By Paul Farley Jul 1, 2019 for Furniture News The essential guide to the UK domestic furniture trade.
Founded in 1946 by Walter Croll, Millbrook – named after its Southampton dockside home – started out making bedding and upholstery for cruise ships. Since then, while remaining a family concern, the business has grown into a sizeable group that employs over 750 people, and covers healthcare, logistics, contracting and manufacture, reports Paul Farley …
Millbrook Beds itself employs over 100 members of staff, and is headed up by group MD, Mark Croll. Although it manufactures open-coil mattresses on a white-label basis, the business specialises in pocket-sprung models, all of which are invested with a degree of hand craftsmanship. Within its 20-strong portfolio for independent retailers, prices range from £499 to £5000, as the number of layers and application by hand increases.
At its busiest, Millbrook's factory – now in Totton, Southampton – can turn out 5000 pieces a week. Operations director Ross Thurston, who has worked at Millbrook for 21 years, says Millbrook is "probably the most advanced bed company in the UK" in operational terms.
The company's fate could have been much different. In 2015, facing mounting losses, Millbrook took the difficult decision to withdraw from the independent retail market and reinvent itself from the ground up.
In essence, Millbrook hit the stop button and took time out to implement essential structural changes, such as a new IT system and factory layout. Mark Hughes came on board to oversee sales, while reinvention gave Millbrook the opportunity to broaden its product offer, which had traditionally been "pigeonholed into the upper-middle to high end of the market", explains Ross.
The move attracted widespread criticism from the trade, some of which persists to this day – yet, states Ross, it was utterly necessary.
"We are under no illusion about the impact of what we did," he continues, "but this drastic move enabled us to build a robust structure which was capable of achieving the fastest possible lead times [as little as two weeks] on handmade products. These days, customers want instant fulfilment – and you need good technology to achieve this."
When it resumed dialogue with the independent market in 2017, Millbrook was a changed business – and its sector-leading manufacturing capabilities have only grown since. The company has invested over £1m in new quilting, embroidering, cutting and packaging machinery, and the business as a whole is a leaner, more flexible outfit.
"With that investment comes a new way of looking at things," notes Ross, pointing out various examples of operational efficiency, from gantry-mounted screens that relay production tasks to refined JIT goods in/out pathways – all of which help Millbrook achieve its highly competitive four-day production cycle. "We can lay out the factory however we need to, and we have the potential to extend it," he says.
"Also, everyone here is multi-skilled, so the workforce can be redeployed wherever needed, and we could add extra shifts if we needed to bolster capacity."
Millbrook's sales team was also refined, to better communicate the strengths of its new offer. Led by Mark Hughes, an experienced team of agents and reps ensures continual feedback from frontline to factory.
"We have such a close team," says Ross, "which is essential to realising our ambitions. To keep moving forward, we need great product, and this means working with retailers to develop lines that are right for them, and that they actually want to sell."
Alongside its substantial contract arm and its work with big customers including John Lewis, Swoon and Furniture Village, Millbrook is seeing good growth in its independent business, and Ross attributes much of this to how readily the company responds to their demands.
"As well as the big exhibitions, we have a good deal of contact with customers who take the time to visit us down here in Southampton," he comments. "For much of last year, we had customers in our showroom two to three days of each week, which let us discuss how to evolve our ranges and do things differently."
The latest tranche of new product will be launched this summer, ahead of September's NBF Bed Show. "I know it's not a typical launch window for new beds," says Ross, "but why sit on it? We've been working on a lot of it since December. It's very much based on customer feedback, and will feature plenty of innovation. We've made mattresses the same way for a long time, so we asked ourselves how we could take our products to the next level."
The range includes four new mattress styles – Ortho, Majestic, Grandeur, and Pillow-top. Ross says these benefit from a more sumptuous feel, and higher spring counts (up to 14,000).
Millbrook's complete range is now chemical-free, offering 100% natural sleeping surfaces – no chemicals are used in the cotton covers or in any of the natural fillings. At the same time, the business currently repurposes some nine million plastic bottles each year for use in its mattress borders and headboards.
These developments should resonate with Millbrook's end-user base, which, thanks to myriad partnerships and promotional campaigns, is growing apace. To reinforce the health-giving benefits of its sleep products, the business is aligned to several sporting entities including Commonwealth Games Team England, England and GB hockey and cycling institutions, as well as national mass-participation events run by parkrun UK.
"These sports endorsements help lend our brand credibility," says Ross, "and they work better the more closely – and creatively – we work together. Take parkrun UK, and our Pyjama parkrun initiative – this really captures people's imagination and attracts hundreds of pyjama-clad runners each time we do it. It all helps spread our message, and connects two of the three pillars of wellbeing – sleep and exercise (the other being nutrition)."
Then there's Millbrook's social media engagement. By enabling continual dialogue, fuelled by timely competitions, giveaways and user-uploaded content, Millbrook has established a healthy online community, while reducing strain on its traditional customer service channels.
"Facebook Messenger is the main way people talk to us now," reveals Ross. "We try to create content that people can really get involved in and share, while giving our retailers something they can use. I think many companies stay away from this kind of direct contact because they're scared of having to fight fires, but it's rare that we receive any negative feedback."
Millbrook's proactive marketing strategy helped earn it the accolade of Small Bed Manufacturer of the Year in the 2018 NBF Bed Industry Awards – a clear recognition of Millbrook's successful reinvention, and its place in the trade today.
"We've been on quite a journey here at Millbrook," concludes Ross, "but we've come out all the better for it, and we're now at a very exciting time in the company's history. I can't wait to see how our newest lines are received …"