29 May 2024, 12:45
By Furniture News Jan 08, 2018

Mike and Darren Crowshaw, Breasley

It may be “business as usual” at mattress producer Breasley following the retirement of MD Stuart Hibbert last August – but there’s nothing run of the mill about the company’s current activities, discovers Paul Farley during a visit to the company’s Ilkeston factory …

It’s the run-up to Christmas, and Breasley’s Ilkeston factory is in full swing. Vacuum-packed mattresses are at the heart of the hubbub – Breasley is capable of producing an astounding 10,000 a week, making it one of the UK leaders in this field, and the company’s output has been running at full pelt since it added Simba’s bed-in-a-box production runs to its already-busy schedule.

“We doubled our turnover in the second half of 2016,” says joint MD, Darren Crowshaw, who now runs Breasley alongside his brother, Mike. “It was one of the most challenging years of our lives!”

Mike nods in agreement. “We’ve created quite a serious mouth to feed,” he says, describing the investment taking place in new machinery, and pointing to an extension survey taking place on land adjacent to the factory which will house a new foam block store (“just in case anything happens with our foam supply in the future” he adds wryly, hinting at the foam shortages threatened last autumn).

“There is some serious investment going on here, and we have Simba to thank for much of this ramp up.”

But it’s not the case that all of Breasley’s eggs are in one box-shaped basket. The manufacturer’s output is refreshingly diverse, ranging from the more traditional mattresses and divans to upholstery fillings, pressure-relieving cushions for the medical industry and cleaning tools for industrial pipelines. As well as its sizeable white-label production work for major retailers, the company is known for championing new directions – as its forays into female-targeted branding (Naked Beds) and motion-driven adjustable mattresses (Bionix) have demonstrated.

Breasley was founded in 1973 by Darren and Mike’s father, Alan Crowshaw (now acting CEO), together with Peter Walker. Over the years, the pillowmaker became a foam converter and began to manufacture consumer products, operating from sites in Hyde, Greater Manchester, as well as the Derbyshire factories in Wirksworth and Ilkeston.

The Crowshaw brothers have spent most of their adult lives working for the family company, making their appointment upon Stuart Hibbert’s exit “more of an evolution” than a change.

Mike started his professional career as a software developer before joining Breasley 15 years ago. He’s been heavily involved in the operations side of the business since, running its technical departments. Darren started on the factory floor 17 years ago, and has fulfilled a more sales-facing role, working closely with Stuart as a regional sales manager.

Both are “quite technically minded” and have “done a bit of everything” in the factory, from production planning to making the key decisions at the top. As well as their considerable experience, customer knowledge and energy, the brothers have been instrumental in building the latest technologies into Breasley’s business model, helping it stay ahead in a competitive market.

Take, for example, the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which mean each mattress can be tracked from cradle to grave – and that the packing and rolling machines can identify different SKUs and respond appropriately, making the production lines incredibly flexible.

“We started using RFID tags eight years ago, originally for tracking returns,” Mike explains. “Now they’re used throughout the production line, and are tied in with our invoicing procedure. Ideally, we’d like to improve that integration to give the end customer the ability to trace each mattress, from the start of manufacture to delivery at their door.

“I’m 99.9% sure no-one else in our industry uses RFID to this degree – and even if retailers aren’t asking for it now, they will expect it in the future.”

Darren adds that this technology could also help guide Breasley’s mattresses through the recycling process at the end of their lives. “Of course, you lose contact with many of your models when they’re sold, but this ability could become more important as more and more consumers start to focus on sustainability.” he says.

“By the way,” he adds, “we’ve been told that our mattresses are some of the easiest to recycle in the industry – we don’t use fasteners, so deconstructing them so that the separate components can be returned to each supplier is much easier than those made using more traditional methods.”

According to Darren, the company’s in-house skills base is a key strength – from software developers to machinery engineers, Breasley’s development is rarely reliant on outside parties. The company’s ability to innovate has made it a go-to for forward-thinking partners – including industry disruptors such as Simba, which has been keen to capitalise on Breasley’s ability to produce pocket-sprung mattresses that can be rolled and folded into a 1m-high box.

The recent Bed Show saw the relaunch of Breasley’s flagship collection, Salus, which now comprises just nine models. Breasley’s own vacuum-packed mattress offer, Uno, has been simplified in line with “everything we’ve learned over the last 12 years in this factory”, and the company’s boxed mattress proposition, You, will be relaunched in a “more focused version” on stand 5C20 at the January Furniture Show this month.

“Back in September, we made the Salus range a more focused offering,” says Darren. “In the words of our R&D department, it’s a ‘trio of trios’, covering good, better, best, across three areas: entry level through the i-plus collection; a new Viscoool collection with Scensic technology; and, new to the Salus brand, a foam-encapsulated Naturals Collection, which features a Purotex probiotic finish.”

That’s three different ranges, with three different stories. “Previously, Salus had been criticised for its lack of sub-branding,” explains Darren. “People had commented that it all felt a bit flat.

“We think we’ve now completely addressed any criticisms, and come up with a collection that really delivers on what our retail partners want on their shop floors – and what consumers are looking for in the way of comfort, technology and price.”

The bigger impact of this consolidation is the new price structure it facilitates. “The main feedback we’ve had so far is that we’re back in the sweet spot on price,” says Darren. “Thanks to component price hikes, last year was difficult for anyone who sold foam-based products – and prices across the board went up to unrealistic levels. We’ve now lowered the price points, and are better representing the brands in the market at the same time.”

Mike adds: “Of course, from a manufacturing perspective you want less SKUs, but you still have to offer the consumer a good selection. I think we’ve got the right balance now – there are fewer SKUs and deviations, so we can offer better service levels, increase capacity and move towards longer production runs.”

It looks like Breasley will be enjoying the lion’s share of this market for some time.

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