Carving a niche in new Africa

Chris Arnot
Saturday 16 July 1994 23:02

MICHAEL HESELTINE has spent much of the past week in South Africa, trying to drum up new business for British companies. Back in Birmingham and Sheffield, meanwhile, several factories owned by Arthur Price of England have been putting the final touches to a pounds 250,000 order from the President himself. President Nelson Mandela, that is.

He wanted silver-plated cutlery for eight hospitality centres - almost 5,000 pieces. Then there was the silverware - trays, fruit bowls, condiment sets, toast racks - 40 different items altogether.

The order did not just land in the company's lap. Arthur Price's agents in South Africa went looking for it. They knew that visiting dignitaries had become increasingly rare during the apartheid years. But now that the doors were open again to the world's statesmen and women, some new tableware might be required. Their hunch proved right.

Mr Heseltine heartily approved the company's initiative when he visited its headquarters at Lichfield, Staffordshire, to open a new showroom. Yet two traditionally high-spending Labour councils may well have influenced the South African president's decision to buy British.

Both Birmingham and Sheffield spent heavily on entertaining Mr Mandela when he visited Britain last October, several months before the elections. Both were criticised by Conservative opposition councillors for doing so.

John Price, chairman and grandson of the company's founder, is prepared to applaud both councils for their far- sightedness. 'Undoubtedly, President Mandela went home with warm feelings about his visit to Birmingham and Sheffield.'

Mr Price's family firm started in 1902 on the site of what is now Aston University. Today it has a turnover of pounds 15m at factory prices and between 60 and 70 per cent of the quality market in the UK.

The silverware is made in Birmingham, and the cutlery in Sheffield, the traditional centre of the industry. There were more than 300 British companies making knives and forks when he entered the business as a callow 20-year-old, straight from National Service in 1949. Only 23 remain.

Mr Price, urbane and silver haired, lights a cigar and recalls how he saw the writing on the wall 30 years ago. 'In 13 days, I visited every single cutlery factory in Japan and Hong Kong. It devastated me. The working conditions were appalling, but the scale of production was extraordinary. I figured that within our industry there would be no place for the quality middle- market unbranded product. In mid-flight over the Pacific I decided to change the name of the company.'

In future, Arthur Price and Company Limited would be known as Arthur Price of England. A marketing concept was born. But his warnings about the threat from the Far East failed to make much impression in Sheffield. His address to the British Cutlery and Silverware Association in May 1965 was received in stony silence. 'They didn't want a Brummie upstart telling them all about their business.'

Undeterred, he pressed on with marketing his own business. Searching for a way to build a quality brand, he focused on the approach taken by Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. Like them, he invested in 'concession shops' within department stores. 'That way you control your own destiny. You can theme them to the way you want the public to see you, unfettered by competitive merchandise. And you can have your own trained staff who know exactly what they're selling and how it's made.'

The company now has 100 concessions, financed out of reinvested earnings. 'I decided a long time ago that this company would not be a piggy bank. It would be a future for myself and my sons,' says Mr Price.

Like Mr Heseltine, he sees a bright future for British firms in South Africa. After the order is delivered, he concedes that President Mandela is unlikely to need any more knives and forks for some time. 'But the fact that he has chosen British and good quality means that he is looking favourably at Britain. And our cutlery is going to be used by a lot of influential people.'

(Photograph omitted)

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