School furniture firm boss does his homework to help Scottish arm be top of class
He may be from the north of England, born in Hull, and half-Italian, but in his role at the helm of the UK’s largest manufacturer of educational furniture, Gerard Toplass cites Scotland as scoring top marks in his list of priorities.
The chief executive of British Thornton, which in 2015 grew its market share to 15 per cent by merging with Claughton Office Equipment and Scotland’s EME Furniture, has robust ambitions for the latter.
Making and supplying furniture for education and healthcare, it started out as eme-Scotland in 1965, an offshoot of Oldham-based Educational And Municipal Equipment. It marked the first Scottish Development Agency factory on the Sanquhar Industrial Estate and part of the area’s regeneration after the decline in coal mining.
In 1969 it was bought by the Howland Furniture Group, and then acquired 40 years later by British Thornton, which has injected investment, and with Toplass seeing a real opportunity to make a mark.
“Everything I sell in Scotland ultimately I want to make in Scotland,” he states, aiming to create as many jobs as possible north of the Border.
The firm earlier this year outlined plans to double its factory’s workforce over the next three years to about 70 and turnover to £5.5 million in 2018, driven by the trebling of the size of its plant in Sanquhar with investment of £3m.
Toplass at the time described Scotland as “a crucial area for us so it was a natural step to make such a big investment… The expansion of this plant will allow us to substantially increase capacity in line with the increased demand we’re seeing from both the Scottish and wider UK market”.
He adds that his ambition for the firm, which has provided furniture for Robertson Construction’s £30m Harris Academy and Morrison Construction’s £20m Clyde Valley Campus, is to provide long-term sustainable employment for about 100 people. “That’s tough but I’d like to do it,” he explains, adding that he would like Scotland to be the group’s UK centre of excellence for classroom tables, which are the “A4 paper” of the industry. “We think we’ll have capacity to do 25 per cent of the UK’s requirement in classroom tables,” he adds, targeting production of between 100,000 and 150,000 a year.
This would be a jump from 40,000 currently, with plans for significant investment to help achieve the goal, aiming to build a “modern, automated plant in Scotland over the next few years”.
Toplass started his career as an accountant, in 1996 getting involved with a small computer business that he says over nine years grew from “literally two men and a dog” to employing just under 100 people.
Additionally, in the education space it both served as an internet service provider and offered a virtual learning environment, benefiting from an increased focus on information technology in the classroom, and such services provided him with “a real understanding of the school environment”.
His focus on the sector continued when he led a buy-in management buyout of Yorkshire-based educational and commercial furniture firm Claughton’s. “We thought, ‘Well, we’re going to go and grow this’, and off we went,” he says.
While the financial crisis put its aspirations in detention, “we just had to make sure we stayed in business and we grew very conservatively for a few years” but when the market changed in 2012 they decided to consolidate and expand into the education space.
Its first deal was merging with British Thornton, with Toplass saying he was attracted by the brand’s heritage “and it’s got some great products”.
It has developed a line called Trudy, “imaginative educational furniture” for the early years and primary sectors, “and that really set us apart from a lot of other companies”.
As for the group’s expansion north of the Border, he says that while it looks to hit the accelerator, “we have to do it step by step”.
He adds: “We are going to put the resources for Scotland in Scotland … investment will be based on people, jobs created, orders won, machinery and a move to new premises.”
Toplass is also a keen investor in the education and technology sectors, “because it’s where I can bring the most value,” and has noticed a reintroduction of capital projects focused on “the aesthetics of learning” and a move away from “chalk and talk” to a lot more collaboration in the classroom.
He states that furniture is having to adapt to the modern teaching environment, “which is great, because new innovative materials and designs are all-around supporting the teaching and learning experience”.
Born: 1969, Hull
Education: Hymers College, Hull
First job: Working in a café at BHS
Ambition while at school: To be a musician
What car do you drive? BMW 335D
Favourite mode of transport: Bike – Colnago
Music: Stone Roses
Reading material: Harry Potter
Can’t live without: My laptop
What makes you angry? Poor customer service
What inspires you? Good customer service
Favourite hobby: Scuba diving
Best thing about your job: The people I work with