How long is a piece of string? As long as the musician needs it to be, discovers E&T, as he visits top UK guitar string manufacturer Rotosound.
On arrival at Rotosound's unprepossessing headquarters, which squat alongside a train line on an industrial estate behind a fire station in Sevenoaks, Kent, I'm surprised to be greeted by Jimi Hendrix. Just around the corner, there's The Pink Floyd and The Who. Further along, there are members of Oasis and Primal Scream, plus dozens more rock legends.
In the middle of this august throng stands James How, founder of Rotosound, proudly displaying the string-winding machines he'd originally designed and built in his shed. He's enthusiastically demonstrating to John Entwistle - bassist from The Who - the intricacies of the machine work.
Regrettably (for me, at least), these are merely photographs that line the walls of Rotosound's reception area. But the cross-section of celebrated musicians that have rallied behind the Rotosound flag remains singularly impressive.
Jimi Hendrix really did come to Rotosound, seeking a string that "tasted" right, so the company wound custom gauge strings for him - .006 and .007 - that he could really get his teeth into. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Rotosound continued to fly the flag for UK manufacturing within the music industry, supporting hundreds of artists along the way.
So from a small shed in south London to, well, a larger shed in Sevenoaks - equal parts design facility, factory, warehouse and distribution centre - how has a traditional manufacturing business born 50 years ago of the founder's desire for better quality zither strings parlayed itself into a world-renowned brand with an annual turnover of £2.2m?
"My dad was a great ideas person," says Jason How, 43-year-old son of James How, and current Rotosound chairman. "The picture of my dad with John Entwistle in 1967 - that's by one of the hand-winding machines that were quite new then. We've still got them downstairs, still making the flatwounds and the black nylon bass strings, double bass strings, all still made by hand. We made strings for Vox and Burns at a time when people weren't going to China or going overseas. They just thought, 'Well, I'll buy it from my mate down the road.'
"I say it like that because there are a lot of companies in the UK now that probably could buy our strings, but don't," How reflects. "They probably buy Chinese strings or American strings. I think that's changing, though. We've just had seven months of record sales since I joined the company, so something's going on."
The early 1990s is when Jason formally joined the company, albeit in sad circumstances. "My Dad died in 1994," he nods. "The company at the time was in a real mess; there wasn't much that was right with it, from the production and the sales, all kinds of areas that needed sorting out. My brother and I both took over the company and massively reorganised it."
On the History pages of the Rotosound website, How describes filling his car with packs of strings and going on the road as a rep, in a 'do or die' sales drive for the company.
Gradually, things turned around, driven by the new family management team and a resurgence of interest in British products and homegrown companies with deep roots, triggered in part by the Britpop music movement of the mid 1990s. Rotosound enjoyed an association with a number of high-profile endorsements from the music scene at the time, including Britpop standard-bearers Oasis.
"I don't know if there's any other industry, except maybe the car industry with classic cars, where people are so obsessed with the past," How reflects, flicking through an album of vintage Rotosound promotional literature and memorabilia. "People come here and they see these books and they go crazy. It has a resonance with people, absolutely.
"So on the new website, we're going to put an archive timeline, from 1958 to the present. You'll click on 1974 or whatever and you'll get a picture that comes up with some of the string packs and the players. We've got all this great history and a lot of it's stuck in this bloody office and we need to get it out there."
The new website is only one aspect of Rotosound's approach to "getting it out there" - taking the product message to musicians on a global scale with minimum outlay. "We're doing more and more stuff on YouTube," says How. "We're getting a lot of our endorsees to do bits and pieces for us. A friend also has a music downloads company called Blues Jam Tracks. We're doing a deal where we're advertising Blues Jam Tracks on our string packs and he's offering the downloads on our website. That's kicked up the traffic to our site by about 60 per cent. So we're doing more and more of that kind of marketing, rather than the usual magazine stuff. It doesn't cost you anything and it's a great way for us to get more customers."
The free-wheeling, easy-going nature of the music industry is reflected in Rotosound's approach to business, with the company opting for a more informal approach to sourcing preferred partners. From the friend who wrote all the software that controls the company's entire modern manufacturing processes, to the friend who creates all the marketing and media literature, as well as the website and all new string pack designs, a relaxed approach to collaboration has suited the company.
"It's just having a circle of friends that seem to have the right sorts of skills," How explains. "We've just tried to do things in the most efficient way, avoiding middlemen or middle companies.
"Everything as far as the production is concerned we like to keep close; all our raw material stock control, for example, any string that we make, I can go on the system and I can see exactly how much wire is on every string down to six or seven decimal points. So all the controlling of stock going in and out is computerised and that's all linked in to the clock machine, then the wages program, everything is basically designed towards lean, to the fewest people possible."
There's also a strong family aspect to what is still a defiantly private enterprise: "My wife runs the production. John [Doughty] is the managing director. My brother [Martyn] is sales, marketing, all the group stuff. It's quite a small management team, I guess. We're basically management light and shopfloor heavy. We like people to be making stuff."
Making stuff is clearly Rotosound's raison d'être - something that is borne out by a quick walk across the shop floor at Rotosound's factory. Dozens of string-winding machines whir up and down the lengths of wire stretched between their ends, overseen by ear protector-clad workers. The four giant green German-made WOBA machines that twist the core wire around the ball-ends of 10,000 strings a day are churning away in one corner, justifying the £60,000 expenditure each machine necessitated.
