Interview

John Miles: Steelite

27 January 2017 | By Joe Marshall

Steelite International’s turnover more than doubled to £156m in 2015, making it easy to see why the company’s global CEO John Miles grabbed the chance to take over the tableware ceramics business he’d been employed by for 20 years with the help of PNC Riverarch Capital in 2016

Q: Steelite doubled turnover in 2015. How?

A: Staying true to a UK-made product has been very important. In our global markets, people respect for a “Made in England” back stamp, they see real value in it.

We’ve got a fantastic design team, both here and internationally, and innovative products have played a big part in our success.

70 per cent of our turnover comes from trade with 143 countries

And then there’s the people. You can make just about everything someplace else. But what you can’t replace is the culture and people. Investment in people and recognition of the talent pool that we have has been really significant.

Steelite International is truly international; 70 per cent of our turnover comes from trade with 143 countries. That and the strength of the US economy right now have helped the business, not only in 2015 when we saw our turnover reach £156m; 2016 will also be a record year for the business.

Q: How is Steelite different to other potteries supplying the hospitality trade?

A: The business is about high quality products, innovative designs, good service and consistency - and that’s one of the points that’s most important in the hospitality industry.

If you buy dinnerware for your home and it’s discontinued in ten years, then you buy new dinnerware. If you buy dinnerware for a hotel, and you spend £100,000, and it’s discontinued, that’s a big problem. And, as a result, the hospitality industry most values quality, durability and consistency.

We’ve been able to provide that from this facility for the past 50 years. We’re known as the reliable one with innovative products, and that’s a good position to hold in the market.

Q: How will Steelite continue to grow?

A: New products are the lifeblood of any good manufacturing business, and we have a major new product launch scheduled for February 2017. It will include a number of new ranges, one called Scape, which is a combination of unique shapes in wash glaze colours that are trendy, and also very food-friendly.

Environmental efforts in this factory go back well before it was in vogue

The other product is Willow, which is an embossed shape, also in different colours. It’s a pretty revolutionary concept for hotel catering and banqueting, because this series of plates are the same size. They take the same plate cover, so they’re easy for the kitchen to manage.

We have around six other new products that we’ve developed that will launch closer to 2018 - we’ll have a product plan for 2018 by early summer. New product development is just a constant. You never stop growing.

We’re also investing in efficiencies. We’re doing an IT integration with a new ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, to slick out our global systems. And we’re dealing with space constraints in our warehouse with some new construction. We’ll be spending up to £6m on a new building we hope to open by the end of next year.

We’re doing a big investment for glaze reclamation to be able to recycle more of our glaze. Environmental efforts in this factory go back well before it was in vogue. We initiated water reclamation more than a decade ago, and we recycle all the water in the facility.

It’s a common-sense approach, looking at every touchpoint within the factory process where there’s scrap or a by-product to understand how we recycle, all the way down to the recycling of the plaster moulds.

What we’re doing is taking a business model that has worked really well for us, and ensuring that we have the capacity to continue to expand and grow with it.

Q: Is that global model something other businesses can replicate?

It’s about finding someone that understands your culture - the culture of your company within the UK - but can translate that to another market. You’ve got to find a local person that can really embrace and understand your culture, and then that person needs to take that message back in their own country’s language. Globally, UK products have a tremendous amount of respect - it’s important to remember that “Made in the UK” can garner a premium.

Q: Culture and people are important to Steelite, but how easy is it to nurture those things?

A: Some 90 per cent of the factory workforce comes from within 5km of here in Stoke-on-Trent. This site’s been producing china for hotels and restaurants since the mid-1850s. And there are certainly families who go back all the way to the beginning.

I think it’s very important that the product is produced here in the UK. If it says Steelite International on the back, our customers understand that it’s always ceramic and it’s always produced in Stoke-on-Trent. They understand the value proposition.

A person’s culture is probably even more important to us than their skillset

In terms of recruiting, we’ve just been through an extensive recruitment to find the 25 workers that we needed for a significant expansion and extension in our decorating area. Finding skilled labour in this area is becoming more difficult because most of the potteries have left. We do a tremendous amount of investment in training here.

But I think that a person’s culture is probably even more important to us than their skillset. What we’re looking for is someone who wants to come here, who wants to work hard and get ahead, who values the work that we’re doing and is proud of the quality of product that they’re making. We can teach skills - it’s the desire that you can’t teach. That’s within a person, and within a culture.

We have a high level of respect for how hard our staff work, and the amount of dedication it takes to produce a product like this. We’ve all come from a pottery background or been around this business for a long time, so respect just naturally flows through to the workforce. It’s not something that I created here. It’s something that dates back 35 or 40 years.

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