Laying the table for 114 years

Laying the table for 114 years

Simon Price is the fourth generation to head legendary cutlery company Arthur Price. He takes Jon Griffin on a whirlwind tour of a story that began in 1902.

It supplied the Titanic’s knives and forks, the Queen and Prince Charles have dined with its products, and David and Victoria Beckham ordered its cutlery for their wedding.

Lichfield-based Arthur Price has been at the top table of the cutlery world for more than 100 years – but the values and principles first instilled in 1902 remain untarnished.

The Staffordshire firm is currently run by chief executive and self-confessed ‘cricket-loving maverick’ Simon Price, great-grandson of original founder Arthur Price, the Victorian visionary who first saw a niche in the UK market for high quality cutlery.

Unlike his ancestor, the younger Price occasionally jets across the globe to the likes of China and Hong Kong on family business – but the beating heart of the company remains firmly in the West Midlands. While the Indians and Chinese dominate the region’s car industry and the Americans continue their revolution at Cadbury’s, the family name and business ethos live proudly on at Arthur Price.

A hard-earned reputation for discretion and quality was underlined just two years ago, when the firm received an emergency call from Kazakhstan to ship over 450 top grade knives, forks and spoons to supply David Cameron’s entourage for the first visit by a British Prime Minister to the distant Asian state.

But it hasn’t always been Royals and Prime Ministers on the waiting list for Arthur Price cutlery. The firm owes its 21st century prosperity to the simple desire of Aston-born Arthur Price to better himself and provide for his wife Priscilla and four children back in the early 1900s.

Simon Price says: “My great-grandfather, Arthur Price, was born in 1865 and he started the company in October 1902. He had worked in various silverware companies in Birmingham.

“He was from Aston, a real Birmingham lad. He was born into the working-classes. He was a foreman and used to work in various cutlery companies.

“In those days more spoons and forks were made in Birmingham than in Sheffield. My great-grandfather wanted to better himself. He started making his own stuff in the garden. He was making tools for cutlery products. He would have been making what we call fancies, gift sets such as fruit spoons or pastry sets. He made the patterns and may have got some manual workers in to help out.

“I never met my great-grandfather – he died in 1936 when my own father was only eight. My grandfather Frederick had been born in 1897.”

Slowly but surely Arthur Price’s dreams began to take shape. Turnover for the first year was £2,930, while the first quarter’s profits were £5, 16 shillings and 9d. A West Midlands industrial dynasty was born.

“My grandfather Frederick joined the company in the 1920s. In a matter of a few years he lost his father, the war began and then he lost his brother. My grandfather never expected to be running a business, he always expected his brother Arthur was going to do that. The factory was in Vauxhall Street, Aston.

“I loved my grandfather – he died in the 1980s when he was in his late 80s. He had worked up until the 70s. The firm had moved into Alum Rock in the early 1970s

“My dad John Price had joined in 1948 at the age of 20 and was often one step ahead of things. He could see that Britain was not going to be the manufacturing force it had been and saw what was happening in the likes of Hong Kong and Korea.

“The name of the game was supply and demand. ‘Made in Birmingham’ was not known for quality products … my dad had seen the trends. If you’re doing volume cutlery for an airline and they can get silver spoons for a third of the price, what’s the point? “In 1982 they took the decision to close the factory in Alum Rock and moved to Lichfield. At its peak, it had employed 250.”

Simon Price’s formative years had been spent at boarding school in Birmingham and Repton School in Derbyshire, where he was a contemporary of Jeremy Clarkson.

“I went to Repton in 1973. I didn’t like the place but boarding schools are very different today to how they were then. In my day, they were more like institutions. Jeremy Clarkson was in the same year as me, although we were in different houses. I remember him as a very insular type of chap, not academic, and not a sportsman. I didn’t see a lot of him.

“I made a big mistake at Repton – do not try to be liked, and I paid for that by being bullied. It was a tough time for me, I was in a strange place with some strange people. But those people who made my life hell, they turned out to be d***heads.”

Price resisted attempts by staff at Repton to push him into a polytechnic. “I said: ‘If you think that I’m going to a polytechnic after what my dad has put me through here, you have got another think coming.’

“Apart from playing cricket for England, my ambition was always to join the business. To get a degree was a real achievement although I am not very good at book-reading. I was no academic but got 10 O-Levels and B and D grades at A-Level.”

Price cut his teeth in industry while studying managerial sciences at Bradford University from 1978. “It was a new course and it turned out to be business studies with a year in industry. I worked for British Steel in Stocksbridge, near Sheffield.

“I did a year there, including time on the track. It was just after the steel strike and some of the workers thought I was a spy. I was regarded as a foreigner, from management. I eventually got a 2:2 degree.”

Price’s career in the family business began in autumn 1982, a few months after the firm moved to Lichfield. “In the Easter of 1982, my dad had closed down Alum Rock and moved here. He decided that we would stop selling volume stuff and concentrate on cutlery sets. Dad is a visionary in many ways.

“It never caused me problems having my father as boss. I am a great believer that you earn respect, you do not automatically get it. I got stuck in and earned the respect of people. It was fun.

“The business model was set up at that point, the principles have remained the same.  We had a warehouse facility in Lichfield, a manufacturing site in Birmingham and there was silverware in Sheffield.

“It was a boom time in the mid-1980s – we were opening concessions, we were really motoring. We got the Royal Warrant to the Queen in 1987, the Royal Warrant to Prince Charles in 1988. We also supplied the Queen Mother and Princess Diana. We began importing products in the early 1990s from Korea.”

Decades of service at the helm of this quintessentially family firm have taught Price lifelong business values: “If you try to turn a family company into a corporate company, it will fail. What people do not get about family companies is that they are not corporate.

“This will never be a corporate company. There are other things in life than just making money.

“It’s not about the short term. It is not about making the last half cent in a pound to satisfy some shareholder in London. It is about enjoying going to work and enjoying work, it is about family values and that includes the people we work with, such as suppliers.

“I have made a few mistakes. I’ve kept people on I should not have done. In 2005, we had 100 concessions in the UK, now we have 22. We had gone the wrong way.”

The next generation of the Price family is already making waves in the cutlery world, with Simon Price’s son, James, on board as business development manager and John is still chairman at the age of 87.

Simon Price added: “People live and breathe the business, they go the extra mile, and not because they are told to. I’m 56 now but I don’t think about retiring, I enjoy what I do. My average working week is 11 hours a day, and I pop in on Saturdays. Getting out and about is important, you can’t run a business from just sitting there.”

He’s bullish about Arthur Price’s future, with a workforce of 150 across three sites in Lichfield, Birmingham and Sheffield. He’s keen to expand the firm’s export base, with China and the Middle East potentially lucrative. “Turnover is £8m but should be nearer £10m,” he says.

His great grandfather and company founder Arthur Price would surely approve of that relentless desire to improve, which has sustained this most British of firms for what will soon be a remarkable 114 years.