Meanwhile, a slightly quieter corner of the shopfloor holds the historic handmade yin to the modern automated yang. Here, two seasoned experts are hand-rubbing black nylon bass strings with leather cloths, each string ultimately taking around five minutes to produce. The strings are hand-wound on original foot-pedal operated 1960s machines - not out of any nostalgic concession to vintage production methods, but because this is still the optimum way to produce the finest bass string. When they're the preferred choice for Sir Paul McCartney's famous Hofner violin bass, it pays to get the quality right.
As How says, "When I come in to work of a morning and I smell the shop floor, it's a passion - something's happening here. The good thing about the string business is that the machinery is quite straightforward to build and design. I'd grown up and done my engineering HND when I was at college and I came into the industry with my dad. It was kind of straightforward, I thought, to build new machines and computerise it and automate it.
"At the moment, I'm just building another couple of machines because we're underproducing, which is a problem. Even though we built a load of new machines, we still need more."
Gazing around at the busy warehouse, with a mezzanine area stashed full of teetering piles of boxes, the stock of raw materials stacked up to the ceiling, overflowing offices for design and packaging, How anticipates the obvious question, admitting, "We've outgrown this building. Every nook and cranny downstairs is full up. But I've got plans to put in another eight or ten machines here. We'll squeeze them in somewhere."
There's a lot to squeeze in: "We make everything in-house," How states proudly." We even make the frames. I love the fact that manufacturing it gives you control over pricing and quality
"We buy in the wire: some comes from America, some from Germany, some from Sweden, some from Switzerland. You find your best suppliers over years. Some of them go back to the 1960s."
His father's machine designs have exhibited similarly impressive longevity, thanks to a eureka moment in the early 1980s: "He came up with a system. Instead of winding one string at a time and feeding the wire along a carriage, my Dad thought, 'Why can't I wind six in one go? I'll put six spools of wire up and when the carriage is traversing it's wrapping six instead of one.' Of course, with that system, the production output went through the roof," How explains.
"It means we can make guitar strings in just over 10 seconds, to wrap, and the spindle speed doesn't have to be that fast because the operator, as the machine is winding, he's running the other machine, loading and unloading.
"It cost £160,000 to build ten machines, which is probably a third of what it would cost if you bought new machines. If you went to Germany or Italy and wanted to buy new winding machines, you'd be looking at £60,000 each. Some of these machines almost tripled the output of my Dad's old machines, but we're still not making enough."
Demand outstripping supply seems like a nice problem to have for a manufacturing concern in the current economic climate, but it troubles How. "We need to make more", he says bluntly. "Last month, we made 73 per cent of what we sold."
With Rotosound being a global business, you might expect complex supply chains and a network of distributors targeting key areas. The reality is, inevitably, much more straightforward: one export manager, who oversees sales expansion in the Far East, and direct sales from the UK office to big American music retail chains, such as Guitar Center and Sam Ash. Attendance at the three big music trade shows (London International Music Show, Frankfurt's Musikmesse and LA's NAMM show) takes care of the rest, securing what How calls "invaluable contact with overseas customers".
"In the old days you'd sell through a distributor and they'd put 20 or 30 per cent on it and price you out of the market, so we basically do it ourselves," reasons How. "Plus, we can control the pricing and as the exchange rate fluctuates, we can take the hit. If the company's making money and we don't have to change the pricing in America, we can leave it as it is, thereby giving us more stability."
Having dragged the company out of the mire following the dark days after his father's death, How understands the essential lessons where manufacturing is concerned: "Labour cost is important; we've got to get it down to 20 per cent of turnover, but it wasn't so out of reach that I was going to say, 'No, we're going to shut it all down and buy it from China'. At the time, I costed it all out, costed out shutting down the manufacturing and just becoming a wholesaler. Then I costed out if we built new machinery and invested what we were going to invest and that's the route we took."
Making the right decision for the company as it approached that crucial fork in the road feeds into How's pragmatism: not even the twin threats of the credit crunch and cheap Chinese competition unduly faze him.
"Everything's been over-valued, houses, currencies, we've all thought we're better off than we actually are. But for us as a manufacturer, this is having the opposite effect, because it means we are better off. Ernie Ball [US string manufacturer] have just raised their prices 30 per cent here in the UK. Which means that even though I don't really have to, I can put mine up 10 per cent. And of course on the export side, against the same companies, where their prices have gone up 30 per cent, ours have come down. So again we can raise them on export. What some people term a weak currency I say is more of a true value. The pound at $1.40 is much more beneficial for us because we're a British manufacturer exporting."
As for China, How brushes aside the issue on the grounds that "you can't always be about price." He recounts the example of how a music shop "ten years ago might buy a music stand for £10 and sell it for £20. Now, they've been buying them for three quid and selling them for six. He's making the same gross margin, but it's only three quid! The thing with cheap pricing is eventually it grinds itself down."
Such informed cynicism reflects a realistic outlook on the UK manufacturing scene, which is reflected in Rotosound's ongoing success.
"Our sales are up 18 per cent in the last six months and February was up 63 per cent - a massive increase, which basically killed our stock," he says, somewhat ruefully. "But things seem to be lining up, all the things that we're trying to do, bringing in the new packaging, new strings, distribution, the marketing, the media stuff, it just seems like it's all starting to get a little bit of momentum."
There's momentum at every turn at the Rotosound facility. The dozens of whirring machines on the shop floor, the shrink-wrapping of shipping cartons in the despatch room, the busy forklifts in the loading bays outside. One of those forklifts is being driven by none other than managing director John, who calls out, laughing, "It's all very hands-on here," before wheeling round to fetch another pallet-load of Rotosound strings, bound for the US market.
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