Nothing very glossy in plastics, you might think. A dour industry, down to earth – typical Yorkshire, in fact. But the fashionistas, social commentators and other pundits who now take up so much of the British media industry might care to take note that without the work of one particular Yorkshire plastic-based manufacturer their pearls of wisdom might never end up in the hands of their faithful readers. And no on would know who they were at all.
How so? Well, Bartuf Systems is a Holbeck based company that builds retail displays for the likes of WH Smith, Marks & Spencer, and a wide variety of smaller newsagents. As its founder and owner Chris Lord will tell you, that may sound mundane, but actually for the publishing world it is incredibly important.
“Up until a few years ago, 60% of magazine sales were impulse sales,” he says. It’s a fairly safe bet to assume that that figure hasn’t come down much more recently either, despite the best efforts of subscription managers to get their readers to be more brand-loyal. Magazine editors know how important it is to put something exciting on the front cover so that someone will take the rag off the shelf. (This writer once worked on a magazine where the editor thought nothing of taking a whole day out from the monthly cycle just to write the cover lines.) And those newsagents whose turnover largely depends on selling magazines know that they have to make them look as impressive as possible. Which is why Bartuf’s products – made of a certain kind of plastic, but almost unbreakable, and 100% biodegradable to boot, have proved such a success.
The company is certainly doing well, notching up a turnover of over £6m in just over a decade and being in profit for every year of its existence. Nor is it the first successful business Chris has built up in his career. The company was borne out of another rubber and plastics company he successfully sold off to management eight years ago so he could concentrate on his new baby.
“I had become a little bit bored with the old business,” he admits. “You need sweepers– new ideas, and people who can pull the thing together.” But he is enormously proud that both businesses have managed to be successful while relying on materials and a workforce that is almost entirely UK-based. “This is the sort of thing I do get wound up about,” he says.
“We are now sourcing over £1m of metal and £500,000 of joinery each year, all of which is manufactured right here in the UK. The metal either comes from within Yorkshire or elsewhere in the North East. And all the plastic we use is fabricated here in UK.” Much of this pride comes from his own love of his home city of Leeds with its manufacturing history, and his equally strong awareness of how little attention other entrepreneurs have paid to the need to keep things at home.
“I went to hear Ultimo founder Michelle Mone speak at a function recently,” he says. “She was very impressive, but she calmly said that the first thing she did after designing her bras was to get on a plane to China to source someone who could produce them.
Could we not have done that in the UK, with all this unemployment?” Such fighting talk betrays Chris’s background right in the heart of manufacturing Leeds. “We used to have industrial estates,” he says.
“Now we have retail parks, and the retail parks are full of products made in China. He even admits to feeling an inner sense of glee when he hears reports of some workers in China starting to protest at their conditions.
“I really believe that as and when the world has given up all of its manufacturing resource, the Chinese will suddenly say that the price has gone up by 50%. Chris is proud of Leeds too because it was the city that taught him his business skills.
Brought up in a council estate in Moortown, he first got a job working for a stallholder at Kirkgate Market after the man was impressed with his caddying skills at Moor Allerton golf course. “The concept he came had come up with – which was very new at the time – was that biscuits were a shilling a packet, but you could get three packets for two-and-six,” he says.
“It was all based on volume, and it really worked. You would open the roller shutter and start the day full with boxes and as the day progressed the pile would flatten. I used to stay back and watch this guy putting the five pound notes away ready for the bank. He honestly took in £700 a day, which was a huge amount in those days.” The wisdom of such business practices put him in good stead when he got into a series of jobs in technical selling that eventually led to him setting up his first plastics business Barkstone with a sleeping partner.
“I looked at the way many of the distributors who worked for us were operating,” he says, “and wasn’t that impressed. They described themselves as merchants but they weren’t, they were just selling things on. I felt it was time to apply a bigger company idea to the business. A lot of people stay small, because they have got themselves into a small business mentality. When you come down to it, does a corner shop have to stay small? It depends how you work it.” Right from the beginning, however, it’s clear Chris wanted to succeed. He got into selling plastic tubing after first thinking he might set up a business as a TV engineer “because at that time I could see there was going to be a market for that” but got diverted into being a vending machine engineer.
“Retailers didn’t have the same hours of opening, then,” he says, “so vending machines were huge, particularly for cigarettes.” But the company concerned, he says, wasn’tso interested in the maintenance side, and it was his interest in this that led him into plastic tubing – an essential part of any vending machine – and from there to Barkstone.
Bartuf eventually came about because, after many years of dealing in industrial plastic, he decided to buy a company out of receivership that was much more focused on retail display.
