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Working Lunch Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Bucking the trend
Ercol furniture

All too often, I've reported on companies which were closing down to shift production overseas, usually to the Far East.

But here's a rarity - a manufacturer that has not only decided to stay in the UK, but has invested 20m in a new factory.

Family business

Ercol has been making furniture since 1920, when a young designer called Lucian Ercolani started his own business in High Wycombe, known as the chairmaking capital of the country.

It's still a family business, but when it outgrew its premises, big decisions had to be made.

Ercol considered moving abroad and even transferring production to other parts of the UK - there was no shortage of attractive offers.

Local talent

But it realised there was one thing it could never replace - its skilled workforce.

Ercol: committed to the UK

From its earliest days, when Lucian Ercolani took employees on day trips to the seaside, the company has put it workers high on its list of priorities.

Those with more than 21 years' service join a special club.

There are scores of them, their names carved into wooden plaques alongside the legend: "Without loyalty no human enterprise can succeed."

"One of the reasons we stayed here was the people," says Ercol's chairman and managing director Edward Tadros.

"We've got a fantastic workforce and we wanted those skills which we have been building up in the area.

"It's completely the correct thing to do - we exist to make nice furniture made by good craftsmen."

"We stayed for the people." says Chairman


The result is a new 160,000 sq ft factory, a light and airy building at Princes Risborough, about eight miles from Ercol's former home.

Transferring staff and equipment was a logistical challenge, but within hours of the plant opening last August, the first chairs started rolling off the line.

The workers are pleased they still have jobs, having seen other manufacturers up sticks and leave the UK.

"It's great not just for me but for the young people as well," says woodworker John Smith. "They'll be the ones who'll benefit from them staying in this country."

French polisher Kelly Tompkins agrees. "I'm glad it's gone to Risborough and not abroad or up north," he says.

Tony: "Glad it's gone to Risborough ."


But not all is rosy. Perhaps the downside to staying in the UK is having to work within Britain's economic conditions.

The recent downturn has hit Ercol; furniture simply isn't an essential, admits Edward Tadros.

Some workers have taken voluntary redundancy and the rest are now on a three-day week.

"We hope that will be enough," says GMB union rep Tony McGrath.

"At the end of the day it depends on how much furniture we can sell."

Furniture worker
Workers are now on a three day week

But Edward Tadros is optimistic. Ercol is extending its range to include more contemporary styles and is also looking to develop its export business and contract work.

Eighty years ago, Lucian Ercolani made his name working in local elm, which many furniture makers found difficult to use, and steambending wood to form what was known as the Windsor Bow.

Nearly all the wood is now imported, but each piece is still hand-finished using traditional methods.

However, Ercol knows tradition alone isn't enough.

"We have to be brave and bold and I think we did the right thing," says Edward.

"Times are hard, not just for us - it's pretty universal. But we've got the bricks in the right place. We've got good foundations."

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