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This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the UK’s leading wallpaper and paint specialist Graham & Brown. Founded by childhood friends Harold Graham and Henry Brown, the business has been family-run from its headquarters in Blackburn, Lancashire since 1946. Grandson, Andrew Graham MBE discusses the importance of community and being agile as a company over the past year.
GRAHAM & BROWN IS CELEBRATING 75 YEARS THIS YEAR. WHAT’S THE SECRET OF THE COMPANY’S LONGEVITY?
You have to go back to the start of the story of its founders Harold Graham, who was my grandfather and Henry Brown. They worked for another wallpaper company before they began Graham & Brown, here in Blackburn, Lancashire in the North of England, so wallpaper was already in their blood. John, our chairman, who is Henry Brown’s grandson, reminds us that Harold and Henry started to decorate people’s rooms here in Lancashire for a pound on weekends, including all labour and materials. That’s how they raised the money to buy their first machine in 1938. I think the simple answer is that it’s about hard work and enjoying what you do, they go hand in hand. You can’t really plan to last 75 years. If you tried to think about lasting that long you’d probably fail. I’ve been working in the business for about 30 years, John, our chairman has been in the business closer to 45 years – he joined at 16 – and it’s just in our blood. We love what we do and go day by day.
IS THERE SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT A FAMILY BUSINESS THAT WORKS?
Yes and no. If you talk to anyone in a family or joint family business, there are difficulties as well as good things and we’ve had our fair share of both. Relationships need managing whether you’re family or not. Whether you’re falling in or out, I think everybody’s thinking long-term – that’s possibly the difference. If I think about this business, the stakeholders, our colleagues, I’m thinking in 10-year cycles of investments. It’s not short-term. Everything that we care about is in this business, so we invest in it.
RIGHT NOW, WE TALK A LOT ABOUT COMMUNITY AND KINDNESS AND WHAT IS LOCAL. IS THAT SIGNIFICANT TO THIS BUSINESS?
Hugely. If you look at some of the problems with the generation that we’re now in and the world our kids are growing up in, you know everything instantly across the world. But if you went back to my grandfather’s day or even my fathers’ day, you concentrated on your local community. I realise it’s a bit of a cliché to say that charity and wellbeing begins at home, but it’s true. We employ people in this business who’ve been here for a long time. There are more than 10 people who’ve been with us for over 40 years and 50 people who’ve been with us for more than 20 years. We are involved in various projects locally to put back into our community. We’re currently in our 10th year of being a founder patron of a youth zone charity that looks after young people in our area, particularly important at the moment – helping with education outside of school to get into positive activity to drive self-esteem. We’re very proud of where we live and where we come from and that resonates through the business.
When you talk about businesses having a responsibility to a community, whether that’s through social, economic or environmental issues, I think local business can change the world from their small perspective. If we can affect 500 families then they can affect another 500 and so we move on. You start with your own patch.
HAS THE LAST YEAR TAUGHT YOU A LOT ABOUT LEADERSHIP, TEAM SPIRIT AND COMPROMISE?
From a leadership point of view, it’s been the most fascinating, educational year that we’ve all been through. Leadership is a really interesting subject and a passion of mine, and it’s something I look at across many industries, sport, business, political and social leadership. I was getting up every day, unable to sleep and reading everything I could waiting for our daily 8.30am meeting with the senior team. I learned very quickly that all I could do was coordinate and facilitate a response by listening to people and making sure that we were talking through everything and then creating an opportunity for people to agree and move forward. Making small, good decisions on a daily basis is what got us through. I’d often go into a meeting and say: ‘what do people think, how are you feeling, what’s going on?’ and we treated it very simply and listened to people. And then, luckily our sector is one of those that came out of a difficult first few months like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle with a lot of pent-up demand. But it’s been difficult to keep up and keep everyone safe. We weren’t making decisions on the basis of business performance, but decisions based on helping our community of people.
AS IT TURNED OUT, YOURS IS ONE OF A HANDFUL OF INDUSTRIES THAT HAS BOOMED IN THIS PERIOD. WHAT HAVE YOU NOTICED IN TERMS OF TRENDS?
We did some research across the year and turns out that 94% of people during lockdown actually thought DIY was good for their mental health. You can understand it. In a world where we have so little control the only thing we had control over was our home environment, which has become the most important thing to us as a society. Firstly, people have fallen back in love with their homes – they’ve had to – but also there’s a whole generation of younger people who are recognizing that doing stuff for themselves in their homes is good for them. In terms of products, the searches for wallpaper increased 124%, which is off the chart and the searches for office wallpaper increased by 60%. That of course plays to the fact – and you see it on Pinterest and Instagram – that people were having to designate a part of their home to work in. In certain homes there are three or four people having to work, so decoration has become a source of segmentation as well. In terms of trends, several have really stood out. Bringing the outside in and lots of florals and palms and energetic designs. And in terms of colours: we’re seeing that people are getting braver in their choices, particularly around paint, but in paper as well. Lots of deeper, richer shades such as greens and blues.
ARE YOU FEELING OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE YEAR AHEAD AND WHAT WILL YOU TAKE FORWARD AS PERMANENT CHANGES WITHIN THE BUSINESS?
Even before COVID hit we were feeling pretty optimistic because the whole boom of social media has been allowing the consumer to understand design and colour better than ever, and then share it. That’s creating demand and interest in home design trends, but it’s also creating confidence. So, everything we’re doing in the customer journey is about helping you to feel more confident. We’ve developed an app, which enables you to point a camera at your wall and show you the wallpaper on your wall and even the four colours of paint that could go with it. Also, our products are now easier to apply and take off – wallpaper that’s fully strippable.
The paint and the wallpaper are low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) – that’s important to us. We want our homes to look great, but we also need it to feel good and not impact adversely on the planet. We are investing in tech even more so, around digital in terms of how we connect with our customers and also how we print things products such as large scale murals. A lot of our new product is to be printed on demand, which means less waste. By April 2022 all of our electricity will be from renewable sources so that immediately takes about 30% out of our carbon footprint – that’s a massive step for us. The aim is to work with our in-house group and also with experts and work out how quickly we can do it for the benefit of the planet as well as our business. All of our business decisions now have a sustainability question before we move forward.