Tom Davies talks eyewear, designing glasses for Clark Kent, and moving his factory from China to Brentford
What do Ed Sheeran, Angelina Jolie, and Carrie Fisher, have in common? They’ve all worn spectacles created by luxury eyewear designer Tom Davies.
The entrepreneur’s designs are highly sought after. Not only does he count celebrities among his clientele, but his glasses have appeared on the big screen. In 2014, he was asked to design eyewear for Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
“I have a list of people I want to design glasses for, and number one on that list was Clark Kent. But I don’t go out courting celebs. They find me online or hear about me and they need glasses, so they go and buy Tom Davies.”
His glasses range in price from off-the-shelf at £295, to bespoke designs from £495, and go up to around £10,000. They’re firmly at the high-end of the market, compared to the high street retailers like Specsavers, which sells two-for-one glasses from as little as £69.
But Davies is incredulous that people would pay as little as that for something which they will wear day-in, day-out, for several years.
“People hate their glasses because anyone who spends just a few minutes choosing glasses that don’t fit properly, slip down their nose, leave marks, and don’t give them good vision is going to hate them. If you look at the average people spend on a takeaway coffee every day, it’s more than the per day cost of their glasses – but your glasses define you.”
From Hong Kong to home
Davies began his career in 1996 in Hong Kong, designing eyewear and machines to manufacture them. He established his own eyewear brand, TD Tom Davies, in 2002, and the company has expanded to around 200 staff, 400 stockists in the UK, and yearly turnover of around £8m, while growing at around 30 per cent a year. His glasses are sold around the world, through local stockists and opticians.
For most of the company’s history, the frames for Davies’ opticals and sunglasses were made in a Chinese factory in Shenzhen, which produces around 4,000 frames a month.
It’s not unusual for companies to offshore manufacturing, especially to Asia where production costs are – historically – significantly lower than in the west.
What is unusual – and may represent a fascinating bellwether for the future of UK manufacturing post-Brexit – is to bring production back to the UK capital. But that’s exactly what Davies has done, opening a factory in the west London town of Brentford last November.
“We looked at places all around London and as far out as Portsmouth. This building used to make fire extinguishers, and it’s a factory with a licence to do everything I need,” says Davies, showing me around the facilities, which include offices, sales training rooms, a rooftop bar, and one space dedicated to the founder’s extensive LEGO collection.
The decision to move production to the UK is looking increasingly shrewd. 2018 has seen the rumblings of a US-China trade war, with governments on both sides slapping tit-for-tat tariffs on goods. Replacing the Made in China label with one saying Made in Britain will be a boost for advertising the brand, especially to Americans (the company’s US business makes around £3m annual revenue).
The move also makes financial sense, given that China’s regulators are getting stricter, and costs of doing business there are going up.
“Made in Britain is great for the business. That’s an obvious reason (for moving production), but on its own, that wouldn’t be enough. There’s another big reason: finance. China isn’t cheap anymore.”
Davies explains that Shenzhen is now as expensive as Hong Kong, if not more so. He estimates that manufacturing costs in China will be on par with the UK in three to five years’ time, as salary expectations rise and the Chinese government enforces new rules and regulations.
“People think China’s like the Wild West, where you can do whatever you like, but it’s as strict as here, which is good. I’ve not run the business there any differently to how I’ve run it here, which some people thought was surprising, but now it makes perfect sense because that’s what they’re forcing everyone to do.”
A 20/20 vision of the future
Rome wasn’t built overnight, and neither is a successful factory. Davies spent 15 years building his Chinese facility, and gave himself a three-year window to open one in the UK and build it to be as strong as the other. The UK centre is gathering pace, and is already producing around 1,000 frames a month, slightly ahead of his expectations.
And thanks to the methods he developed in China, mixing handmade craft with automated machines (Davies shows me one that cuts out a frame from a strip of material in seconds), it’s now economical to manufacture the glasses here.
But Davies also moved production home for personal reasons.
“I’m tired of flying to China every month. It’s a pain in the bum. I do like travelling, but I’ve been doing that for over 10 years now, and there are other demands on my time.”
Reshoring production has also helped with supply-chain issues. Previously, Davies would design a collection, send it to China, and have to wait to see the result.
“If you develop things from afar, they’re just not as good. Here, I can develop a frame, give it to my UK production master, and have it back in the afternoon. One of the biggest advantages I’ve had with this factory is the quality of my collections and designs has gone up.”
Davies’ current plan is to get the factory up to speed and expand production, and then turn his eye abroad. He already has five flagship stores around London, including in the City’s Royal Exchange, but wants to expand his US business by opening a head office and two or three new stores in New York.
“I’d like to do something overseas, and America is the place to do it. I looked at places in Europe and was offered a place in Dubai, but I don’t know. We have more of an affinity with America and I understand Americans. I don’t really get Dubai or how it works there, but I’ve been running a business in the US for many years with hundreds of opticians buying my frames, and they love me. That’s somewhere I can go and do business.”
What’s most remarkable about Davies’ decision is how it turns upside-down some perceived wisdoms. China isn’t a low-cost production haven anymore – or at least won’t be for much longer. It’s possible to have a successful factory in London, not just in rural Britain.
Right now, the sentiment around UK manufacturing is marred with Brexit-related anxiety, with concerns (and threats) that big businesses will move their operations to mainland Europe or elsewhere. But Davies is living proof that with the right mix of creativity, manufacturing know-how, and boundless entrepreneurial ambition, there’s a bright future for UK production to flourish in a globalised world.
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