4 March 2009

Counting the cost of the Smallbone sale

Lest we forget, Smallbone Plc has not been sold as I write, but the company has announced that it is up for sale following the "challenging month" of February and just a few weeks after announcing that a new finance package was in place that would: " generate positive cash flow and profitability in 2009, even assuming that demand levels do not improve".

I suppose it was to be suspected that the non-specialist KBB press would latch onto the fact that Smallbone PLC has some celebs that have Smallbone kit in their kitchens but slightly more of concern to this writer is who will end up owning Mark Wilkinson Furniture?

Charlie Smallbone, who with Mark Wilkinson and the late Graham Clark founded Smallbone of Devises in the 1970s, has had something of a stop-go relationship with kitchens. He originally sold Smallbone to Williams Holdings in 1998 and then with Smallbone Plc bought it back in July 2003 from Gower who had bought it from Williams Holdings.

Mark Wilkinson meanwhile, left Smallbone in 1981, and together with his wife Cynthia formed Mark Wilkinson Furniture (MWF).

While the design of Smallbone's core range was somewhat stagnant under the brand's ownership by Williams Holdings and Gower, MWF by comparison blossomed.

Country House

New designs came off of the Wilkinson drawing board on a regular basis, establishing Mark Wilkinson as the father of the 'Country House' style of kitchens.

Mark and Cynthia sold MWF to Smallbone Plc in 2005, reuniting Smallbone and Wilkinson.

What now? There are a number of grim possibilities on the horizon, including the purchase of the group by an organisation that will just ride on the back of both the Smallbone and Mark Wilkinson brands.

The thought of walking into a superstore and seeing 'entry-level' flatpacks with either brand name splashed on them does not exactly excite me.

Likewise, the thought that the designer Mark Wilkinson will not have a proper outlet for his skills, is a less that thrilling prospect too.

With the exception of the Shaker kitchen design, almost every other mainstream classical kitchen style can be traced back to an original Wilkinson 'Country House' concept.

That does not mean there are not other really talented kitchen furniture designers out there because there certainly are. However few come close to equalling the Wilkinson 30-plus year track record of UK kitchen furniture influence.



  1. Interesting post.

    We're actually considering a MW kitchen at the moment, but yesterday's news has given us serious pause.

    And having read your post, I'm wondering if we really want to invest/blow tens of thousands on a kitchen that may soon be a flat pack in B&Q. Would it be an asset in a house sale?


    They need to get it sorted pronto.

  2. Of course a genuine Mark Wilkinson kitchen would be a wonderful thing to own!
    And if any make of kitchen is an 'asset', MWF is up there with the best of them. S
    o, if you were going to buy one do so!
    By the way, I did not say that Mr Wilkinson's furniture "may soon be a flat pack in B&Q" (a strange statement for a layman to make I feel).
    I said the prospect of either the Smallbone and MWF 'brands' being used on a superstore's entry level flatpack did not exactly excite me.

  3. I agree it is an interesting post but I have mixed emotions when I read comments such as Grahame`s above. I agree, it is a sad state of affairs when renowned and much respected companies such as this find themselves in difficulty. Sometimes, and i`m sure its the case here, this happens through no real fault of their own, but as the result of economic fluctuation.
    On the other hand, as a loyal and commited employee of the industry, comments such as the above upset and to a certain degree anger me.
    It seems that some people forget about the other companies out there that do come close and even exceed MWF/Smallbone`s 30 years of existance.
    Not only that, you forget that these other companies are still pushing forward, still going strong, and more importantly still surviving even through difficult times.
    Not only that, to say that one man, can be the father of a genre of kitchens is rediculous. Country House style of kitchen design has been around for hundreds of years, when you`ve seen one, you`ve seen them all i`m affraid.
    I thought the KBB was supposed to represent the industry, not just one man or company. That clearly seems to be the case here.
    As for someone being rightly dubious about perhaps purchasing an item from a company that seems to perhaps be in difficulty, they have every right to be concerned..... if you were about to buy yourself that new Jag or Merc, would you place an order if you had heard, even through heresay, that the company may be in trouble?? I think not!
    To sum up, as i feel i`m ranting a little now.... lets not think "Oh no... what do we do now MWF/Smallbone have gone/changed hands whatever???" Lets think....... theres always Scottwood of Nottingham! :)

