With one eye always on the market and an operation ready to react to any changes, Hillarys Blinds proves that bespoke, high volume manufacturing can be successful
In 1971, Tony Hillary started making blinds in his garage in Nottingham. As a one-man operation Tony took care of advertising, selling, manufacturing and fitting himself. Fast-forward to today, and that small operation has grown to become the UK’s leading supplier of window coverings, manufacturing made-to-measure bespoke blinds, curtains, awnings and shutters for the UK and Ireland market. With a strong emphasis on customer service and considerable investment into child safety, the company has built up a reputable brand and operates across an omnichannel platform with online markets becoming successful in France.
“Hillarys offers over two million different options, with short lead times, via a team of dedicated advisors,” explains operations director, Darren Lock. “The national network of advisors who cover every corner of the UK is the most significant advantage of us as a company.” Operating across three manufacturing sites in Nottingham and Washington Tyne and Wear, Hillarys employs over 1000 people working in operations to cope with demand. “Demand management is a key pillar to the business,” says Darren. “Due to the size and number of options available to the consumer, the opportunity to automate processes is limited. The made-to-measure nature of the business means that there are no finished goods in stock so lean tools and techniques are being deployed throughout operations to continuously optimise efficiencies. Given the bespoke service we offer, operator knowledge and skill is paramount in delivering a quality product every time. We have a very loyal workforce, which is a great asset and is the cornerstone of our success.” Being able to respond effectively to changes in demand is critical to Hillarys operations, particularly when it can see a 50-60 per cent increase in sales in the run up to Christmas.
Whilst demand is high for Hillarys as an industry leader, growth is still very much the focus of its operations. Sales volume increased 13 per cent in 2013 with this continuing into 2014. The company has seen its strongest growth in plantation shutters, with curtains and venetian blinds also contributing significantly in what is a heavily trend focused market. As Darren highlights: “This is driven by consumers refurbishing their homes, as well as the return of the UK housing market.” As a company providing what could be considered a luxury product to a consumer market, remaining tuned into current market conditions and economic factors is crucial to Hillarys maintaining a strong trading position.
Testament to this awareness can be seen in Hillarys being awarded the ‘Nottinghamshire Company of the Year’ award in 2014. “This was awarded to us as a result of the way in which we tackled the recession head-on, by investing for the future,” notes Darren. “Despite the home improvement market suffering during the downturn, we invested heavily in a brand makeover, a new website, designs and products in order to be absolutely ready for when the market recovered.” Commenting on the award’s impact in general he said: “It has helped us to raise our profile locally, which has been a significant benefit for recruitment, since winning it the business has continued to go from strength to strength.”
Looking at today Darren continues to display the company’s awareness of the market: “Consumer confidence is on the increase and the UK is ahead of Europe in terms of market recovery. The upcoming general election may cause some uncertainty in the short-term. Key issues for us will be the development of the housing market and the growth of consumers’ disposable income.” Operating within a market that is so heavily influenced by trends and changing tastes can cause challenges for any consumer business. Hillarys ensures it keeps up to date with these through continuous innovations, which, as Darren explains: “Is essential for the company’s offering, particularly in terms of the consumer choice. The product team are continually updating the in-home presenters to offer inspirational products. This is supported by the in-house testing by technical and manufacturing teams enabling products to be brought to market very efficiently.”
To support its growth strategy, Hillarys responds to trends in order to expand its product portfolio and markets. The company has recently entered into the carpet industry, which it can readily offer through its existing network of advisors via an in-home appointment. Despite only being in early days, attitude within the company about the carpet sector is positive, and it is looked upon as a real growth opportunity.
In addition to growing its product range, Hillarys has expanded its market by operating as an omnichannel company. “Working in this way adds complexity from an operational perspective, particularly with respect to distribution complexity,” expresses Darren. “The increase in the web channel has enabled the acquisition of market share, but this has required significant integration with carriers, in order to provide the business to consumer delivery.” With this also comes a sense within the business that service has to be continuously improved in order to support a growing footprint. Over the last six months Hillarys has invested significantly in raising the service bar higher. Darren points out: “The ‘Signature Service’ programme has galvanised the organisation around excellent service.” A visit to the company’s website makes it clear that this is something that already permeates throughout the business’s attitude.
Where the company’s omnichannel presence has been particularly successful, specifically online, is in Western Europe. Hillarys set up Web-blinds, an e-commerce brand, to sell bespoke blinds to the internet market. So far the brand has been successful and looks set to provide further growth opportunities for the company over the next few years.
Growth clearly forms a core part of the company’s strategy and looking towards the future plans are in place to facilitate this. “We plan to invest in new facilities, including a new head office and expansion of our operational space to capitalise on the growth of the market.” As a market leader in window coverings, expanding its market share is the specific goal that can be achieved by this growth.
Hillarys Blinds Ltd
Products: Manufacturer of bespoke window coverings
Manufacturing Sites: Nottingham and Washington Tyne and Wear
Employees: 1200 (+900 self-employed agents)