotels and restaurants used Royal Worcester and they still all needed china desperately.
“It occurred to me that as we already made bespoke silverware and stainless steel, why couldn’t we use our equipment to create different china models, then get a china company to produce from those moulds. I spoke to firms in Stoke-on-Trent and they said they’d try anything to keep going. So almost overnight we started creating china.
“When I started to tell customers that we were making china as well, it all changed. We were at the table at the beginning offering all products – and if we got china orders, we got silver orders as well. We were making silverware, stainless steel, chinaware, and then started supplying glassware. It was an incredible change, a huge fillip, and the main reason we’re still going strong.”
Today Heritage Silverware offers anything and everything a hotel or restaurant needs.
From teaspoons to huge roast beef carving trolleys, in silverware or stainless steel, and all the plates, dishes, cups, saucers and glassware you can think of. This wider product range now has a new brand name – the Heritage Collection. Customers include all the top London hotels: from The Ritz in Piccadilly to the Dorchester overlooking Hyde Park, and from the Lanesborough in Knightsbridge to Brown’s in Mayfair. Chains including Hotel du Vin, Malmaison and De Vere are also supplied, and internationally there are numerous big names – including the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, and the luxury Four Seasons and Kempinski chains. One of Martin’s favourite clients is Manchester United FC, where they recently fulfilled a last-minute order for 2,000 branded items of cutlery and china for diners attending the Champions League clash against Real Madrid in March.
Now employing 23 staff and with a multi-million pound turnover, 65-year-old Martin’s still got an eye on the future: “I want to continue to build on what we’ve got and create a company with an identity and brand worldwide that shows the best of British and the best of what Birmingham can produce.”
A true family affair in business
The McDonaghs come from Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. Martin’s father, Coleman, came to Britain to find work in 1946, initially on farms. He brought his family over when he found work in Stratford-upon-Avon, erecting pylons for the electricity board. “There’s an old family saying that is part-myth, part truth,” says Martin. “It goes something like: ‘Mad Mac picks up a pylon on his own and puts it into the ground!’ I certainly remember my father as a strong man. He couldn’t write and had to put his fingerprint on documents, but he worked hard. We were poor but there was always put food on the table. We were Gaelic-speaking at home, and growing up was a period of hard but fun times.”
One of four children in a Catholic family, Martin was urged to study for the priesthood. “Mother wanted someone from the family to be a priest. My older brother started the same process, but left at 16, and so I found it difficult to say ‘this isn’t really me’. But I didn’t do well in exams, like Latin, and it was obvious to all that I was not cut out to be a priest.”
Instead, Martin excelled in football and cricket, and had trials as a 17-year-old for Birmingham City, before a cartilage injury ended that dream and he started an apprenticeship. Today, he’s chairman of Heritage Silverware, and his wife Mireille, aged 62, is managing director. Their son, Anthony, is sales and production director, and daughter, Nathalie, is creative director. Both children studied for design degrees at Portsmouth University before starting at Heritage. Mireille says: “That first job, the chance to show what you can do, is always important, and we wanted to do that for them here. They’ve never looked back!” Nathalie, aged 33, agrees and says how “watching my designs instantly turn into products was so exciting”. Martin puts this enthusiasm into two words: “They bit! And they’ve now become an important part of the company.”
Martin recalls how his children opposed the company’s ex-bank manager’s idea to move production overseas to save on costs. “They said: ‘You don’t know how that would hit the business. It’s all about original ideas and the speed of getting them to the market. If you were waiting for manufacturers to try things out it just wouldn’t work. This factory is critical to what we do.’” Anthony, aged 35, is impressed at how his parents have steered the company: “Mum and dad showed real prudence, and as a result we’ve seen a slow but steady growth even during the recession. We want to make sure we continue that approach in the future.”