  4. Hey, this is my first go on a BLOG - I'm a complete Virgin - I guess I should have a funky nickname like BlogGin or VirgibloG - but, hey ho - here goes.
    Firstly Wat Tyler - my initial thought was is he genuine - then I read Wat's Blogger's Description and came close to issuing an invite to come down to Bromham - bring the gun - Mark's got the Clay Pidgeon kit - have some fun.
    I work for Mark Wilkinson these days, so I'm not going to try to sell anybody anything - I wouldn't believe me if I did, so why should you - but I must take Mr Tyler to task - I mean... come on Wat, who are you trying to kid - you give yourself away with the 'invest/blow' thing - that's enough to tell even BlogGin's like me that you want to spend the meagre wallet-droppings that the Chancellor leaves you with, on a new car! You do, don't you - or a new pair of shotguns - it's just an excuse to get you out of treating she-who-all-of-we-male-types-must-obey to the new kitchen that SHE wants.
    I bet, Wat, that even you daren't suggest a trip to Geneva to see the new Lagonda instead!!
    Go on, buy her a bottle of Bolly and tell her your going to get her a new kitchen, make sure it's a good 'un - the best - make her day.
    Have Fun, who knows what she'll give you in return.
    Now, Mr Scottwood Jay - you've not been around long have you? Actually I used to work for Scottwood in the 1990's - when John Ivel was still in charge - a very fine designer was John Ivel, he did a lot of really nice work in the early days of Shaker in the UK.
    Scottwood has changed hands a couple of times since then and I must say I don't hear as much of the brand as I used to. Let me though invite you to study the design of kitchens over the past - what did you say 'hundreds of years' - when you find one; send me a picture of a Planked canopy that preceeds the 1970s - or a fishtail frieze - or a Multi-Panel door.
    GJM, in his inimitable way, has a bit of a 'pop' at Wat for making what he calls 'a strange statement for a Layman', but then he is a Layman and not 'a loyal committed employee of the industry' like what you is. Oh dear!
    Now to Grahame - how long have I been telling you that our industry needs proper training, leading to a recognised qualification?
    He hee - over to you.


  5. I'm not quite sure how Richard Moss managed to shoehorn training and qualifications into this argument, but in answer to his question I would say he has banging that particular drum for many years - and its a passion I share with him.

    Returning to the main thrust of what Jay had to say in his post I would respectively point out that I did say there were many other fine furniture designers. But in the 25-plus years I have been writing about kitchens, I have not come across another designer of kitchens that has a track record that equals Mark Wilkinson.

    If you know of any, please let me know and I will be pleased to write about them as well.

    I do try to represent the industry as a whole, but this blog entry started out about the possible fallout from the sale of Smallbone plc and that does sort of limit the designers you can write about.

  6. Sorry to come back on this subject, but perhaps Blogging is a bit like other activities, having a Tattoo for instance, where once you have lost your virginity, you can’t stop.
    I just felt that it may help to inject a few facts into all of this opinion on the worthiness, or otherwise, of Mark Wilkinson’s track record in the kitchen design firmament – here are some of those facts:
    1992 Made a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers
    1994 Made a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers
    2003 Won MASTER’S PRIZE – For innovation in Traditional Furniture
    2004 Won Lifetime Achievement Award at the Designer Magazine Awards
    2005 Made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts
    2007 Won Special Achievement Award at the kbbreview Industry Awards
    2008 Made a Fellow of the City & Guilds Institute
    Also in 2008 Mark Wilkinson’s Showroom Division won the Industry Customer Care Award – plus, the company was named Employer of the Year by the Local Skills Council for its work over the past ten years in Apprenticeships for its Furniture Making division.
    Anyway, that’s enough of that, this Blogging is wearing me out and I’m trying to build up the energy to ask about Twittering!!

  7. Well as a veritable blogging (but in no other respect!) whore, I couldn't resist chipping in here.

    Of course Grahame is going to comment on the prospect of Smallbone and Mark Wilkinson Furniture being up for sale. I'd be disappointed if he didn't. When I heard the news I immediately tweeted my surprise ... and got a response from an equally surprised kitchen designer in the US!

    I'm not sure what Jay's point is anyhow. Does he want a blog on how low profile Scottwood is now? I don't hear anything much about them either ... and I live in Nottingham. It's not as if Grahame was giving MWF positive publicity.

    What really surprises me is how the current credit crunch is affecting high level, quality kitchen companies. Not only is Smallbone (and MWF) up for sale - but both Robinson & Cornish and Crabtree Kitchens have already succumbed.

