Rupert Welch can trace the origins of his family business back to the Fifties, when his father, Robert, the respected designer and silversmith, set up a studio in the small corner of a run-down, disused silk mill in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.
He kitted out his office with nothing but a camp bed and drawing board.
It was a rather unpromising start for the man, whose name would go on to become a multi-million pound business that designs dining,
kitchen and homeware products.
“The mill was very cold,” remembers his son, who’s managing director of the company. “It was a tough environment, but he was passionate about trying to bring about change in the design world.”
Welch's father was working on some new designs for stainless steel cutlery, having discovered the rust-resistant material after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1955. The son calls it his father’s Eureka moment: “He realised that it was the material of the future; and he became a pioneer.”
But design was different then; the emphasis was always on the end product. “People who bought his products didn’t consider or understand the person who had worked tirelessly creating them,” explains Welch. “Like most designers at that time, most of dad’s design work was for other companies, which would manufacture products under their own name.”
However, at home, Welch and his sister, Alice, were starting to take note; atop the family dinner table was often a new prototype from the studio.
“As kids, we observed and absorbed those shapes and outlines,” remembers Welch. “It was a big influence on us. We’ve carried that appreciation of form and shape through to our work today.”
In the early Nineties, Welch and his sister, who’s now deputy MD and marketing director, joined their father’s firm.
“I mapped out a business plan,” says Welch, who believed that the company should have more control over bringing its designs to life. He put it to his father in 1993.
“He was skeptical, but the language I remember using was ‘taking control of our destiny’ – and by doing so, we could really build something.”
The idea was to control the process from nose to tail – from idea to end product. Everything would be brought in-house, including manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. “It meant that we could control and be the only ones to sell our unique designs,” explains Welch. “Looking back, it was quite a simple decision, but huge in terms of the company’s direction.”
Over the next 10 years, the company slowly, but surely, began to claw back control of the process.
“I learnt so much in that decade,” says Welch. “I did pretty much everything in those days, including packing boxes at 2am in the run-up to Christmas. I did whatever I had to do to help the business.” The garage became a warehouse full of stock, and the family would drive around with it in the back of their cars.
That experience is proving useful now, as Welch feels he can relate to every role at the 70 person-strong business. He’s walked in their shoes and understands their challenges. “Business owners have to understand their company inside out – every function,” he says.
“You have to touch each area in some way and understand what’s happening within it. Don’t just run the business from the top;
staff will respect you for it.”
In 2000, the company faced another key moment – the death of its founder, Robert Welch. His son remembers a particular moment before his father’s death. The company had just finished its first production run of some signature cutlery for Pizza Express.
He had just come back from the factory in Asia. “Dad wasn’t well at the time, so we rushed to the hospital,” he explains. “I showed him the product, which had his name on it.” It was the first cutlery pattern to be released under the Robert Welch brand. “It was the first product over which we had full creative control.”
Welch’s father died three hours later.
“That was a powerful moment," he remembers. "I think he could see that the business had a future." It was sad, of course, but poetic. “It was like he was handing over the baton. It was a special moment with a lot of meaning.
“You’re never ready for when your father passes away,” admits Welch. “For me, it was a moment of: ‘My goodness! I’ve got to pick up the reins’. I resolved a few contractual issues immediately, which freed us up in terms of our supply chain.”
It gave the business complete control of the process to take its design ideas all the way through to a finished product.
“Dad passing away allowed us to do that, because he had held us back slightly in that respect,” explains Welch. But he and his sister were determined to stick to their father’s core design principles: beautiful, elegant and highly-functional products.
Those principles have helped the business to register turnover of £14.5m last year, an increase of 5pc on the year before. As well as an online operation, the company has a physical presence, with two shops in Chipping Campden and Bath.
It also just won a Queen's Award for Enterprise in the Innovation category, for its signature knife block set, which has been designed with integrated sharpening and storage capabilities.
When it comes to product innovation, new technology has helped significantly, says Welch. The company, which still operates out of that original silk mill, has a full design team, with 3D printers, modelling technology and computer-aided design software.
“They’re always running,” he says. “The beauty is that you can
refine, adjust and tweak very quickly. We can run a single product through 10 or more variations, testing the extremes – we can push the boundaries.”
It marks a huge difference from when Welch Snr had to use human model-makers to test his concepts. “He had a great person, who would make models from his ideas,” remembers Welch. “They could play around with it, but most changes meant making a new model.
"Now, it’s at our fingertips. It keeps us nimble and fast.”