Shelving and chair manufacturer Vitsoe recently upped sticks and left Camden in London for a new, purpose-built factory in the Midlands. Matt Pulzer sat down with its managing director, Mark Adams, to discuss supply chains, quality and the power of the internet.
Vitsoe (pronounced ‘vit-soo’) is a fascinating British manufacturer of clean-lined, unobtrusive minimalist furniture. It makes just a few products: a highly flexible and modular shelving system, beloved by architects, and a range of chairs and sofas.
From this modest-sounding product line it has acquired an international reputation for understated quality and now exports two thirds of its output.
Sustainability and a visceral hatred of throwaway culture sustains the company’s motto of ‘Living better, with less, that lasts longer’. This is reflected in what is perhaps Vitsoe’s most unusual characteristic; its rigid adherence to maintaining the vision of the original designer of its products – the legendary German industrial designer Dieter Rams.
Despite a continuous process of improvements in process and quality, the core aesthetics, form and function of their products are fundamentally unchanged since their creation in the 1960s.
Vitsoe’s attitude to products and customers is simple – make beautiful, highly functional objects that won’t wear out or need replacing, and customers will return as their needs change.
Production was originally a Danish-German affair, but in a welcome reversal of industrial trends, manufacturing was brought to Britain in 1995 by its current managing director, Mark Adams.
Originally based in Camden, the company outgrew its London factory and by 2012 Adams was on the hunt for a new location.
Keenly aware of the geography of his suppliers, and the industrial spirit of the Midlands, he chose Royal Leamington Spa, and set about creating a factory as uncompromising in its design ideals as the furniture it was intended to produce.
Production moved to the new building in May 2017, and such was the transformative effect of their new space that although a week was lost through the moving process the company manufactured 25% more in its first (three-week) month than it could achieve in London.
Part medieval wooden tithe barn, part modernist Le Corbusier machine for living – or in this case, working – the new Vitsoe factory is a light and airy beech-framed and birch-panelled structure with flexibility and expansion built into its DNA.
Its photovoltaic-clad roof makes it virtually self-sufficient for electricity and the generous distribution of borth-facing glass enables the factory to use only natural light during daytime.
Vitsoe being Vitsoe, funding was not via a conventional financial institution, but was achieved by selling bonds issued to its multinational customer base – a grown-up version of crowdfunding. How many companies can claim customers so loyal and inspired with its products that they’d stump up for a new factory?
Looking around your new factory I notice very few machine tools, but a great deal of assembly. You have clearly developed a very slick supply chain – where do you source your parts?
Mark Adams: The vast majority is UK sourced, and the vast majority is within an hour-and-a-half of this building. The sheet metal products, for example, come up the Fosse Way from Cirencester. Thanks to our recent move they’re now just 45 miles away, saving three hours a day deliver time.
Indeed, one of the most striking things since we moved in here has been the frequency with which we now see suppliers visiting us, or we’re out at suppliers. And already we have found that meeting people properly – face to face – within 30 minutes travel time, really moves problems on.
Some bits we import. We get wood from a supplier in Denmark, a couple of components in Germany, the drawer runners are Austrian and we source a cabinet door mechanism from Italy.
Our supply chain is absolutely vital to us. In a low-tech way, we’re a very simple automotive-style business because we’re bringing in components almost on a just-in-time basis, putting them together, and sending them out.
Most of the noisy processes or ones needing heavy capital investment are outsourced though our suppliers.
In fact, although we could be classed as a ‘furniture company’ we actually use a lot of automotive suppliers. For example, these raw chair components come in from an Aston Martin/JCB supplier, and they’re painted by a Bentley supplier. We’re now working with another automotive supplier with whom we’ve just spent a year refining leather work.
Or take these screws that hold the leather upholstery on the arms of our chairs. Not just any old screw – they’re a Dieter Rams design and we have them turned in Hertford by an aerospace-quality supplier.