    Popular wisdom has it, that downturns in the economy don't affect the top end of any market as much as the firms at the bottom, who are selling mainly on price. So what's the difference this time?

    I too am in the industry (as a designer) ... but I work directly for the public (very slow at the moment), for cabinetmakers (also slow) and for low budget kitchen suppliers (very busy). Is it just the MFI effect - with their erstwhile customers looking for new sources of supply?

    And on a final point ... talking about Twitter and great kitchen designers ... Johnny Grey Studios have just started tweeting (although they don't have many followers as yet):


  8. Actually Majjie/Marion I don't think we were talking about Twitter but ever since President Obama used Twitter as one of the tools in the run up to the election in the USA, just about everyone else is.
    Twitter has been around a while, and we on the kbb News website and the Interiors Hub have been using the service for quite some time.
    We use the Interiors Hub twitter account to notify followers of news stories we have posted on this blog and to announce any substantial news stories that are breaking.
    You can sign up to our Twitter account by going to:http://twitter.com/interiorshub
    Have a nice tweet y'all!

  9. Yes ... everyone and his (or her) dog is using Twitter now ... although I think it's got more to do with Stephen Fry than Barack Obama (at least in this country).

    And Richard definitely mentioned Twittering!

  10. Marjiieee is right I did mention twittering , but only because I saw a heading on this site and hadn't a clue what it was and then, when I asked my kids they just shook their heads in the 'you wouldn't understand' kind of way they have when talking about modern music.
    One of them promised to text me with the answer, so there’s another modern technique I need to read up on – how to use a mobile phone for more than just phone calls.
    So, what is Twittering and why is it different from Blogging - and, how do you guys find out about all of this - is twittering a different kind of 'post' or summat?
    Good points though about the very top-end being immune to this mess the bankers have gotten into - and typical of their ilk are now finding ways to charge us for.
    It seems everyone below the rank of Soccer Star, or banking-pensioner, is being affected, either because their pensions have dropped through the floor, or their savings are going toward negative interest, or their houses are worth less than a Traveller's caravan, or their jobs are disappearing, or they don't want to be seen flashing their cash when the dole ques are growing.
    I am also interested – as in nosey about – Scottwood, you really do not see any advertising or other publicity these days and I don’t want to believe that their marketing strategy is to simply post salespeople in metaphorical trees, like one of those super-ugly African Vultures, waiting to pick up titbits where they can see them.
    Is that Twitter - bird song??
    No, please, I have changed my mind, don’t tell me – I get bored easily and I’m past my Twitter/Blogging threshold already.

  11. I find it quite bizarre that people are so surprised by the current dilemma that Smallbone find themselves in. I am in the kitchen industry – and in the bespoke end and so feel reasonably qualified to comment.

    Aside of the collapse of a serious number of international megabrands/companies/institutions it was surely only a matter of time before the effects of this 9/11 of the financial world started having an effect. The comments posted seem to determine that Charlie Smallbone and Mark Wilkinson are and always have been the founding fathers of the bespoke kitchen. One cannot take away their ingenuity and obvious design skills but please bear in mind they have a serious PR team which drives this image. After all that is what drives sales! They are just brands now! The figureheads themselves will be the public face but that is all. They are the most publicised bespoke kitchen and furniture designers to the mass market. They are, or should I say were, the first to take the bespoke kitchen and make it accessible.

    The effects of this global financial repositioning are quite extra ordinary. One would have thought that a serious company like Smallbone PLC would have had sufficient advice to perhaps forestall their purchase of Christopher Peacock in the USA in September 2008 given that the indications of the financial world were plain to see by then. I find it quite strange that such was their desire to get back into the market in the US they paid over $15m dollars for what amounted to 2 showrooms and two dealerships! A serious price at such a time!! Mr Peacock must be a very happy man! One also would have thought that the advice would have been to radically retrench their operations to account for an anticipated significant downturn in the market. How can a company who, and understanding they are two brands, still operate as two totally different operations. Talk about paying double for things. In Leamington Spa as well as a number of other locations they have two showrooms almost next door to each other! What a complete waste of money! A Smallbone Wilkinson Brand would have been so easy to create as they already have their own market sector and to combine operational and manufacturing costs would probably have saved them.