“Part of the issue with Barkstone was that everything was bespoke,” he says.
“I fancied doing something that was a bit more off-the peg, and focused on retail, too.” He did initially try to integrate the two businesses, but found the cultures just did not match.
“In the commercial sector. a delivery period of between 10 and 14 days is perfectly acceptable,” he says.
“But within the retail sector somebody always wants to make sure you’ll be on site at 9.30am on Monday to deliver for them, won’t you?” So after many years of taking a more managerial role, he opted to, as he saw it, go back to being a salesman.
With six staff, he moved a short way across Holbeck into the property that had been vacated by the collapsed business and set up shop as Bartuf. One of the staff who came with him was Jo, his wife, who is an industrial designer. She hadn’t worked for some years, but with their two daughters now seven and nine, she felt it was time to go back to work. Chris says they made just £50,000 in the first year, and he remembers how wet behind the ears they felt as they drove off for the first time to catch the ferry from Hull to get to their stand at Euroshop, Europe’s biggest retail display trade show in Germany.
“I remember Jo saying, ‘I’m really worried about this, because I don’t really know anything about the product,’” he says. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, darling, neither does anyone else who will come onto the stand.’ We still had to work that stand for six days. I was absolutely knackered.” He was right, however, because there was something novel about the Bartuf product, and so when the chance came in the second year to pitch for a contract with WH Smith Wholesale, he knew its advantages had to be put to the fore. Unlike almost all of his competitor’s products, Bartuf’s shelving wasn’t made out of acrylic.
Its main ingredient is polyethylene terephthelate, or PETG. (It’s actually the only material Bartuf sources from outside the UK, but that is only because it is currently not made in UK. The company gets it from three suppliers in Belgium.) “PETG is still a relatively new product,” he says.
“But it is 10 times stronger than acrylic. That’s one of the reasons why we called our company Bartuf. It’s other advantage of PETG is that it doesn’t bend at the corner.” Any newsagent, he thought, faced with the prospect of having to stack heaps of heavy magazines – the kind of newsagent WH Smith Wholesale dealt with in their thousands - would welcome such a product.
But he still wasn’t convinced he had won the day. “At the time we only had a turnover of £1m, and the contract was for £1.5m,” he says. “The person running the bid looked as if he was going to go with our competitor, even though we had already put a trial in.” Chris knew this was one time he would have to go against his instincts. He has made it a rule in his business life, he says, not to try to knock the competition to a client, no matter how bad he thinks they are. (And he really does think some of them are bad, with tales of some companies hiring “ladies of the night” to pose as salespeople.) “You really have to be careful,” he says, “because if that client is already dealing with those competitors you are actually saying: ‘Well, you are bloody stupid.’” But on this occasion, he decided to risk it.
“I sneaked in and took a photo of competitor’s installation in situ,” he says, “and one of ours in situ, and showed the two to the client. It was almost like a before and after shot. I also offered a three-year guarantee; we were leading with our chin, because it was a new product. But we got the contract. We went from six to 16 people virtually overnight, and gained huge credibility in the marketplace, because everyone was looking at what the market leader was doing.” That’s not all that happened either.
That opposite number at WH Smith was one Steve Davenport. He must have been impressed with the business, because a couple of years later he came to work for Bartuf, and is now managing director with a stake in the company.
Chris has, in fact, recruited a number of people into the business who were former clients of his – although he insists that each such recruitment wasn’t poaching, but was done amicably with the other employer.
“Even though we have many other customers now,” he says, “WH Smith is still a seven figure account to us.” The other customers have included moving much more into the convenience store market. Lord says this has involved a much more sophisticated sell as ownership in this sector is far more disparate – there is no one owner of the SPAR network, for example.
Such new ventures have also led the company into fresh new designs. It was one of the first companies to produce new displays and baskets to suit the S-shaped queuing system many retailers have introduced. Chris admits that he “will never see 60 again,” but he insists that, although he may have slackened off a little bit in terms of holding the reins, he is nowhere near retiring.
He says: “I probably made more of a contribution last year than the previous three years, and that was through keeping the team together. As I had been through a downturn before, unlike many of the team, I saw myself very much as coach, telling people to put a smiley face on, even though you might think different inside.” In any case, he says, making an exit from the business looks unlikely at the moment, and could even be unwise.
“The problem with management buy-outs now is raising the money,” he says. “That was considered four or so years ago, but I feel that the major issue is the level of borrowing the incoming management team would require and whether that return would be good enough on their investment. “For me, this business is still the best return on any investment I would get anywhere outside the business.
And of course the business as it stands will be outside inheritance tax. The minute I try to monetise that it becomes taxable for inheritance purposes.”