The Victorian-era designer and tastemaker, William Morris said in 1880: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Birmingham-based Armac Martin has met this ‘brief’ perfectly ever since it was established in 1929 by Harold McGrail to make luxury brass fixtures and fittings for high-end interiors.
Now a fourth-generation family business the company has nonetheless had to adapt to survive and to preserve its hard won reputation, but in the process has won a Queen’s Award for international trade.
During the three-year award application period, Armac Martin doubled the countries to which it exports to 48 across five continents, with key markets in the USA, Canada, Australia, China, Norway and New Zealand. Overseas sales have grown by 42% over the period and the proportion of sales exported has increased to 49% of total sales.
Over the last two decades, ingenuity, investment and Instagram have helped grow sales and profile. Richard McGrail, commercial director and descendant of Armac’s founder, said: “We had exported reproduction antique cabinet hardware since the 1960s and it was a massive market but when it went into decline in the 1990s we had to change.
“So over the last 20 years we have changed our products, invested heavily in technology to be able to meet rising demand and to reduce lead times to give us a competitive edge. We have also overhauled our export operation.
“Critically, over the last five years we have ramped up our marketing and embraced social media and we’ve seen some steep growth during those years. Using Instagram has improved our image and we are now appealing to both the consumer and trade. People are finding us rather than us having to go and knock on as many doors.”
The company’s US presence has also been helped by Utah’s Studio McGee championing their kitchen hardware in their hit Netflix show Dream Home Makeover.
Richard added: “We had a collaboration with Studio McGee who had one million Instagram followers before their TV programme and more than doubling afterwards and that exposure really helped us. The US is a huge market for us and the growth potential there is huge.”
Armac Martin’s export strategy was based around increasing its network of dealer showrooms in North America and now numbers more than 100. Embracing modern ways of marketing hasn’t meant any compromise on quality, however.
Richard said: “A core strength of ours is that we design everything in-house, the lion’s share of our manufacturing is done on site and we also do our own market-leading finishing that really differentiates us from our competitors. There are cheaper products out there, but our products are high-end and designed and made in Great Britain which for many is so desirable.”
Winning a Queen’s Award will bring further credibility to the brand which in turn will help drive sales, but it also throws up new challenges as the company looks to expand its range to include mirror surrounds, shelf brackets, wine glass holders and bathroom fittings. As has been the case for nearly a century, it’s not just about sales for Armac Martin, it’s about ensuring the balance between quality and output is right.
“Although we’ve had to increase production over the last three years, we don’t want our growth to be too fast,” said Richard. “We want this to last and it’s vital that the quality remains and we avoid any reputational damage. So it’s about being efficient and streamlined and bringing more technology into the business and drive the right change in the factory at the right time.”
Richard and his family feel the Queen’s Award is a real testament to the work and dedication of each and every individual at Armac Martin because they are champions of British manufacturing. In a city long known as the Workshop of the World its skilled craftspeople are not only flying the flag for the country but continuing to do so for Birmingham too.
Richard said: “They have real pride in what they do and real pride in this award and know that this will help propel the brand for years to come. Our heritage is immensely important and we are thrilled to add this accolade to our rich history of achievements.”