40 years in business is a considerable time. Think – in 1979 Dallas was on TV, The Bee Gees were top of the charts and Jimmy Carter was POTUS. Though the business is 40 years old, Oxford Ironmongery has been under the guidance of Julian Newman and his team for 15 of those years. Jill Rayner popped along to meet him to find out more about the business. Is it all about knobs and knockers?
40 years – that is astonishing! As an independent, no matter what field you’re in, 40 years is something to celebrate.
Thank you – I’d like to think so! It’s not all me though, the business was started in 1979 on Botley Road in Oxford by my predecessor, Colin Pilborough. He recognised that there was a gap in the market for someone to supply what we refer to as architectural ironmongery; quality products in a complete package to the construction industry. With the amount of work going on in Oxford it made sense for there to be an architectural ironmonger there. That was the birth of Oxford Ironmongery.
What’s your history?
I’ve been in the industry since 1989. When I started with a wholesaler as a rep, they were very forward-thinking. They put me through my industry training, which in those days was a threeyear course, at the end of which is a diploma. In my career I ended up spending seven years in London doing high-end specification which was great fun. After that I went and worked for a manufacturer because I just got fed up; I was doing 40-50,000 miles a year up and down the country on the motorways. After 10 years of doing that sort of thing you just get fed up with it. Oxford Ironmongery was supposed to be like a semi-retirement! I was travelling back from Manchester on a Friday afternoon and I hit the M6 traffic above Birmingham – which is always dreadful – and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ So I phoned my predecessor and asked if I could buy him lunch and talk about purchasing his business. It went very quiet, and after what felt like ages he said, “Where have you seen it advertised?” I replied that I hadn’t. He said, “I put it on the market on Monday!” Total serendipity – within three months I was the proud owner of Oxford Ironmongery.
How has style changed in 40 years?
When I first came into this industry, most hardware was made out of aluminium, brass, cast iron or, if you were really racy, chrome. Now, one of our manufacturers does 35 different finishes including what we refer to as ‘living finishes’ which are the ones people are talking about now. These will mature with age. You have the choice then – you can polish them and keep them shiny or leave them and they’ll mature into the building. That particular manufacturer does 109,000 different products. So that’s what we have nowadays; manufacturers who are making that sort of quantity because that’s what people want – choice.
I can’t even decide what coffee to have, so if you’ve got 109,000 product finishes I’ve had it!
I think that’s where we score – we can take people through that process of what finish they want and then once we’ve established that, we can talk to people about different designs. The way that we operate is that someone will say, “I want to have this handle, with that finish.” So we put together packages for them and show them multiple fullycosted design options. It’s easily done and we have that sort of knowledge.
When you look at the market now and you look at smart houses and smart security, does that affect what you do?
It doesn’t directly affect us but we work with the concept of a smart home, which is rapidly growing. But in terms of what we do, it integrates with smart technology. We can work with people who are installing Nest systems or Hive systems into people’s homes and we can make sure for example that all the switches have the right finish.
So you don’t have to substitute style for content in essence?
No we don’t do that – if anything we work the other way round. So if a manufacturer can only supply all their switches in stainless steel we’d say, “OK, fine, give us the cover plates and we’ll get them plated so that the finish matches all the door and window handles." Increasingly, design, style and finish are the key things. By the same token, we also have to make sure we’re up to date and aware of all the relevant building requirements. In terms of building conditions and standards as well as in terms of security; making sure we only supply the products that are compliant with the latest European norms. That’s just as important because people are now more aware of security in their own homes.
What percentage of your suppliers are British?
We’re very proud of this. I would guess at least 80% of what we supply is manufactured in the UK.
And as a business, it’s a relatively small, manpowered business isn’t it? But you’ve got a female ironmonger! That in itself is amazing.
Do you want to hear something else amazing? I’m the only bloke that works at this company! We all work as a team, and we’re a very happy team.
Excellent and later this year you will become the President of the Guild of Architectural Ironmongers, other than it being a great honour, what does it mean to you?
As I touched on earlier, the first company I worked for had an ethos of training and they paid me through the Guild of Architectural Ironmongers Diploma Course. Richard Branson said, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” We’ve always had that ethos and that’s why when Chantelle joined us last year we enrolled her on the course as well. When I bought Oxford Ironmongery, the first thing I did was get us recognised by the Guild. Over the past few years, I’ve been able to free up a little bit of my time to get involved. I was asked to join the Executive Committee and a few years ago I was honoured to be asked to become Treasurer. I was Treasurer for two years, and I’m currently finishing my second year as Vice President. In June this year I’ll be invited to become the President, which I’ll do for two years. In June, I’ll be hosting this year’s conference at the Oxford Spires Hotel, for which people come from all over the world. It’s a big honour.
Tell me about the future.
Well, what Oxford Ironmongery are doing is recognising that our future lies in consolidating our relationships with architects, interior designers and building contractors. That’s what we’re all about nowadays. We’re talking to architects and interior designers about changes in the manufacturing and new product design. Last year we met an Australian company at a design exhibition. They’ve just started producing concrete door handles, which is really new because up until now, no one’s had the technology to produce the concrete such that it won’t wear. We’re always looking for people like this, new manufacturers, and we’ll certainly continue this in 2019.