British furniture manufacturer pivots to meet unusual demand

Posted on 7 Sep 2023 by The Manufacturer

From corporate offices to humanitarian hotspots - how one British office furniture manufacturer is developing storage solutions for some new and unlikely locations.

Robin Bayliss, Group Enterprise Director at furniture manufacturer Bisley, discusses how, as well as creating offices and workspaces for some of the world’s biggest brands, the company is increasingly taking orders from government agencies for products to help deal with humanitarian disasters and emergencies. And why a myriad of evolving global forces are likely to start impacting British manufacturers in both positive and negative ways.

Bisley has been designing and manufacturing office furniture solutions for over 80 years and during that time has become quietly synonymous with high-quality and functional workspaces both across the UK and the world, designing workspace solutions for brands including Google, Unilever, L’Oreal, BT and the BBC.

However, the brand didn’t start out in the office space. Its origins actually date back to the Second World War when the company designed and manufactured the first containers to be dropped by parachute, widely used by airborne forces throughout the war. Following the war Bisley’s founder, Freddie Brown, pivoted the company into metal office furniture design and manufacturing.

And now 80 years later some of Bisley’s products are again being used in another war effort – this time thousands of custom designed Bisley lockers were ordered for refugee centres for Ukrainians fleeing the war, many of whom have lost everything. The lockers have been delivered and installed in two locations – the Swiss-Poland border and the Netherlands.

The United Nations Refugee Agency’s Emergency Handbook states that: ‘Refugees and others of concern to UNHCR have the right to adequate shelter – to protection from the elements, to a space in which they can live and store belongings, and to privacy, comfort and emotional security. A shelter is a habitable covered living space that provides a secure and healthy living environment with privacy and dignity in order to benefit from protection from the elements, space to live and store belongings as well as privacy, comfort and emotional support.’

And so, with this in mind European governments who were welcoming large numbers of Ukrainian refugees started placing large locker orders with two of Bisley’s European dealers in order to fulfil on the personal storage element of this United Nations refugee protocol.

The huge Swiss locker order came to Bisley’s Newport, South Wales factory from its dealer in Zurich who secured it from the Swiss government after Russia first invaded Ukraine, and the company moved at speed to manufacture its furniture and deliver 6,500 lockers to several centres.

Prior to this another even larger order to support Europe’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis came to Bisley from the Dutch government via its dealer in Tilburg. At the start of the war the Dutch government converted a number of apartment blocks into refugee accommodation and Bisley was asked to manufacture over 8,000 lockers for these centres.

The Dutch government department in charge of the response, known as the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), chose Bisley over many other European manufacturers because of the speed in which Bisley could produce the lockers. Following the order, Bisley immediately geared up to make 600 units per week every week for 13 weeks.

These orders are part of a gradual evolution that Bisley has witnessed in the implementation of its products on the national and international stage – often far away from the standard office environment in which the brand is typically associated – with many orders now coming in from government agencies and humanitarian organisations to help deal with large scale human disasters and emergencies.

The pandemic

A few years before the onset of the Ukraine war, during the heart of the COVID pandemic, Bisley also found itself the recipient of a vast order of furniture from the NHS. And while Bisley has a long track record of working with the NHS, this project was quite different.

Those in charge of establishing the mass vaccination centres on behalf of the UK government required thousands of secure cupboard facilities on each site in which to store the millions of drugs, samples and sensitive data required to deliver the vaccination programme.

This was an immense and time sensitive project for Bisley, who had to work at pace to coincide with strict government timelines, and involved supplying over 100 different locations across the UK.

Furniture manufacturing for Brexit

Another example of an order coming into Bisley that was entirely shaped by a unique set of geopolitical forces – albeit this time not the result of a global pandemic, or the outbreak of war, was an order associated with the Brexit deadline of 31 January 2020.

‘Brexit day’ marked the end of the UK’s membership of the European Union and the start of the ‘transition period’. And so, as Christmas 2020 approached Bisley received a large order for over 1,100 custom cupboards destined for new Brexit Customs offices that were being set up in every UK sea and ferry port, as well as rail stations.

The order was not received until 11 December and Bisley had to commit to produce and deliver all the units by New Year’s Eve. The challenge was completed on time.

External market forces

Much of this activity is, in the main, quite a segway from Bisley’s core business of designing and manufacturing office furniture for more typical workspaces across the UK and the world. And it’s important to note that the activity only exists because of significant geopolitical and geohealth forces that are dictating the current moment.

This is opposed to the more established market and economic forces that influence the health of local and national economies, and which strongly affect Bisley’s bottom line. After all, strong economies equal more new offices being built, or refurbished, which is at the centre of what Bisley does as a company.

But of course, geopolitical forces affecting a business’ bottom line isn’t a new phenomenon. And with the associated instability that often results from such turbulence, opportunity is often a by-product. Robin said: “After all, three years ago no one at Bisley would have believed that we would soon be manufacturing our furniture for refugee centres for a war on mainland Europe. Would we rather lockers weren’t required in the first place? Of course. But if European government’s need Bisley products to fulfil their humanitarian responsibilities and support people so desperately in need, we will certainly deliver to the absolute best of our abilities.”

Sadly, large numbers of exiled people are unlikely to diminish any time soon, with the situation only likely to deteriorate, as the effects of climate change begin to truly take hold, displacing populations all over the world, and adding to what the United Nations currently estimates to be 108.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

These geopolticial, geohealth and global climate issues are challenges that most of us can only begin to comprehend, but what is likely is that many who operate within the manufacturing sector, may begin to incrementally witness their impacts on our working lives as manufacturers are required to pivot or evolve their product offerings, or ways of working, in order to service the changing requirements of global populations.

We already saw shades of this during the pandemic where manufacturers across the UK, and indeed the world, pivoted at speed to produce things like COVID masks, sanitiser and even breathing ventilators in the case of General Motors, Ford, and Tesla, during a time of unprecedented demand.

In our case, while we haven’t switched our product offering in such a way, we have been seeing our products being used in environments and situations that we could probably never have foreseen.

What we do know is that we are increasingly operating in an unpredictable global marketplace. This isn’t a particularly comfortable environment for most businesses to operate in, particularly manufacturers, but those that will thrive will be the ones who remain agile enough to be able to supply the demand in whatever shape it takes, wherever it may be. It likely won’t be a future for everyone.

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