The heart of the Shropshire countryside may not seem like the obvious place for a specialist chain manufacturer, but Curteis has certainly found a happy home there. Sarah Louise Jordan heads to the brand’s facility to meet chairman Henry Curteis and account manager George Curteis.
If the old adage is true, that working with a green outlook is better than staring at concrete and buildings all day long, then Curteis employees should be feeling pretty rosy.
The specialist chain and finished jewellery manufacturer has a light, open and airy facility in the Shropshire countryside, right on the edge of the Welsh border. It’s a space few would have the ability to find unless they had grown up around the narrow lanes and sharp turns — offering up a ready-made security system in the process.
2015 marks Curteis’ 40th anniversary and it has certainly been an interesting 40 years, with plenty of ups and downs. The business was started by Roger Curteis and his son Henry Curteis in the attic of the family home — a sizeable country manor with grounds that now house the company’s manufacturing facilities.
Roger Curteis was a farmer, but opted to invest his savings into chain-making machines from Germany; largely as a way to satisfy his passion for engineering. Henry Curteis balanced a degree with selling jewellery and pewter on the side, until his skills as a salesman saw him drop out of university and dedicate his attentions to selling the family chain. Once the family’s attic space was over-run, it was decided a dedicated manufacturing space was in order, including casting facilities and an on-site assay office. The rest, they say, is history.
Like most businesses, Curteis has been affected by the branded jewellery boom, but Henry Curteis’ return to the business has helped to put things back on track. With stockists in the thousands and sales up 40% in the last two years, Curteis is seeing stability in its chain offer and promise in its finished jewellery offer. Sales staff have been increased from two to six, while Henry’s nephew, George Curteis, has also come proon- board to tackle the South East and Hatton Garden’s independent designer community (helped by the company’s ‘no-minimum order’ policy).
Henry Curteis comments: “We are now covering a lot more retailers than we used to and we call in [on customers] a lot. One of the things I had to address when I came back into the business was the sales operation, which got a bit stuck. Even though customers knew us and were buying from us we were not calling on them.” Henry Curteis’ experience at the company makes him ideally placed to tackle any problems that come its way; most notably in areas of production. He explains: “In sales it is all go and all positive with exciting ideas and marketing, but in production it is completely different because you’re dealing with day-today problems. Instead of having a mentality of how to make things happen, you have a mentality of how to stop things going wrong.”
He continues: “Manufacturing is the bedrock of the business because we make our alloys here, the wires here, the chains here and the casting here. Most people order something and it takes 10 to 12 weeks to arrive from China or Thailand, or it doesn’t turn up at all. Quality is crucial and we always have 100% quality control, whereas other factories only offer a percentage test. With the excitement of the new stuff [finished jewellery], the chain perhaps gets overlooked, but it really is crucial.”
Account manager George Curteis believes that Henry’s return to the company has helped to instil confidence in the business as a whole, with many longterm employees seemingly enjoying his leadership. Modestly, Henry notes: “They don’t ask me much now. Basically, I go and sit down and I just ask what’s going on and we work on any problems. They know what they’re doing now so they don’t really have time to talk to me!”
I ask Henry whether his company’s ‘Made in Britain’ status is helping to pro- pel it forward in the marketplace, especially as companies such as Domino are using a similar theme to their advantage.
“I remember 20 years ago it was completely the opposite,” Henry notes. “Manufacturing in Britain was considered defective, like something was wrong with you. Newspapers were showing that wages in China were 50p an hour and the wages in Birmingham £8 hour — how can you possibly succeed? Businesses have been stuck with this perception since the mid-1990s. Now I think people have stopped and realised that rushing around the world buying from all over the place is hard work; half the stuff falls to bits, others don’t turn up and the quality is often not what you want.”
In 2015, Curteis suggests that the industry has gone full circle, welcoming the simplicity and service involved in using a UK supplier. However, he admits that when it comes to hand-finishing pieces the Far East is by far a better option, with cheaper labour and a two week turnaround time. He adds: “Just take lockets as a classic example. It’s silver, so we make the metal, we make the sheet, we stamp it out. Now, if we put it together here it could cost us £8 and we will sell it for £10. Instead we send it [to the Far East] where someone will finish and polish it beautifully and send it back for £2 to £3. We couldn’t possibly do that, but the basic part is done here so you can guarantee quality of the metal and alloys.”
He continues: “The purists say ‘oh it has got to be British manufacturing,’ but you’ve got to live in the real world and you’ve got to compete. However making chain in the Far East isn’t much cheaper than making chain here so our prices are comparable. People are willing to pay that little bit of a premium because they are shifting their understanding to ‘British manufacturing’.”
Curteis believes that marketing and advertising has helped to bring this shift back towards British manufacturing, with the understanding, of course, that Britain is where the quality is imbued into product before it is sent off elsewhere to be finished. He also believes that the interaction between UK suppliers and retailers has helped to change attitudes, arguing: “They’ve dealt with us for 10 to 15 years and they can’t help but realise that it is working. There’s no hassle. Everyone I call who has an existing relationship with us says it is so simple they don’t have to think about it. They see it as one less headache.”
Overall, the aim is to maintain Curteis’ values – family, quality, speed, service – without bowing to the pressures of a branded industry. However, this doesn’t mean the company isn’t modernising its presence with a refreshed logo, website and brochure planned for the latter half of the year.
It has also made significant investments into a new database system to log and record its activities, in terms of sales and stock, for a more responsive website. The business also hopes to offer multi-language and currency sales when the system is fully-live in around three months’ time, alongside tracking customer movement and offering targeted product suggestions.
Curteis notes: “We will go from being possibly one of the best sites in the trade to possibly one of the best websites anywhere”
And the facts really do speak for themselves, with web revenue up 36% year-on-year and sales conversion rates around the 20% mark. From a starting point of 8%, online sales currently account for between 15 and 20% of Curteis’ business, with this figure expected to be in the region of 25 to 30% in the next three to five years. Overall, revenue in June 2015 was 157.63% up on revenue in the same month of 2011, while transactions are also up 184.38%.
With all this happening in cyber space it’s nice to walk around Curteis’ factory to see the hands-on aspect of the business. The overall atmosphere is one of calm, informal professionalism, with many staff having worked at the premises for a decade or longer. The chain-making machines themselves are rather mesmeric, but it’s the fact that some of these feats of engineering have been running for more than 40 years that really provides the wow-factor. I was also struck by the friendliness of the staff and their willingness to show me through their day-to-day activities; from casting and engineering to cleaning and polishing.
In terms of trends, diamond-cut chains and bangles have been making a comeback in the last 12 months, with 9ct and 18ct gold also on the up. To tackle this, expect to see a new 18ct gold cuff and bangle collection from Curteis soon — a project which the design team and the sales team are particularly excited about. Additionally, the CMJ Buyer’s Meeting will offer customers the chance to see Curteis’ new finished jewellery collections, including a striking geometric offer of pendants, bangles and stud earrings in 9ct yellow and rose gold and silver. The new Pentagon range is especially exciting, and more of this will be available to view at International Jewellery London in September.
As my time in Shropshire draws to a close, I have certainly developed a new appreciation for this growing company. With welcoming staff, seasoned expertise and eye-catching new collections on the cards, it will be interesting to see if the next two years match, or even beat, its already impressive 40% sales growth. Only time will tell.