    I would suggest that perhaps too many of the “advisors” believed that the power of the brand was too strong and was therefore impenetrable to the effects of the impending financial crisis. How wrong they were. It would not take a genius to work out. We all suffer from the December blues in the bespoke kitchen market and we know that the only way to “encourage” sales in January and February is to entice the customer with special offers. I guess in their forward financial planning they looked at their order book, saw it was healthy and thought they would be fine. It is incredible to think that we all know the lifecycle of an enquiry to order and they may well have gone into the new year with a good order book but without new business coming in the gaps would appear in significant numbers. This is one reason for their situation. With a significant lack of orders in February massive holes would have started to appear in their operational side 3 to 4 months downline and with their overheads I cannot blame them for taking the action they did!

    Time caught up on them!!

    A final comment – I am utterly astounded that there is such shock from the media that this has happened!. I was called for two days by suppliers who were amazed that the “gods” of the bespoke kitchen world were in deep trouble. Hang on these suppliers were serious companies too! Not a little old man around the corner! These are the suppliers who seek trade credit insurance on their accounts etc etc.

    Well if the media and these suppliers had bothered to look hard at the trading statement issued on February 5th by Smallbone the writing was so clearly on the wall! No one would have agreed to the terms that they had to and it perhaps reflected the level of risk being taken by the new finance package. All the media said was that they were refinancing to do this and that. Look a little further down and you see figures like 16% interest rates!! That is credit card level and for a loan denotes the very highest possible risk loan that a lending institution would take!! Did this not say to anyone, the informed media!! The trade credit underwriters, the multi million pound supplier chain market that something serious was going on!! Further still, the terms of the loan(s) made it impossible to do anything further if a further requirement was ever needed.

    These indeed were desperate times for Smallbone to even agree in principal to those terms. Did this not indicate to ANYONE that things were far more serious than what was being fed to the media!! So for me hardly a surprise and a big wake up call to the media to not always take the “press releases” as being just that – for the press! A little bit of common sense would have shown the current problem a long time ago.

    So the future – well no doubt the brands will survive but not as a group where the design origins that made the companies so good were so far removed from the coal face.

  12. Everything you say makes sense Woodlandman. I guess most of us just didn't look into the details closely enough. MWF has been expanding like nobody's business (aren't they about to open a new showroom in Belgravia?) ... so I sort of assumed they were financially sound. That - added to my (mistaken) perception that the top of the market would be affected less - led to my surprise.

    I can't shed any light on why Scottwood don't seem to be doing any marketing ... but I'd guess they're strapped for cash too. Parent company TSC Industries also owned Now Kitchens (selling Wrighton branded kitchens - right at the bottom of the market) ... which ceased trading a couple of weeks ago.

    As for Twitter, there are three reasons to use it:

    1. you're a stalker of celebrities and like to know what they're doing

    2. you have a lot of friends on Twitter and you Tweet to each other

    3. You have a brand or (more particularly) a website you want to promote


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  14. Jay's point neatly brings us back to the starting point of this posting.

    No, Mark Wikinson Furniture would not be the same without Mark Wilkinson at the helm. He has been the inspiration and driving force behind every kitchen design MWF has produced.

    Charlie, in my opinion, has less of an influence on Smallbone's kitchens. He left the company for a number of years after all.

    But just like Steve Jobs returning to Apple, he got the brand firing on all cylinders again.

    We await to see what will happen to the various trading brands that make up Smallbone PLC. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering the company is trading and orders are being completed.

    Who ever ends up owning the MWF company will not detract from the furniture made under the stewardship of Mr Wikinson.

    An original Chippendale furniture piece is still a thing of beauty and worth owning despite the cheaper copies that have been made since Mr Chippendale called it a day.

    And talking of calling it a day, I'm calling it a day on contributions to this particular string.

    We will no doubt return to the subject (and others) once we know what is happening with Smallbone PLC.

    Meanwhile, many thanks to those who have joined in this debate, and set a new record to responses to one of my comments in the process!

  15. Hi MWF and Small bone are all very good companies but has one tried Goldman&Rankin they are excellent as well at making furniture?

  16. Gosh Nicholas! The Smallbone & MWF debate was a little while ago, but better late than never is my motto. I'm sure there are many companies who make excellent furniture. In fact, I know there are!

    But when it comes to influencing the design of classical kitchen furniture, it is my belief that Mark Wilkinson is in a league of his own. Please excuse me for asking, but do you have any connection with Goldman & Rankin other than as a satisfied customer?

    Best regards,