With Tony Brown at the helm of Bisley for more than 40 years, this British office furniture company has weathered storms past and present, gone from strength to strength with storage systems LateralFile, InnerSpace and Glide, and is set to launch another new product at Orgatec later this month. He talks officeworld to Jamie Mitchell
With hardly a day going by without the news carrying stories of banking scandals and corporate corruption, British office furniture company Bisley and its septuagenarian owner Tony Brown seem to hark back to simpler and better days, a time when greed wasn't good and business wasn't all about profit.
Since he bought out the family firm in 1970, Brown has grown Bisley from a small manufacturer of back-office furniture into the largest office storage company in the UK, and the first choice for many architects and designers. Brown has resisted the idea of acquiring other businesses, preferring to focus all his attention on the family firm, and says he has never considered moving manufacturing abroad, even when it would have made financial sense to do so.
Steering Bisley through recessions in the Seventies and Eighties, Brown managed to avoid making forced redundancies and despite the shrinking market for office storage, Bisley continued to grow. It wasn't until 2009 that company didn't experience year-on-year growth for the first time. 'I think that was the first year our sales were less than the previous year,' says Brown, 'and that was due to circumstances beyond our control [the latest recession].'
For Brown, business has always been personal. Until recently he knew everyone who worked at Bisley's two plants, at Bisley in Surrey and Newport in south Wales, and says: 'I was happier when the company was had less turnover because I used to know everybody.' Understandably, at the age of 76, he has stepped back from the day-to-day running of the company, allowing the 'great team' he's put together over the years, including sales and group marketing director Richard Blackwell, to take on more responsibility, though he says he will be attending Orgatec this month for the launch of Bisley's latest product, a versatile range of shelving units called Be.
The Bisley we know today has its roots in a one-man car-repair business founded in 1931 by Brown's father, Freddy. In 1941 the company moved to its present site in Bisley, Surrey and set up a 400 sq m manufacturing facility. It took on various defence contracts, including designing and manufacturing the first containers to be dropped by parachute, which were widely used by airborne forces throughout the Second World War.
By 1945, the company had built up a manufacturing capability for which there was no longer a demand. Car repairs resumed but no specific manufacturing role presented itself. Until 1946, that is, when a representative of London-based wholesaler Standard Office Supplies (now defunct) showed Freddy Brown a steel waste paper bin and told him that, if he could meet the necessary price and delivery, an order for two dozen would be his.
The company continued to make steady, if unremarkable, growth, and in 1963 the repair of cars ceased altogether to allow more emphasis to be placed on office furniture. Tony Brown joined the business in 1960 when it employed just 28 people, and bought his family out for £400,000 in 1970. He raised most of the money through bank loans, putting him in considerable debt, though he has never looked back. 'My whole life has centred around this place,' he says.
Brown is known for his self-depreciating sense of humour but he insists that he was a 'total failure' before going to work for Bisley. After leaving school at 18 and doing a stint in the Army he trained as a chartered accountant. 'I gave that a go, but it was too much work for me and I gave it up after three years,' he says. 'Then my father employed me, and lucky he did otherwise I'd have been clipping tickets down at Guildford railway station or something. I've been very fortunate really and had good luck.'
Brown is undoubtedly being modest here, and as we talk it becomes apparent that he's not the kind of man to take credit for the achievements of others. He's always keen to give the other people who have been influential in the company their due, peoplelike Bernard Richards the designer who worked with Bisley in the Seventies, and of whom Brown says: 'Salt of the earth: he was a magnificent man. I owe him so much.' There's also John Fogarty, Bisley's current director of design, who Brown says is 'very good with the styling of the things. We've had the odd argument, too,' he says, 'which John usually won.'
But it was a consultant named Maggie Hall who Brown credits with reinventing Bisley as a maker of well-designed front-office furniture and storage. Hall, who had previously worked with Frank Duffy before setting up her own consultancy, was instrumental in developing the LateralFile in 1995. She conducted focus groups with representatives of the top 10 office furniture specifiers. Hall's approach, says Brown, 'fundamentally changed the way we do things'.
Since then, landmark products including InnerSpace, a high-density mobile storage system launched in 2003, and Glide, a sliding door storage unit launched this year, have cemented Bisley's reputation for manufacturing quality and design innovation. Brown's willingness to invest in manufacturing has made the company name synonymous with quality, and he is proud that Bisley products are widely exported, even to Germany, a country that's rightly venerated for the quality of its own manufacturing.
Brown may have stepped back from the Bisley day-to-day operations, but talking to him it's clear that the company he helped build will always be his baby. Would he ever consider retiring? 'I don't think so,' he says, and then, with classic understatement adds: 'It is still very important to me.'
This article was first published in fx Magazine.