Richard Burbidge uses up to 5,000m³ of timber a month.
• The company’s factories and warehousing cover over 300,000ft².
• Turnover last year was £58m.
• The company aims to move its Oswestry plant to new premises.
• Its online Stairplanner service has had 40,000 hits in year one.

Every night countless Britons wend their weary way to bed gripping a Richard Burbidge stair rail.

After 43 years in business the balustrade and mouldings specialist easily ranks as the biggest player in its field and has become one of the best-known names in the joinery and timber sectors. It borders on a generic.

Burbidge is also a reassuring reminder in troubled times that UK manufacturing is not the basket case some sections of the media would have you believe. It imports selected timbers and painted ranges from China and outsources some other components, but the bulk of its wood products are designed and manufactured from the raw material at its plants in Oswestry and nearby Chirk.

“Over 60% of what we sell, we still make ourselves,” said chief executive Steve Underhill proudly.

How the company has developed from founder Richard Burbidge setting up a joinery business in a small unit – making, among other things, Morris Minor steering wheels – to a business with 3,000 products, over 300 staff and group turnover in 2008 of £58m, Mr Underhill attributes to constant reappraisal of what it does and why it does it.

“That includes everything, the products we make and how we manufacture, market and sell them,” he said.


And the development of the business continues, recession or no recession. In fact, latest moves have probably been as far reaching as any in its history, not least Mr Underhill succeeding Richard Burbidge as chief executive three years ago.

“Richard is still closely involved as chairman, but a new management team taking over from the founder inevitably changes the culture of a business,” said Mr Underhill. “Broadly, I’d say we’re moving from a traditional management hierarchy structure to a more devolved approach. This, in turn, is bringing in different and wider perspectives on what we do.”

A whistle-stop tour of the two Burbidge operations underlines its openness to change, not to mention emphasising the scale of the business. These are sizeable plants. Purpose built in 1989, Chirk stands on a three-acre site and covers 50,000ft² of manufacturing space plus 45,000ft² of storage. Oswestry, comprising a collection of units developed organically over the years, adds up to another 50,000ft² of manufacturing and 200,000ft² of warehousing on 14.5 acres. “Some people say Richard Burbidge is Oswestry!” said Mr Underhill. “We’re certainly the biggest employer in the town.”

Pinning down an output figure for the company is difficult because it’s so diverse. For instance, Chirk, where mouldings production is focused, has over 1,000 profiles on its books. But you get some idea of the volumes involved from the raw materials warehouse. It’s stacked to the gunnels with timber, principally Nordic redwood, but also tropical and temperate hardwoods.

“Generally we’re getting through 3,000-5,000m³ of timber a month,” said Mr Underhill.

New technology

Both sites have a continuing programme of investment in new technology. Chirk features Weinig moulders, a System TM cross-cutting optimising line and a WoodEye timber grading scanner, while latest additions at Oswestry, where spindle and newel post production and packaging is based, include a Maka CNC machining centre, automated Intorex sanders and a Comec spindle/profile moulder.

“We’re always evaluating how technology can enhance our efficiency, capacity and capabilities and in the last year we’ve invested around £300,000,” said operations director Steve Clarke. “Currently we’re addressing waste through yield improvement. We’re already finger-jointing offcuts and are now looking at granulating material we can’t rework for fuel to maximise waste value .”

Besides its manufacturing equipment, Burbidge continually scrutinises production planning and flow. In fact, these are areas Mr Clarke was brought in to address specifically last summer, drawing on his experience in other industries, ranging from aluminium to tobacco.

“The aim is world-class manufacturing. We can’t just carry on doing what we’ve always done and keep our fingers crossed that it will still work,” he said. “We’ve all got to be engaged in a process of continuous improvement and question the way we operate. That’s vital to competing with low labour cost producers. It’s got to be a hearts and minds approach.”

“That’s why we’ve established more staff engagement through employees’ surveys, briefings, a company council, and a going-the extra-mile award,” added Mr Underhill. “You hear gripes through these, of course, but they also generate ideas and identify hidden skills.”

The focus on productivity has also involved the company’s supply chain.“We monitor service and quality from all suppliers and value them against each other,” said Mr Clarke.


The next step to boost efficiency will be the biggest of all. “The plan is to relocate the Oswestry operation to a new site in the town,” said Mr Underhill. “The current factory structure has worked, but if you were setting up a new business, you wouldn’t start where we are now.”

“The new plant will be all about production flow,” said Mr Clarke “We’ll establish what that looks like, then build the walls around it.”

Another long-term focus at Burbidge has been pull-through marketing for its customers, who include the DIY multiples, merchants and “strategic key distributors”, such as Arnold Laver. This takes the form of consumer advertising, and point of sale and display support – and revamping its displays in B&Q recently won it the company’s supplier of the year award.

Among the latest developments on this front has been the introduction of Burbidge’s online Stairplanner which enables consumers and trades to design a balustrade. Users type in the dimensions and shape of the flight, and select their Burbidge products and the system generates a plan and parts list. There’s a link to a technical advice hotline, but no online ordering. The whole idea is to drive customers to stockists, which are listed on the site.

“Stairplanner demystifies the product and creates a connection with stockists,” said Mr Underhill. “The customer can go along with their list and just pick up the products. But many want to discuss the plan, so it creates a relationship. Alternatively stockists’ staff can use Stairplanner for the customer and, if they want, we’ll provide training, as we’ve recently done for Travis Perkins.”

Marketing tool

Burbidge also sees potential for exploiting the system as an analysis and marketing tool. “We’re working on assessing conversion to sales from people using the system and how we can use it for marketing and cross selling,” said Mr Underhill.

To date, 40,000 people have logged in to Stairplanner. In fact, it’s been such a success that on March 1 Burbidge launched a sister service, Deckplanner. This can be used to plan domestic or commercial decks, including raised designs, with Burbidge outsourcing the deckboards and joists to complement its spindles, panels and newels. It also includes fitting instructions and maintenance advice.

In product development the real break with tradition of recent years was Burbidge’s launch of Fusion, which blends timber rails with stainless steel balusters and connectors, and acrylic infill panels. This has proved a hit on both domestic and commercial fronts and the business continues to build. Mr Underhill sees particular potential in commercial projects, including schools and leisure centres, with Burbidge drawing on the experience in dealing with developers and specifiers of its sister company since 2002, flooring specialist Atkinson & Kirby.

“There are very specific health and safety requirements in these markets, so we’re adapting products accordingly,” said Mr Underhill. “We’re also developing CPD material for architects.”

Like British business generally, he acknowledged, Burbidge is finding life challenging across all fronts. “The fact that newbuild housing only accounts for 15% of our business has insulated us from the worst of the construction downturn,” he said. “But inevitably, the repair, maintenance and improvement business, where we’re focused, is hit too as it’s so dependent on the health of the property market.“

Underlining the state of trade, in the past six months the company has undergone major restructuring, shedding nearly 25% of its workforce. “That was tough, but our close involvement of staff and the way we handled it was appreciated and it has made us leaner and fitter,” said Mr Underhill. “Overall, in the near term I’d say the business has a sense of urgency, but not panic.”

Taking the longer view, Burbidge is upbeat, with its mood lifted by its latest annual customer survey which gave it a record 80 out of 100 approval rating over a range of product quality and service criteria. It is also hopeful of securing planning consent for the redevelopment of its Oswestry premises in the next few months. This would enable it to relocate in 2010-11, ready to continue its evolution as the UK climbs the stairs out of recession.