Kitchenware brand Joseph Joseph posted a 10 per cent rise in profits last year. But how is it thriving in such a challenging market? It's all down to design and innovation, say the founders
Few markets have been left untouched by the recession but one that is particularly susceptible to changes in the economy is the kitchenware market. According to research company Key Note, the downturn in the housing market means more young people are living with their parents and fewer are buying kitchen products for new homes. The demand for convenience foods has also had a negative effect.
Contemporary kitchenware designer and manufacturer Joseph Joseph, set up by 37-year-old twins Richard and Antony Joseph in 2003, is doing well. The firm is internationally recognised for producing some of the most technically innovative products available and has become one of the fastest-growing companies in the worldwide homewares market, featuring in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for the last three years running. During the recession international sales grew by 100 per cent a year, from £1.9m in 2008 to £7.6m in 2010.
"The only companies doing well are the ones that innovate and apply design to their businesses," says Richard. "There are plenty of companies bobbing along, but the ones that are growing and doing well are embracing design and innovation," he says.
Joseph Joseph has won a myriad of awards – including the red dot design award for four years running from 2008 for its Folding Colander to 2011 for the Pie kitchen timer – so what's its secret?
"It's all about the product," explains Richard. "We felt we could design products better than they'd been designed in the past and that people would appreciate good design and innovation that wasn't too gimmicky," he says.
Joseph Joseph products are designed to work that much harder. Take the grater that folds flat for easy storage, the chopping board with integrated colander, or the salad bowl with built-in servers. "We want people to use our products every day, not for them to be stuck in a drawer never to be seen again. It's always function first. We get a lot of very good-looking products that come through the design process but get chopped from the range because the function doesn't work as well as we would like," explains Richard.
Ideas and inspiration for products come from all over the place, says Antony. "We are ambitious – we get as many ideas on the table as possible. As well as our in-house design team we use outside consultants, independent design companies, inventors and students," he says.
The brothers work very closely on product development although Antony, as design director, has the last say. "Antony is the custodian of the brand and has final veto on everything so if we are at an impasse it goes his way," explains Richard, the managing director.
Although the twins both studied design, Richard felt he wasn't as gifted as his brother. Having a strong competitive streak in him, he wanted to be the best at something. "After university I worked for Dyson as a design engineer and became interested in the business side," explains Richard. "I was working with a real entrepreneur. For the first time I could see someone making money out of design." Richard left Dyson to do an MA at Cambridge.
It takes two
Splitting their roles in this way gives both brothers responsibilities. "As twin brothers we are quite competitive so having separate roles in the business helps. We respect what each other does. Antony leaves the business decisions to me and I leave the design decisions to him," says Richard.
How do they settle disputes? "We involve the rest of the management team to get balance. We also have a non-executive chairman, Roger Crudgington, a mentor we have had from the start. We are two ambitious guys who wanted to grow a business quickly, making as few mistakes as possible, so we wanted someone who had been there and done it, and who could tell us what to do and what not to do. He has been instrumental in helping us grow the business but we also use him as an intermediary when we argue," explains Richard.
Although Joseph Joseph was founded in 2003, the story goes back to a manufacturing business, The Glass Company, set up by the twins' grandfather in 1936 in Birmingham. He started designing and making decorated bathroom mirrors and later, with the help of the twins' father, Michael, he built it up to a reasonably large company producing industrial glass components including everything from car wing mirrors to cooker hobs for Electrolux.
As a side line to the main business, Michael started making decorated glass chopping boards that he'd seen in the US. Sales took off quickly but slowed after a few years. When Antony finished college his father asked him to come up with fresh ideas. "I was reluctant at first but my father persuaded me. I worked on some new designs with a graphic designer friend and we exhibited them at a trade show. We got an order from Allders department store for £30,000 and we realised we should do more of this. Richard finished his MA and came on board. He was doing the selling, I was doing the designing. This was all under our father's brand. Eventually dad suggested we set up our own business."
Richard continues the story. "Dad gifted us £10,000 worth of stock (glass chopping boards). We also had the sales leads that we'd already established. We sold the stock to the retailers and used the cash to start up Joseph Joseph. We've grown it organically ever since."
Initially the brothers wanted to grow the product range quickly but they realised it lacked direction. "We thought, what can we make in dad's factory? We didn't know at that point who Joseph Joseph was," says Antony. "We had failures, such as collections of wall clocks and serving dishes, as well as successes. The biggest was the glass chopping board."
Richard and another salesman were keen to build the customer base. "We did all the cold-calling and knocking on doors. We went after the department stores. Although we supplied Allders [now closed down], John Lewis and House of Fraser said we were too contemporary for them so we went off to find the equivalent in countries such as France and Germany. We started selling overseas virtually from day one. John Lewis came on board a year later and is now our largest customer worldwide," says Richard.
Today Joseph Joseph sells its products to 73 countries from Australia and New Zealand to Iran and Panama. Spreading its market overseas helped the company keep growing during the recession. "Our overseas sales are doing very well but it is proving much tougher on the High Street this year, particularly in the UK. Consumer spending is down but we are still pushing hard and we are still in a growth phase," says Richard.
Selling overseas has thrown up its own set of challenges. "When we design products we have to think internationally. For example, we'll go to Japan and say we have some beautiful cheese graters or a great new potato masher and they'll say we don't eat cheese or mash potatoes. We try to design products we can sell worldwide," Richard explains.
Although Joseph Joseph products are at the premium end of their category, Richard believes their pricing is inclusive, which has helped broaden the firm's market. "It is difficult to define our demographic because we have everyone buying our products, from students to grandparents," he says.
Although the glass chopping boards are still made in a small factory in Birmingham, the company keeps costs down by manufacturing the plastic products in China. "In China there are many different companies with different specialities all on each other's doorsteps," says Antony. "They are very receptive and quick to develop products. The only thing you have to watch out for is quality. Even in a really good factory there are hundreds of workers and it's difficult to keep an eye on everyone. Things can slip out of the door without being checked properly so we do frequent quality inspections," he says.
Richard also credits the company's fast growth to its 42 staff. "We are very fortunate to have a great team. As a small business we were keen to find really good people who share a passion for design and get excited about the products," he says.
But it's not always easy to find people with the right skills. Even though Richard believes there are enough young people studying design, he says companies don't put enough emphasis on bringing in designers, which means not enough positions are being created. He also says such roles don't pay well enough, which means many graduates choose other career paths. "There were about 150 on my course but I know of only five that have actually gone into design jobs," he says.
Yet Richard believes that if you want a successful business you need to offer your customers a better product or service, and to do that you need to innovate or find a point of difference. "You can't just do what your competitor is doing and hope you're going to do it better," he says.
So where do the brothers see Joseph Joseph going next? "We will continue to push overseas expansion. Our exports represent around 80 per cent of our sales so our international base is really important for us. And we will continue to focus on our core products – our kitchen range collection. We still think we've a long way to go in that category so that's still an exciting area for us. Then we think we can apply the same principles of design for good, functional products in other areas of the home – so watch this space," says Richard.
Annual turnover £25m
Antony's favourite product Pie kitchen timer
Richard's favourite product Chop 2 Pot – a folding
In their own words "We just felt we could design products better than they'd been created in the past"