When you look at your UK supply chain, are you worried about the future, and what do you see as being its main weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
Robustness and ambition – it isn’t robust enough and plenty of work needs to be done to change that. When it comes to a lack of ambition, I call it the ‘crossed-arms’ moment.
I always want to see the bosses of potential suppliers early on because I want to know if they’ll cross their arms, lean back and say, “That’s going to be difficult” rather than, “Oh, so you want to do that? Sorry, what material was it you were suggesting there? We’ve never done that. No – but we could give it a try!” And that’s what I genuinely want to see, those that lean in.
I don’t want to find out two years later that we’re still struggling with our supplier, and when I visit the boss for the first time, and I meet somebody half looking at a spreadsheet and saying dismissively, “Well, we don’t make much money on your stuff.” I want to hear, “Okay. Let’s work together. How do we do this?”
For us, it’s all about liaising with that supply chain and as much as anything, inspiring the supply chain. We’re going to raise our game and we want them to do the same.
For example, the Cirencester sheet metal supplier is now building – on the strength of this new home that we’ve created here – a new paint line, which will be up and running in February.
After pressing and pressing them they took on all the laser cutting capability for our metal shelves. Then the bending and forming of the sheet metal – in other words, they’ve really upped their capability. They’ve been getting better and better at all those manufacturing details.
Ultimately, this reflects our statement of intent for all of our suppliers. They can see we’re gearing up and we say come with us, or we’ll upgrade our suppliers.
We can walk them into this amazing new building and say, “Look, we’re intending to put a zero on the end of this business. Are you coming with us on that journey, or are you not?”
You’re working with the Warwick Manufacturing Group. What are the issues that you need to tackle – processes, materials, supply chain quality control, or everything?
WMG is yet another reason why we’re here in the Midlands. Right now, for example, they’re helping us with aluminium processing. Mainly throughput, working out efficiencies. How to get five-and-a-half-metre lengths of extrusion in, moved, the shelving tracks attached to it, cut, packed, and out again.
We need to improve the flow of material and products through the building and we are constantly assessing how to improve these areas. Plus of course there’s waste minimisation.
Take our packing area; our constant quest is reduction of cardboard. We’re getting better, but we’ve still got plenty to do. In fact, one of the advantages of moving here was to be able to switch to a new cardboard supplier.
Many, many improvements – mostly incremental, but that they all add up in terms of efficiency, sustainability, price and productivity.
How do you maintain innovation with classic products? How do you square that circle?
That is the conundrum. We hosted five Masters students from Imperial College eight or nine years ago; they crawled all over us for a summer.
And they came out after three months of being in and around us saying that we were highly innovative, if anything we were too innovative, because we had too many projects on the go, too many projects 80% completed.
In other words we had too many ideas and too much enthusiasm going on in the business, and we actually needed to rein ourselves in a bit, and have fewer projects and actually get them completed.
Even though the very fundamental nature of our products is timeless there has been endless tweaking – evolution. We’ve added many features and refinements, even to our superficially simple metal shelves.
We make them stronger with subtle changes to the geometry, design and depth. We’ve made them more flexible in use by ensuring they could be hung different ways, even taking into account how easy they are to install. When it comes to manufacturing many of the processes have changed completely.
Originally, we were end stamping the shelves from sheet metal. Then, we were producing them on a Trumpf punch, and now they are all laser cut. They may look the same, but when you run your finger over the edges you can feel the difference immediately, and that’s not a small detail. Rough edges and inferior painting technology result in paint losing adherence over time – but not now.
Working with the aforementioned Cirencester supplier I had to push and push to get them to move production to a laser, and for a while they resisted – it would have meant spending £750,000 on another expensive German machine.
But eventually the managing director rang me one day, and said, “Mark, I’m here in the Trumpf factory in Germany. I’ve just placed the order. I just signed the contract.” And I said, “Thank you.”
So that’s just some of the innovations. I could tell you more about the material, much more about the powder coating. We’ve gone through whole quantum steps of sophistication in the powder coating. Innovation is vital for us – it’s not just about products but – crucially – includes processes.
