Loughlin Joseph

Benchmark furniture’s Sean Sutcliffe on crafting success

Benchmark founder Sean Sutcliffe talks about Conran, furniture, and the happiness principle in building a successful craft business…

for Hole & Corner

Featured image: Benchmark founder Sean Sutcliffe. Photo by Sam Walton.

Sometimes it’s easy to get taken in by appearances. But when Sean Sutcliffe turns up at the Dorset woodworking factory he owns, what’s most noticeable is how little the staff react. No one jumps to attention or starts ‘looking busy’. The fact is, they’re busy already, but there’s an easy humour to the place – one that is hard to fabricate for the benefit of journalists and photographers. (And believe us, it’s pretty obvious when staff aren’t thrilled about journalists arriving on a factory visit.)

Image courtesy of Sam Walton

So it’s heartening to find that, when asked about the success of Benchmark, the furniture company he set up with Sir Terence Conran almost 30 years ago, Sutcliffe diverts the conversation. ‘I measure success in our business by a very intangible thing,’ he says. ‘It’s sort of the gross collective happiness of the workforce. The collective desire to come to work. That’s my personal success. When the workshop’s working happily, then things get made without mistakes; they get made quicker and smoother. That’s what success looks like to me: smiling faces in the workshop.’

Of course, he would say that. ‘That’s a trite answer,’ Sutcliffe admits, ‘because that doesn’t just happen on its own. You get a happy workshop by considering every aspect: their training, their understanding of quality and of where I’m coming from. So if I don’t explain stuff, how on earth can they play their part?’

So: where is Sutcliffe coming from? The short answer is that he has challenged the received wisdom that saw small designer makers producing high-value commissions as the future for the modern British furniture-making industry. Instead, he developed a tree-to-table production line ethos, delivering small runs of innovative furniture, made by a workforce of craftsmen (sold initially through Heal’s and the Conran Shop). And, from the very start, there was something else that set him apart: Sutcliffe was dedicated to sustainability in every aspect of his business.

Having rubbed shoulders with Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) as a student, Sutcliffe found himself inspired to think about his approach to woodmaking. ‘Right from day one when we started Benchmark, I perhaps rather arrogantly said, “We’re never going to use tropical timbers.” People thought I was completely wacko. They’d say, “What do you mean? Wood grows on trees!”’ It wasn’t simply that they didn’t believe his warnings about deforestation – they didn’t even know what it was. But, despite the initial blank looks of indifference, Sutcliffe has the satisfaction of having seen the world come round to his way of thinking.

His commitment to sustainability has, he says, contributed hugely to the success of his business, but he’s neither preachy nor evangelical. Instead he has the quiet authority of one who knows he’s going about his work in the right way. He’s less concerned about selling the values he cares about to the outside world than he is about convincing his own staff, ‘Because it’s in the business that we can make the change. But luckily, craftsmen by their very nature are caring people.’

Image courtesy of Sam Walton

For Sutcliffe, sustainability isn’t simply a question of the type of wood he sources or ensuring that forests are replanted. It’s in the DNA of everything Benchmark does as a business. And of course, his approach is the very opposite of the built-in obsolescence you find in so many modern products. ‘It’s almost by default that if you make something well, then it will last a long time,’ says Sutcliffe. ‘I am pretty shocked by a lot of furniture that I see, and I think, “Well that’s not even going to last three years – it’ll be on the scrapheap!”’

But it goes further than that. Sustainability is also at the heart of his commitment to a localised, rural workforce; in a self-supporting business plan that sees profit as a means rather than an end – and in a unique approach which is noticeable as soon as you arrive at the factory. ‘People see logs in our yard and go, “Woah! I hadn’t realised you started with trees!”’ says Sutcliffe. ‘You think, “Well what else did you think we start with?”’

But of course, he understands exactly what they mean. ‘If we’re making a family of furniture, we like it to all come from the same tree. Or if we’re making a tabletop, I like it to come from boards that were next to each other, which you can only do if you have the whole tree.’ Besides, where else can you potentially pick your own tree trunk out in the yard and see it come out as a chair a couple of hundred metres further down?

