Denby Group plc
Denby Group plc
Denby, Derbyshire DE5 8NX
Telephone: ( + 44) 1773 740 799
Web site: http://www.denby.co.uk
Sales: £35.6 million ($50.82 million) (2000)
NAIC: 32711 Vitreous China, Fine Earthenware, and Other Pottery Product Manufacturing
Denby Group plc is the holding company for its two subsidiaries: Denby Pottery Company Ltd. and Denby USA Ltd. Denby Pottery, based through its 200-year history in Derbyshire, U.K., is primarily a maker of tableware designed for both casual and formal dining. Because it has included color, shape, and texture in its designs, it has earned a reputation for distinctness and has set itself apart from competitors that only stress pattern in their tableware design. In the UK, Denby operates six Factory Shops at outlet centers spread out from Sterling Mills in Scotland to Clarks Village in Somerset, and at its Visitor Centre in Denby also maintains a complex that, in addition to shops, includes a Cookery Emporium and museum. Denby also has a strong export trade, and in the United States distributes its products through its New Jersey-based subsidiary, Denby USA Ltd. The company, after having undergone several changes in ownership in the 1980s and 1990s, was acquired by its present owners through a 1999 management buyout backed by Phildrew Ventures, one of the U.K.’s leading management buyout specialists. The buyout returned the company to private ownership.
A Maker of Functional and Decorative Stoneware
The history of Denby Pottery begins in 1806, the year in which William Bourne, the company’s founder, was called on to examine a large clay deposit unearthed when workers were building a turnpike road between Alfreton and Derby in Derbyshire, a shire in a section of England rich in clay and coal deposits. At the time, London, Nottingham, and Derbyshire were the principal centers of the country’s pottery trade, producing both decorative salt glazed stoneware and more common and ordinary utilitarian containers. At the time he examined the new found clay, Bourne was a potter at the nearby Belper Pottery. He at once recognized the high quality and promise of the clay, and he began making plans to open a family pottery at the site of the discovery in Denby.
Bourne set up the new pottery in 1809, but rather than run it himself, he gave the task to his youngest son, Joseph, who was just in his early 20s at the time. The pottery was thus named Joseph Bourne. William’s faith in his son was well placed, for Joseph, operating from some small buildings at the clay bed site, soon had the new business thriving. Within a fairly short time, the pottery gained an international reputation for making quality stoneware.
At the time the Bournes founded the business, stoneware was a ubiquitous commodity, in wide use and more common than glass, which was still expensive to make. People used clay pots and other clay containers for holding and storing or preserving foods and such other items as ink and polish. Joseph Bourne was not just a copyist, however; he was an innovator as well, and over the years he patented many of his methods for firing pottery in the salt glazing kilns then in use.
Salt glazing was a common technique used for decorating stoneware in the 19th century. The method involved putting pieces on kiln embers when the maximum temperature was reached. In the process, salt vapor coated the stone ware and produced a glossy brown surface, the sort of coating still seen on earthenware bean pots.
During the next half century, the pottery at Denby continued to grow and prosper. It also remained a family enterprise. Sarah Elizabeth Bourne took charge of the pottery in 1869, when her husband, Joseph Harvey Bourne, died at a fairly early age. She would head the company for the next 30 years. During her tenure, the Denby pottery produced commercial and domestic pottery, still making salt glazed bottles and jars. It was during the later part of the century that glass became much cheaper to produce, making glass bottles less expensive than stoneware containers. The competition from glass companies forced potteries to diversify, to turn away from such old staples as ordinary earthenware bottles and jugs to produce other kinds of kitchenware as well as ornamental or decorative pieces. One key to the change involved a new technology for making color glazes. Early experiments with such glazes took place at Denby in the 1880s, still under the guidance of Sarah Bourne. In 1886, Denby started producing its Majolica pottery, its first color-glazed line.
