Axminster is firmly focused on the future after pain of administration
After a year which has seen it enter and exit administration, Axminster Carpets is well and truly back in business under chairman Stephen Boyd. Business editor Liz Parks joined him for a tour of the firm’s East Devon factory.
Five minutes into an interview with Axminster Carpets chairman Stephen Boyd comes a somewhat surreal interruption as a staff member pokes her head round the door and says: "Mr Boyd, your sheep has arrived."
It's an odd moment, but it transpires that such is his enthusiasm for his 'new' business that, after spotting the steel sculpture of a Jacob's sheep at an exhibition in Langport, Somerset, he bought the art work himself to display at the world-famous carpet maker's East Devon headquarters.
His invitation of 'would you like to see my sheep?' is one I don't get very often and it soon becomes clear that within this highly-successful corporate operator, there lurks an ardent enthusiast – both for the sheep and for Axminster itself, which uses wool from Jacob's sheep in some of its carpets.
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The next 10 minutes or so are spent unloading the large sheep, with Stephen giving it the odd, affectionate pat as it is wheeled into place in what is, it has to be said, a fairly small reception area at Axminster.
Then it's back to business as, tucking into a Tunnock's tea cake with an enthusiasm which almost matches that for his sheep, Stephen relates how Axminster is doing since its administration back in March.
Turnover has doubled between now and its first month back in business and it is now very close to the sales target that was set as it came out of administration.
When the old business went under it laid off 300 employees. When Axminster 2.0, now called Axminster Carpets (2013) Ltd, was launched it kept on the remaining 100 staff and has since recruited an additional 50 workers.
"I'm quite proud of that," said Stephen.
Stephen became involved with Axminster after Mark Greaves, from the company's auditor Francis Clark, was asked by administrators if he could suggest anyone who could help turn the business around.
Then chairman of Wellington-based cosmetics firm Swallowfield and Yeovil-based leather goods business Pittards, Stephen's name quickly entered the frame.
"I'm used to situations like this where the administrators have to move fairly quickly because there is always the risk you will lose the customer base while you're sorting things out," he said.
The deal saw three investors put money into the business – Stephen with a majority stake, another individual and the Axminster directors.
I ask if it was a hard decision to get involved with a business that was, at that point, failing.
"When you have something that is so iconic, part of the decision is easy. It's such an exciting prospect to take on an iconic brand like this which, for whatever reason, has got into difficulty and to bring it back into its full glory. The challenge for someone like me is wonderful," he said, with unmistakable relish at the prospect.
The contracts are certainly coming in and the 'new' Axminster Carpets has introduced a more efficient production system that has seen it decouple from its Buckfast spinning mill, while transferring some of the equipment to its East Devon base.
A training programme for staff, called Pride and Passion, has also been introduced with the aim of making everyone responsible for the quality of the finished product. The 100 original staff have already undertaken this and the 50 recruits to have joined since then soon will too.
As we walk round the factory, signs with slogans like 'perfect quality is a thing of beauty' and 'aim for perfection' leave no one in any doubt about Axminster's approach to quality control.
The factory uses a mixture of modern and traditional technology with a yarn feed-in system called 'smart creel' as well as old-style bobbins.
In a darkened, upper level of the factory, light is shone up from beneath carpets to show any gaps in the weave. Any minor flaws are then corrected by hand in an extraordinarily deft manoeuvre before underlay is fitted and the carpet is given a final inspection.
This attention to detail combined with the expertise of its staff and specialist machinery that can combine up to 20 different colours into a single carpet are the reason for Axminster's long-standing reputation for quality.
This is why, says Stephen, the company's client list includes the Albert Hall and Buckingham Palace which have both required the firm to produce intricate designs which must work in large, unusually shaped spaces.
"The whole intention is to push ourselves up and up to the top end of the business based on ability and skill," he said.
As we tour the sprawling Axminster factory, past carpets in various stages of production, Stephen reels off a list of where the various weaves are headed for. EasyJet, Cathay Pacific, Siemens and Chiltern Railways are among the transport brands that Axminster has built a strong reputation with, creating high quality, hard wearing and light weight carpets.
A black and gold ostentatious design that's part-finished on a loom as we walk past is for a hotel in America owned by Donald Trump, an order of 2,000 sq m which will cover a reception area and two ballrooms. Other recent orders have included a carpet for a bedroom in Buckingham Palace and one for a committee room in the US House of Representatives.
The factory is deceptively large and labyrinthine and, although Stephen confesses that he was still getting lost in it after a month at the helm, it's clear that he's spent a lot of time on the shop floor because he certainly knows his way around it now.
He greets all workers by name and talks, in depth, about each stage of the production process.
Stephen says that his background in chemical engineering, which included a stint working in the textile industry, has given him all the insight he needs into Axminster's manufacturing processes, with the most important part of the equation being the business acumen assembled in a career that has seen him running the Bridgwater-based British Cellophane factory and, more recently, serving as chairman Pittards and Swallowfield.
"I like technology and I understand technology. I now run businesses but I still like and enjoy the technology that applies with it. Carpet making is about technology – it's a lovely combination of the traditional and the modern," he said.
Since taking over the Axminster role, Stephen has stood down from the Swallowfield chairmanship to allow him to concentrate his efforts on what is effectively a full time role at Axminster.
I ask if there will be a tie up between Axminster and Pittards as two quality-focused Westcountry brands who happen to share the same chairman?
It transpires that work is already under way to revamp the Axminster showroom, a mile or so down the road from the factory and that there will be Pittards goods such as wallets and handbags on sale there too.
It's clear from the way Stephen speaks that he's throwing himself into his role as chairman – and relishing the chance to breathe new life into a heritage brand.
He said: "There was a Family Fortunes question where families were asked to name a chocolate business and 76% chose Cadbury's. Then they were asked to name a carpet business and 81% said Axminster. As a brand it's even more iconic than Cadbury's – it's such an exciting prospect to do something with that brand."
One of the reasons for the firm's administration, Stephen believes, is that it hadn't moved on from its heyday in the 1970s and 80s. He is part-way through making some changes aimed at bringing the business up to date without losing its reputation for quality and skill.
An apprentice programme is about to start and the company has, for the first time in its history now got two female directors on its board.
An overhaul of the firm's marketing operation is under way, with Stephen convinced that Axminster is 'a sleeping giant' waiting to win more work, particularly in American markets.
"Our absolute priority focus is the US. We have a foothold there and we see that there are huge parts of that market that we have not yet fully encompassed," he said.
And with changing times meaning that many householders now have solid floors Axminster is, for the first time in its 258-year history about to move into rug production.
As well as appealing to a younger demographic, the idea is that this will also allow Axminster to hook in consumers who will then go on to buy a full carpet from them.
During the course of our interview, Stephen has spotted that a piece of kit carried by our photographer is manufactured by another business he is involved in. He also notices a pair of Pittards gloves worn by the sculptor as the sheep is being unloaded. It's apparent that Stephen has a strong sense of pride in the various products that "his" businesses make.
But it's fair to say that his newest business is possibly the closest to his heart.
"This one is the big one with real potential because it's so iconic. It's a great British brand – it's just fabulous," he says, grinning broadly.