A design prize of a travel bursary, won in the 1980s, saw him go on a fact-finding mission to Denmark, something that has had a lasting effect on him. ‘Lots of things inspired me about Denmark,’ he says. ‘The way they revere artisanship. The way they value skilled manual labour. It’s shocking how little regard we have for it in this country.’

He was also struck by how the Danes located factories in rural areas, as opposed to the British approach of locating industrial parks on the edge of larger towns, ‘And therefore those places become horribly soulless.’ As a country boy at heart, this is something he feels strongly about. ‘Skilled employment in rural areas is something we lost in this country at some stage, I don’t know when,’ Sutcliffe laments. He is fiercely proud to have staff who’ve stayed at Benchmark for over 20 years. ‘I think that if you can employ people close to where they live; take on apprentices from the local schools, so they only have to travel a few miles to get to work, you’re infinitely more likely to keep those staff. And that came from the Danish model.’

Image courtesy of Sam Walton

Someone else who Sutcliffe met during his student days has also been vital in the Benchmark story. While studying carpentry and cabinet-making at Parnham College in Dorset, Terence Conran came down as a visiting lecturer, and the two struck up what was to become a lasting friendship. ‘We got chatting and he said that he had an old stable block that he used to use as the headquarters of Habitat Designs, and wasn’t doing anything, and what was I doing when I finished being a student?’

Sutcliffe went to visit the site in Berkshire – and that was that. ‘I think it was at the end of that very first day, he just said, “OK, let’s do it! Work out how much money you need.” I went away and did my sums down to the penny, and I needed £7,000; which did seem to me like a lot of money. But he said OK, and we set up the workshop on £7,000. And that’s the only money that he or I have ever put in. Everything we’ve done; the buildings, the machinery, the equipment, the people – it’s all been retained profits.’

This, more than anything, is key to Sutcliffe’s holistic take on sustainability – and on establishing ‘a business that cares’. Neither Conran nor he has ever taken dividends out of the business. As he reasons, ‘If shareholders’ sole interest is taking profit out of a business, I don’t see where the reinvestment comes in. We just keep growing the business with whatever money it makes. I see profit like I see electricity: I don’t think about it until it’s not there. It’s really important that we have electricity in the business, because nothing runs without it. But as long as it’s there, we don’t give it a moment’s thought.’

Image courtesy of Sam Walton

It was Conran who instilled in him a basic respect for the company’s money and told him to ask himself if he would spend it if it was his own – ‘If the answer’s yes, then spend it. That’s a pretty good rule.’ He also taught Sutcliffe that you’ll never regret doing things properly (‘It may seem like more effort at the beginning, but it’s always worthwhile’). Any other advice from his great mentor? ‘Yes: never shag the staff. So far I’ve managed that!’ As company philosophies go, that seems a pretty sound one. ‘I’m not sure that Benchmark has a philosophy,’ says Sutcliffe, getting serious for a moment. ‘We’re not that thought out! We make furniture; we don’t philosophise. But the things that drive me are not the things that normally drive businesses. I’ve never been avaricious. It’s always been about making.’

The toughest part of his role, he says, is in establishing a route to market. ‘There a lots of brilliant craftsmen who are fantastic at making things,’ he says. ‘But that in itself won’t make a business. If I’ve been lucky in one thing, it’s that somehow I had an ability in the making but I could also get my head around the business. That is a rarer quality: to be a craftsman who can sell what they make. Because if you can’t do that, you can make all you like, but it’s just going to sit in your shed.’

He may not be one to philosophise or evangelise, but then he doesn’t need to. It’s there in everything he does, in every aspect of his business – and in the passion he puts into the tiniest detail. ‘When someone buys a piece of furniture from us, they’re not just buying a chair or a table,’ he says. ‘They’re buying a story. They’re buying into the lives of all those apprentices who’ve grown up in the studio; they’re buying a sustainable employment practice; a workshop that employs a lot of people in a rural area… it’s a whole story that they fall in love with.’

Originally published by Hole & Corner, reposted here as a portfolio item. See the original work.

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