Joseph Harvey and Sarah Bourne had no children, but each had a nephew, and upon Sarah’s death in 1898, the two nephews assumed control of the business. They jointly managed the pottery through the first few years of the new century.
Denby Adapts to the New Century
After Sarah’s nephew withdrew from the business in 1907, Joseph Bourne Wheeler, Joseph’s nephew, assumed sole proprietorship and control of the business. Until 1916, he ran it as his aunt and grandfather had before him, but in that year the firm was reorganized into a limited liability company with Bourne as governing director. It was a position he held until his death in 1942.
Because glassware had all but replaced stoneware for the utility of storing both foods and other items, through the first half of the 20th century Denby concentrated on making kitchenware, art, and decorative ware. The company installed new kilns and adapted new glazing techniques. It also developed lines of kitchenware, including Cottage Blue and Manor Green, destined to become classics and remain in production for several decades.
By the 1920s, Denby’s was producing functional kitchenware found in homes throughout the British Isles, including everything from pie dishes and jelly molds to colanders and hot water jugs. The company also made “Danesby Ware,” decorative vases, bowls, and tobacco jars, all stamped with that trademark. It continued to produce such pieces through the next decade as well, but some of its new lines of kitchenware, like Cottage Blue and Manor Green, had become more colorful. It also produced giftware lines that would later attract collectors, especially Electric Blue and Orient ware.
During World War II, limited in what they could obtain in the way of glazing stains, Denby produced only one line. It was dubbed “Utility Brown,” and it turned out many teapots and large bottles for use by servicemen. It also made industrial ware, including telegraph insulators. However, as soon as the war ended, Denby quickly returned to its peacetime business, making lines of very successful tableware that helped enhance the company’s reputation for making quality products. It also made a fine line of jugs, bowls, and chargers called Glynware in honor of their designer.
During the 1950s, the company made some major changes in its product line, becoming primarily a producer of tableware and placing far less emphasis on giftware. Its lines included cups, saucers, and plates. It continued to employ highly skilled designers, who, during the decade, produced such best-selling patterns as Greenwheat and Echo and Ode. Also, for the first time, Denby entered the U.S. market in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, the company continued to turn out excellent tableware sets, including Studio and Arabesque (renamed Samarkand in the United States). At the same time, the pottery placed increasingly less emphasis on giftware, although it would continue to make such items for the next couple of decades. However, through the 1960s, Denby concentrated on tableware design and expansion into overseas markets.
Denby Goes Public and Undergoes Ownership Changes
Denby held to the same focus throughout the 1970s. This period brought a revolution in oven-proof tableware, which allowed items to serve both as cooking and serving containers. The pottery designed and turned out pieces that could withstand high oven temperatures but were also handsome enough to grace most any dining table. Popular designs dating from the early 70s included Gypsy, Romany, and Troubadour Cotswold. During the same period, Denby underwent some significant changes in its organization and marketing strategies. In 1970, for example, it acquired its first U.S. distributing agent. That same year it also went public and floated its first stock offering on the London Stock Exchange.
By the early 1980s, the appeal of casual dining had notably increased in Denby’s markets, hence a key to design for its pottery became adaptability to both formal and informal dining. Lines such as Imperial Blue and Regency Green filled that need for flexibility and sold well. However, the 1980s were rough years for Denby. The company made some acquisitions that simply did not pan out, and the result was that Denby faltered, moving in and out of the marketplace three times. What suffered most was the company’s U.S. market.
In 1981, Crown House Engineering acquired Denby by purchasing the company’s stock. Under its new owners, the company focused primarily on tableware and cookware. In the Crown House group, Denby was just one of several sister tableware companies, including Edinburgh Crystal, Thomas Webb Crystal, Dema Glass, and George Butler Cutlery. Unfortunately for the pottery, Crown House made no significant investment in Denby, and the result was that Denby lost its market leadership and product design initiatives.