Do you have trouble recruiting people with skills? Do you train people? Do you have apprenticeships?
Quality is extremely important to Vitsoe. Everything is about quality – how do you maintain quality? How do you increase quality? How do you inspire an attitude of quality among the people who work here?
For us, the answer is simple – recruitment, recruitment, recruitment. It’s all absolutely about the people.
Let me tell you about a conversation I had with an MP. We were discussing a trip he’d made a few years ago to a Porsche plant in Germany to see their just-in-time processes. Everything coming in one door, then the assembly lines and finally cars exiting through another door.
He observed to his hosts that their supply chain must be amazing to make all of this happen, and could he see a map of it? And they duly produced the map. And he said what was so surprising to him was that on that map were schools, colleges and universities, because they regarded that as a key part of the supply chain.
Likewise, for us, part of the reason we’re here is Warwickshire College – just the other side of the river. We’re already linked up and we will formally launch an apprenticeship scheme with them. They have a very good woodworking course. It’s got one of the best reputations in the country and we’ve already recruited from the college.
Once we’ve settled here I will be reaching out to Rugby and Warwick as well, to start to see if we can draw interest from schools. You’ve got to get them young.
I was discussing this with John Sorrell and Terence Conran, and both of them agreed about the importance of grabbing children’s attention, to inspire them with making. By the time they get to university it’s too late. You’ve got to positively capture the imagination of impressionable youngsters.
We are very particular about all aspects of recruitment, induction and training. For example, someone we have just recruited for our new store in Los Angeles spent eight weeks in the UK with us. Before we let her anywhere near a customer in America, she worked right here in the factory.
By the time she returns home, she’s going to be able to tell an American customer, “Why don’t you put this furniture together like this?” And if the customer asks, “How do you know?” She can honestly say, “Because I’ve built it”.
And the same is true for our employees in Munich, New York and London. In Britain, you have a main shop in London, and that’s it, no dealer network. Presumably you must sell just about everything on the internet – is that a deliberate strategy?
I was giving evidence at a House of Lords session on reshoring manufacturing five years ago, and I explained that the only way Vitsoe could manufacture in the UK and sell directly to customers in Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, wherever, at a price that they can afford, and still manufacture at the highest quality, is by using this thing called the internet.
We can bridge the gap from a Midlands factory to a nice house in Tokyo using the internet. I saw grey-haired lords pick up their pens and write. They hadn’t actually twigged that the internet could help the manufacturing world. They’d assumed it was just eBay and Facebook. So yes, the internet is at the heart of our operations.
When did you really move over to the internet and how did it become your core sales tool?
When I brought Vitsoe from Germany to Britain I was considering how to rebuild the business. I gave an interview at the Cologne Furniture Fair in January 1995, saying that one day we’re going to be selling everything directly on the internet. A young journalist laughed in my face.
In 1997, we started working out how to make a customer-planning tool for the shelving system, but it wasn’t really until 2001 that we got a version coded from scratch in Java. We are still using it to this day, 16 years later. Updated, of course, but it’s still the heart of the business.
We started taking money on the internet in 2003 or 2004, and now at least 95% of our income is taken online. The next step after the planning tool will be augmented reality (AR). It offers everything that we’ve ever envisioned for customer-oriented selling – something that can work at the touch of a smartphone.
In terms of actual implementation that will depend on how quickly third-parties can develop the technology. But I can tell you this, it’s clear that AR is on all of the big players’ radars – it’s the future and it will happen.
Here to stay – and grow
After I finished my interview with Mark Adams I walked around their new building, taking in the details and elegance of such finely-honed design. The new factory is a firm statement that here is a British manufacturer keeping faith with the Midlands’ two centuries of manufacturing tradition.
One that is unbowed by Brexit, austerity and recession, and which is hell-bent on innovation, quality and growth. It recruits and trains locally but exports globally. Britain could do with a lot more of that.