One of the most famous names in Preston's rich manufacturing history, furniture firm Plumbs, is celebrating 50 years in business this year. DAVID COATES met managing director Sarah Page to find out how what is happening on its anniversary

SARAH Page's earliest memory of life at work is joining her grandfather on his Blackburn market stall.

She remembers: “I was about 11 years old and my job was to count the money up, which was all in old pennies back then, and if there was enough there, we could go and see Manchester City at Maine Road.

“To be honest, I think we were always going to go and see the football, but I was always told that we would only go if we had made enough!”

Now in her 26th year in the business, having officially started aged 18, she is managing director of furniture firm Plumbs, one of the best-known names in Preston manufacturing.

The company was set up back in 1953 on that market stall selling cushion covers by her grandparents, Bernice and Tom, and remained that way until Sarah’s father, Geoff, discovered a variety of man-made stretch fabrics being produced by the Jewish community in Manchester.

He saw the potential of these fabrics which were sent out to hundreds of women to sew in their own homes and, 35 years ago, Plumbs opened its first showroom shop.

That quickly snowballed into the launch of a mail order service, nationwide advertising campaigns and by the 1970s, Plumbs had mor than 90 shops from the south of England to the tip of Scotland.

It had more than 1,000 employees working everywhere from Salmon Street, off London Road, to Oyston Mill down on Strand Road, before making the move in 1972 to Brookhouse Mill in Ashton where it remains today.

Things are quite different these days, employing nearer 320 people, Plumbs gets more than a quarter of its orders for products from loose furniture covers to custom-made curtains through the internet, but one thing remains – this is a family business.

Sarah says: “I would come and work in this business for free every day, I tell my husband that, and he cannot understand that, but I own a part of this, everyone who works here does.

“It is a family business and even though Plumbs is the name on the sign, we have people here now who are the grandchildren of people that worked for us years ago, so it is not just our family business, it is theirs too.”

As I arrive at Plumbs headquarters, news of the demise of another family-run firm, historic Chipping chair-makers HJ Berry and Sons, is starting to filter through.

The people working to salvage whatever is left of that famous, old firm say that cheap exports from the Far East were a major factor in its demise, but Plumbs has no plans to change its long-standing values of traditional British craftsmanship.

“We could have looked at outsourcing to China, a lot of businesses have, and a lot are going under because of the competition from there, but we are proud of our craftsmanship and, more importantly, so are our customers,” explains the MD.

“Our customers are of an older generation and still place an importance on the quality and work which you would not get by shipping work out.

“Here we operate in a traditional Northern mill environment, not an out-dated one but one where we know exactly what is going on and we can respond quicker to what our customers want – you would not get that in Far East.”

At the moment, Plumbs is enjoying a boom in sales for its reupholstering service, which can give that favourite settee or chair we all have a new lease of life, and are already doing 50 orders a week with an expectation that will double by the autumn.

This service does not just save you money; it also taps into the new ‘green’ psychology of cutting down the ten million pieces of unbroken furniture sent to landfill every year.

But, with the disposable mentality of today’s society, will there always be this kind of customer to keep Plumbs going?

“I think so,” says Sarah, “that generation which does still have a value for things will bring that into the next generation.”

A major part, she adds, in bringing back this mentality is the ability of British manufacturing to blow its own trumpet, and not allow stories such as the demise of HJ Berry give the impression it is a dying trade.

When the managing director here at Plumbs looks through her suppliers list, she has no doubt there is still plenty of manufacturing left in Lancashire and equally that the next generation is there to keep it alive.

“My daughter is knocking on the door already”, she laughs.

“We have a product here which is very successful, I cannot sit here and predict what is going to happen in the next ten years, but do I believe we have a strong future here? Yes, I do.”

Just like that first day she counted those pennies for her grandfather down on Blackburn market, the next generation is coming through – and another chapter in the Plumbs tale begins.

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