19 May 2024, 02:38
By Furniture News Jul 14, 2014

25 years of Classic Furniture

The Binbrook, Lincolnshire-based Classic Furniture celebrates a quarter-century of business this month. Today, the company is one of the UK’s undisputed leaders in the supply of oak and pine cabinet furniture. Bolstered by a couple of high-profile takeovers of wholesale activity in recent years, Classic Furniture’s stockist base now numbers over 600, a significant proportion of the UK’s independents.

At 25 years old, Classic Furniture’s background mirrors that of many traditional cabinetmakers that seized the potential of the Nineties pine furniture boom – yet a couple of extremely savvy decisions here and there, plus a thoroughly down-to-earth and honest approach to business, have ensured that the company is still going strong, while so many of its contemporaries are not.

Classic Furniture’s team numbers 35, supplying 17 ranges to an active stockist base of over 600 retailers.

“From small-scale cabinetmaking and antique restoration, to large-scale imported pine and oak – the company’s come a long way”

1989: Following a two-year apprenticeship in cabinetmaking, Andy Rippin founds Classic Furniture on 30th June. Andy works in cabinetmaking and antique furniture restoration as a one-man band, operating from a workshop at home.

1992: Prompted by the need for more manpower, Andy is joined by his father, John, who always had an interest in woodworking as a hobby, and his mother, Marian, who looked after the accounts and book-keeping. Two more staff are employed as Classic Furniture moves to a 1500 sqft farm building a mile from Binbrook, Lincolnshire.

1996: Classic Furniture exhibits reproduction furniture at the NEC furniture show in January, and is inspired to change direction into the volume pine market. Two more people are employed as the company moves to the Binbrook Technical Park industrial estate. Andy’s brother David leaves university and joins the company, and the pair decide to take their biggest risk yet, purchasing an £80,000 CNC machine and entering batch production. A period of progressive growth and upscaling begins.

“The company’s changed a lot over the years, but every business has to move on – we evolve with the industry”

Turning up the volume

“Our first major change was in 1996, following the NEC furniture show in January of that year,” says Andy. “We weren’t having a good show – there just wasn’t a lot of interest in our reproduction furniture. As we looked around, it was clear that the only thing at the show that was doing well was pine furniture. Our path was obvious – if we wanted to develop and go somewhere, we had to jump on that bandwagon and enter the volume market.

“The problem with pine manufacturers in those days was they didn’t take a very business-like approach to production – they were building to order, and waiting to amass a cumulative order large enough to justify starting production on each model.

“The problem with that from a customer service point of view was that the person ordering first couldn’t be given a delivery date, because the manufacturer didn’t know when they were going to commit to production – how quickly the batch of goods came together depended on who else wanted them too.

“We could see that the customer wasn’t getting what they wanted – and that efficiently making for stock, and the efficiences of scale that come with it, was the only way to go.

“Buying our first CNC machine was the biggest jump, because it was – even back in those days – £80,000. We’d never borrowed anything before, we’d done everything with our own money, and we weren’t the sort of family to borrow money – yet we had to go out and spend £80,000 on a bit of machinery that we didn’t even know we had the work for.

“We both had a lot of sleepless nights. When signed the credit agreement for the machine, the machinery dealer said “thank you very much, I’ll see you within the next 18 months to buy a second one”. We said “not on your life, we are never, ever going to buy any more like this”. We had the second one installed within 12 months – at the height of production, the machinery was valued at £1,000,000.

“Right away, we had customers that were ordering the furniture on the Monday morning, and we were delivering it on the Tuesday. People were saying it was impossible to do, but we were building a thousand bedside cabinets in one go, warehousing them in the white, then taking them out of stock, colouring and lacquering them to taste, polishing them, putting them on a lorry and delivering them.

“It was a totally different system to that of any other pine manufacturer, and it was the only way we could see to do it efficiently. We had to make the furniture, and the components, in volume, to get the efficiencies out of our computerised machinery, and to keep the flow of production right through the assembly line.

“We had a very very good run, we were on permanent overtime, right up to the early 2000s – it didn’t matter what we made a week, we could make as much as we liked, and it was sold.”

“We were running a different system to that of any other pine manufacturer at that time”

1999: Expansion forces moves to progressively larger facilities, up to 10,000 sqft. Classic Furniture now employs around 100 people, producing up to 4000 pieces of cabinet furniture each month. The company’s production is at its height.

2001: Classic Furniture buys own premises, its existing headquarters – a hangar on Binbrook Technical Park, Brookenby, Lincolnshire. Production is concentrated in one building. The market for Classic Furniture’s pine goods begins to slow.

2004: Product coming from China prompts Andy to buy in some containers to run alongside Classic Furniture’s own manufactured product. Stockists are receptive to the development.

Imports ahoy

“By 2004, nobody had really overtaken us in terms of development industry-wise, but the market was slowing down – and the Chinese were busy,” says Andy.

“We’d seen a few products coming out of China and were very impressed with what we saw, and we got the chance to buy a few containers in just to do a little bit of wholesale, to run alongside our own production – at the end of the day, we were delivering to customers around the country anyway, so if we could deliver our own product and put half a dozen boxed imported products on the lorry, then effectively we were getting that product delivered for nothing.

“Our stockists were receptive to that first ash range. We then brought in the rustic oak – now the Bordeaux range, which is still one of our strongest ranges today. At the time we were unsure if it would work – we had only sold that contemporary ash range to date. Scott from Furniture Origins told us: ‘Trust me, we have done our homework – this is what the market is asking for. If it doesn’t sell, you can have your money back.’ We agreed to ordering six containers, and within two weeks of receiving the stock a call was made to Scott to see how quickly the next shipment could arrive!”

2007: Further market decline of own-manufactured goods prompts downscaling of operations, and moving the production of two ranges to China. 

2008: UK production shuts down in September. The staff maintained are transferrred to the warehouse or become drivers. The following month, the machinery is moved out and disposed of, and the assembly line becomes turned into warehousing space. New ranges are brought in from existing Chinese supplier and UK suppliers Flexiload and Furniture Origins (UK) to supplement Classic Furniture’s diminished portfolio. The company continues to grow, making several exhibition appearances.

A difficult decision

“By 2006, UK production was still slowly declining, and so was ours,” says Andy. “The problem you have when you look after such a large animal, is it needs a lot of feeding – there’s only so small you can get before you lose the economies of scale. We couldn’t downscale less than making 200 chests of drawers at a time – it just wasn’t profitable.

“So, we shut down production in September 2008, and our manufacturing space became warehousing. To be honest, we probably waited two years too long – but I’m not surprised that we did. It was a very hard decision to actually make people redundant – we’re a very close-knit family company, and we had a responsibility for giving these people a living.”

2010: Further ranges are added to widen the portfolio

2012: Classic Furniture takes over Flexiload’s wholesale distribution in November, and Cate Seymour is recruited to oversee field sales

2013: Furniture Origins (UK)’s UK wholesale division is taken over by Classic Furniture in September

“Today’s product offering is wider than it ever has been”

With its most extensive product portfolio to date, and a strong network of valued retailers across the UK, Classic Furniture’s future is looking bright. Watch this space for the next big announcement from the industry’s leading oak and pine supplier …

This article was published in the July issue of Furniture News magazine.

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