It would be difficult to think of a more appropriate ambassador for the gift and home industry’s trade association than Widdop Bingham director Andrew Illingworth, who is the new chairman of The Giftware Association (GA).
After completing a business studies’ course at Leeds Polytechnic, Andrew spent a year working for the jewellery company owned by Gerald Ratner – who, coincidentally, also employed previous GA chairman, Michael Sweeney.
“It gave me a feel for retail and the customer service element of business,” says the man who is now sales director of Oldham-based Widdop Bingham, from where he manages and supports 12 regional reps – who cover the whole of the UK and Ireland – and handles three national accounts.
It was in 1980 that he left Ratners after being invited by his father to run George Makins, an old-established business which Widdop – originally a jewellery and watchmakers’ enterprise – had taken over.
“It was one of several wholesale jewellers in Shudehill, Manchester,” says Andrew. “The area was a little like the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. Makins had 25 people selling jewellery, crystal, clocks, fancy goods and leather and associated products.”
He recalls that it was the year after Margaret Thatcher came to power. “In the early Eighties we had a very similar trading platform to what we have today. There were all sorts of reasons not ‘to do’ or ‘to do’ as there are now. Industry was at the crossroads. We had just come out of the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ and the miners’ strike and Falkland Islands’ invasion were around the corner.
“Massive redundancies were being announced in the traditional industries – textiles, coal mining, steel and the car industry. Interest rates were going sky high and the pound was being devalued.
“But the Tory government were new and energised and Mrs Thatcher was determined. The gift trade – which was born out of fancy goods – was on the cusp of change. At that time, Widdop was sourcing most of its product from the UK, but many of the traditional companies we dealt with then in Sheffield and Birmingham, who made silver and silver plate, have long since disappeared.”
Andrew says that Widdop’s jewellery business also saw its margin eroded through heavy discounting and customers sourcing product themselves.
“We had to widen our portfolio. Necessity is the mother of invention so, looking to margin opportunity, we went to the Far East to source product, have control of the supply and create our own identity and brands.”
The strategy paid off. Today, the company is one of Britain’s most successful and respected importers of gifts and homewares.
And the “feel for retail and the customer service element” that Andrew acquired while working for Mr Ratner has clearly helped it gain recognition in the shape of the awards it has received for its dealings with customers.
He cites the milestones of his 32 years with Widdop Bingham as its continual investment in IT and systems’ support, coupled with the creation of an infrastructure – buying and developing buildings – that enables the company to grow its business. But what of the state of today’s UK gift and home industry?
Says Andrew: “There is enormous pressure on consumers through utility bills and the cost of filling up their cars. That is definitely hitting the high street. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the capacity of people to mark Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, weddings, christenings and so on.
“And additional business has certainly fed through from America for relatively ‘new occasions’ such as graduation and Halloween. We are supporting all of these opportunities with product and our retailers are reaping the benefits.”
He believes that the biggest impact on the gift and home industry in recent years has been the internet – and the sales it generates – and the ambition of supermarkets, which are increasing their square footage to provide a range of products that appeal to everyone.
While Widdop Bingham does not sell to end-users directly from its own website – it’s a business-to-business tool – he believes that many bricks-and-mortar retailers who do not use the internet are missing the opportunity to grow.
“I think that is very regrettable. Some are etailing extremely successfully. There is no rule about not having a shop and a great website. Lots of retailers do it.”
Indeed, during his chairmanship of The GA Andrew aims to draw more exclusively etail companies into the association. “Many are high quality businesses – a maturing breed – who are unrepresented by a trade body. We would be able to offer them so much support in many different ways.”
And, given his enthusiasm for the internet, it comes as no surprise that he would like to create another revenue stream for The GA by developing sponsorship opportunities on the association’s website.
“It attracts such significant traffic that, in my view, it’s a no-brainer. I am sure we will be exploring ways to achieve this in the coming months.”
The GA is delighted to have Andrew Illingworth at its helm for the next two years. His experience and go-ahead approach will be invaluable as the gift and home industry faces unparalleled challenges.
As for Widdop Bingham, the dynasty endures.
Andrew is married to Suzie and they have three children – 21-year-old Ben, who is at university, and two daughters, art college student Gemma, who is 19, and Jessica, 17, who is sitting her GCSEs.
And while the gift and home industry does not beckon for them, at the moment, the baton is already destined to pass to a safe pair of hands.
Stephen, the son of managing director Stuart Illingworth – Andrew’s brother – is ensuring that, in his role of business development manager, Widdop Bingham maintains its competitive technological edge.