Today’s entertaining is all about relaxing with friends, and Denby helps you drop the formalities. Distinctive designs and sophisticated colours help you create just the right atmosphere, and reflect your own personal taste. And why shouldn’t you have the satisfaction of using quality products everyday? Denby tableware is exceptionally versatile and durable, and safe for use in the dishwasher, oven, microwave and freezer, giving years of continual use.
Until 1987, Denby Tableware had is own subsidiary in America, but in that year Denby was acquired by Coloroll, another U.K.-based company, and the distribution of its pottery in the United States, was undertaken by Georges Briard, and, thereafter, in the fall of 1989, by Cuthbertson Imports. The confusion that resulted from these changes did not help Denby’s reputation.
Denby Undergoes More Changes in Ownership
In June 1990, Coloroll went into receivership and began selling off the companies making up the conglomerate’s group. Denby’s Tableware was purchased by its own management, backed by 3i, an investment capital group, and was renamed Denby Pottery Co. Ltd. Denby’s managing director, Stephen Riley, and three associates, invested £140,000 for a 55 percent stake in the company, while 3i held the balance. At the time, Riley indicated that the company would continue to produce and supply the company’s tableware, giftware, and lighting products.
Although it had become an independent company, Denby Pottery had the same management that it previously had while in the Coloroll group. However, Riley believed that the firm’s independence would help it improve its service. Among other things, Denby assigned to another company, Morristown, New Jersey-based TamCon and Co., the exclusive U.S. distributorship of its products. Chuck Thompson, who had founded TamCon to market fine European home furnishing lines in the U.S., was determined to grow the distribution of Denby’s line. TamCon began maintaining a large inventory of Denby products in its warehouse in New Jersey for distribution through its dealer network. It also began looking for new marketing channels, targeting upscale department and specialty stores across the country. The company was also renamed Denby Pottery USA, with Thompson at its helm as president and CEO. Its mission statement, provided by the company, has been “to uphold the reputation of Denby Pottery Company in England by supplying the demanding American consumers with quality, innovative, and contemporary casual ware that reflects their changing lifestyle.”
In 1994, Denby again went public and floated a public stock offering sponsored by Robert Fleming & Co. By that time, Denby’s sales, since the 1990 buyout, had grown at an average annual rate of 25 percent, reaching £17.5 million in 1993. Furthermore, the company’s pre-tax profits increased at a rate of 70 percent, and in that same year had grown to £2.75 million. Denby’s plan was to use the proceeds from the sale of stock to pay off a £7 million debt, fund capital improvements, and finance overseas expansion. Specifically, the company wanted to expand its sales in North America and France.
By the mid 1990s, Denby Pottery had again emerged as one of the leading makers of casual china. It had also begun expanding not just its markets, but also its product line. In 1995, it purchased Wren Giftware, a five-year-old manufacturer of bone china cups. Denby put up an initial £1.3 million for Wren, which, at its facility in Stoke-on-Trent, employed just over 100 workers. Over the 12 months preceding its acquisition, Wren had reached £1.8 million in sales.
By 1995, Denby’s export trade had also grown significantly, reaching £8.13 million or 32 percent of its total sales. Its greatest showing was in the United States, where its sales reached £3.6 million, a 120 percent increase over the previous year. At the beginning of 1996, Denby’s lines in the United States were being sold in 873 department-store outlets and 881 independent stores. The company was also doing well in Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia. It had also entered a new market, in Japan, with promising initial sales. By 1996, partly as a result of its increasing foreign sales, Denby held nearly 10 percent of its casual china market niche, a strong showing considering the large number of competitors in that segment. Overall, it ranked fourth in the casual china market, tied with Lenox, but behind Mikasa, the Wedgewood Group, and Noritake.
- Clay seam is discovered during road construction at Denby.
- William Bourne oversees startup of salt-glazed pottery production and assigns his son, Joseph, the task of running the new business, then known as Joseph Bourne.
- Customs & Excise records list Denby as the largest producer of jars and bottles in Britain.
