As a fourth generation family business, the family of innovators at The Fine Bedding Company have spent more than 100 years investing in better bedding. Woven in the finest luxury materials, and responsibly manufactured in their European Eco-factory, their bedding is premium quality and made to last. A certified B-Corporation, Paul Andrews met the next generation to lead the business, Claire Watkin, to find out more and gain a better understanding of the substance behind the sustainability of this pioneering family firm.
The business was started in 1912 by the Great, Great Grandfather of the current generation as a small family company originally supplying large cruise liners and ships, before focusing on developing luxurious, solution-based bedding products. Claire’s father, Paul Black had worked for the family business since age 16. It was producing the feathers to be used in mattresses that were sold to the liners docked in Liverpool and Paul was afforded the opportunity to purchase this part of the business and he took it and the business grew from there.
As Claire explains, “They developed the business and the customer base and by 1977 the business was supplying the likes of John Lewis, as we still do today, building the business on strong family values and relationships and customer service at the core. This is very much the essence of who we are today with a focus on people at all levels and delivering a great experience too. It began and remains a passions, local and community based brand.”
As a fourth generation British business with over 100 years of innovation behind them their united purpose at work is simply to create bedding that is better for people, better for businesses and better for the planet, something that will resonate with others working in family businesses around the world.
As the current leader of the business, Claire followed her own dreams before entering the business. As she explains, “I graduated with a degree in marketing and was considering what I wanted to do, not sure if it was going to be with the family firm or not, but knew that I loved to travel and was thinking about what I was going to pursue as a career.”
Her father had developed the business and invested in its future which included the opening of a new state-of-the-art production facility in Estonia by this time, and it was the opportunity to travel and get involved in an operational capacity that resulted in Claire joining the business. “I took the role and was involved in the operational side in Estonia,” continues Claire. “We were supplying products to IKEA at this time and there were regular factory visits which I oversaw and made sure that operationally we were delivering quality products day in and day out.”
At the same time there was a move from an old cotton mill in Oldham to their current head office in Manchester which is where they continue to grow, innovating products and building the narrative of the business into their brand. Sustainability is also firmly on the agenda as Claire continues. “We want to do business the right way and take pride in the approach we have to people and the planet. Obtaining the B-corporate accreditation was fantastic as it cemented our approach to business and the way that we do things and recognised all of the endeavours we have made over the years to produce quality products the right way too.”
This is a business that cares, and is not standing still as they seek to continually make improvements from sourcing better cotton to developing fully recyclable products, developing new materials that are kinder to the planet but retain excellent qualities to provide the perfect night’s sleep, and focus on the factory to embrace all of the latest technology available to minimise the impact they have on the environment.
As Claire explains, “There is only one planet and we take our responsibilities seriously. We want to make products that customers love but in making them, make sure what we do it as beast we can. We have changed the way that traditionally products like ours have been made and pride ourselves on a zero waste factory, making use of 100% renewable energy in production and pushing boundaries in terms of what is actually possible to do too.”
New products continue to be introduced and enhancements made in what is clearly an innovative business. Recent introductions include a duvet made from a biodegradable fillings combined with Tencel, made from wood pulp. These are products that will stand the test of time and are setting new standards within their industry too.
Claire is passionate about the sustainable agenda and one of the focus areas of her degree was ecology and biology and as she explains, “I joined the family business to continue the legacy of a business set up all those years ago but with a real desire to change the way that we made things for the better. I wanted to push the boundaries and to see where we could get and introducing a fully recyclable duvet proves that we are doing just that and positively contributing to a fully circular economy and that means a lot.”
Things have changed in a relatively short time too. “Back in 2014 all of the waste from the factory was going into landfill but now we are a zero waste business and we achieved it step-by-step over time, which is a massive achievement for us,” she adds. “Our team are all bought into the vision and our unified purpose and values have been embedded in all of our staff and they all help us in making things better too. Our culture has meant that everyone has a role to play and that they understand how their role feeds into the bigger picture and our overall purpose and that is the strength of who we are as a family business today,” continues Claire.
Sustainability is such a big topic and something that Claire is fully appreciative of. “Family firms like ours want to make a difference and fundamentally have a desire to do business the right way, but it is not always that easy. There are so many rules and regulations that businesses need to comply with that there is not always enough time in the day to focus on the bigger topics, like sustainability, and there is not always a lot of practical information available to help either. We focused on small steps, making a difference at each and every step and over time have moved progressively further down the road to doing business better,” adds Claire.
Initiatives that have worked well for this family firm include reducing energy consumption, selling waste, developing products that last longer and pursuing the B-Corporation accreditation, something that many family firms have embraced too.
“The accreditation itself is a real journey and a learning curve but it helped as we gained engagement from the whole team across all areas of the business. It was the glue to our purpose and ensured that over time we all became like-minded and passionate about the way we do things, and the purpose-oriented culture is not only good for business but has helped with recruitment too,” explains Claire.
The past few years have not been easy for anyone in business and the ongoing challenges around the economic climate continue to have an impact too but like many running a family business time is one of the major challenges today. “There are so many exciting opportunities for a business like ours and with an ongoing changing retail environment there are just not enough hours in the day to do them all! For us, it is all about doing new things and doing what we currently do better, not trying to do everything at once,” she continues.
This is a family business that has family at the very core. Claire is one of five daughters and has three nieces and seven nephews, with two children herself, so there is a next generation in the pipeline too. “The next generation are young so who knows what the future holds but they have already shown diverse skills, some in retail and some in embroidery so there are some attributes to the way their careers are starting out that may well fit the needs of the business at some time in the future,” adds Claire. “They are all encouraged to follow their own dreams, as I did, so let’s wait and see when it comes to the next generation too,” she concludes.
As with all family business leaders, roles change over time too and for Claire it is easy to see how. She has overseen the creation of a family firm embedded with family values, unified and shared purpose and created a team that are aligned in their thinking, ambition and drive to succeed. For Claire, the time is now to help drive and shape the next phase of their journey with team members who are empowered to drive change, encouraged to try new things and excited to see where the business can go next. This is a family business with a visionary leader, exceptional products and an aligned team who continue to make change happen.
With sustainability and innovation embedded in their culture too, they are set to continue to push boundaries and remain pioneers too, continuing to develop fantastic products that enable us all to get a good night’s sleep time and time again.
We look forward to seeing the next stages in their journey as it unfolds.
Find out more at www.finebedding.co.uk