- The approximate year in which company is renamed Joseph Bourne & Son.
- Joseph’s son, Joseph Harvey Bourne, assumes control of the pottery.
- Sarah Elizabeth Bourne, widow to Joseph Harvey Bourne, assumes operational control of business.
- Sarah’s two nephews form a partnership and begin running company after her death.
- Partnership dissolves and Joseph Bourne Wheeler assumes sole control of the company.
- Joseph Bourne Wheeler dies.
- Crown House Engineering acquires Denby.
- Coloroll plc. acquires Denby from Crown House Engineering.
- Denby’s management, backed by three investors, buys out the company as Coloroll goes into receivership; TamCon and Co. is made Denby’s exclusive U.S. distributor.
- Company goes public and is floated on the London Stock Exchange.
- Company acquires Wren, a mug manufacturer.
- Company divests Wren.
- Another management buyout returns the company to private ownership, and the company is restructured as holding company with two subsidiaries.
Denby’s performance was in part credited to the superb design and value of its line. It had diligently worked to distance itself from competitors by its quality and lifestyle-conscious design. The company’s design signature was the color, shape, and texture of its ware rather than pattern. It also limited its lines to just 10 patterns, unlike competitors that typically introduced upwards of 20 patterns annually. At the same time, Denby did not enter any pricing wars with competitors. Its non-promotional, regularly priced line at retail outlets sold for between $85 and $105 for a five-piece setting, a hefty price tag more typical of formal bone china than casual dinnerware. However, at least in the United States, the cost did not seem to deter upscale department store customers.
Through the remainder of the 1990s, Denby made substantial investments in capital improvements. Among other things, it refurbished its facilities and upgraded equipment. Although still using “hand-throwing” techniques and skills, it also adopted state-of-the-art ceramic technology. Adjacent to the pottery, the company also opened its Visitor Centre complex which, in short order, became a major tourist attraction that by the end of the century was hosting 300,000 visitors a year.
However, in the latter part of the decade, sales in the company’s market were generally in a slump, and even though Denby’s sales were solid, its stock value steadily declined, and Denby had to take some major measures to buoy up its performance. Among other things, in 1998 it sold Wren Giftware to Churchill China for £875,000. Then, in 1999, through another management buyout, the company returned to the private sector and reorganized as Denby Group plc, a holding company with two subsidiaries: Denby Pottery Co. Ltd. and Denby USA Ltd. The MBO was backed by Phildrew Ventures, a British venture capital firm. Towards the close of 2000, in a strategy move designed to update its image, Denby Pottery began a major, £500,000 advertising campaign, featuring a new logo and an upbeat theme: “Today’s entertaining is all about relaxing with friends, and Denby helps you drop the formalities.” It was hoped that the new push would help restore the company’s good reputation and drive its sales to new levels.
Denby Pottery Co. Ltd.; Denby USA Ltd.
Brown-Foreman Corporation; Mikasa, Inc.; Noritake Co., Limited; The Pfaltzgraff Co.; Waterford Wedgewood plc.
Belmont, David J. “Denby Targets U.S. with New Products,” HFD-The Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, December 26, 1994, p. 38.
“Denby,” Investors Chronicle, December 15, 1995, p. 68.
Hopwood, Irene and Gordon, Denby Pottery, 1809-1997: Dynasties and Designers, Ilminster, Somerset, U.K.: Richard Dennis Publishers, 1997.
Hunter-Gadsden, Leslie, “TamCom Gets Denby Rights: Set As Sole U.S. Distributor of English Stoneware Line,” HFN The Weekly Newspaper for Home Furnishing Network, August 6, 1990, p. 57.
Kehoe, Ann-Margaret, “Denby Blazing a Path in China: Niche Vendor Grabs Its Share of Casual Market,” HFN The Weekly Newspaper for Home Furnishing Network, September 2, 1996, p. 35.
—John W. Fiero