Bed firm’s giant steps in ‘land of the dinosaurs’

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FEW firms have innovation embedded in their business quite like bed-maker Harrison Spinks.

From its mattresses’ springs to its beds’ solid wooden frames, it has pioneered new products and processes, patenting them along the way.

Without its relentless quest to develop and innovate, the Leeds-based company admits its story of success could easily be very different.

“We are in an industry that we consider is in the land of the dinosaurs,” said business development manager Richard Naylor. “If you sit still in a market that’s declining, you’re going to decline with it.”

Instead, Harrison Spinks is defying convention in a largely traditional industry to deliver growth amid dire markets. Innovation is “absolutely everything”, said Mr Naylor. This relentless drive to innovate earned Harrison Spinks the Innovation of the Year award, sponsored by power station operator Drax. The judges said the company can “really go places”.

Rather than simply buying components from overseas suppliers, Harrison Spinks owns or controls much of its supply chain. It increasingly makes or grows its components in a process known as “vertical integration”.

The firm’s serious innovation started 15 years ago when Harrison Spinks began making its own mattress springs. The pocket spring devised by managing director Simon Spinks proved a hit, and the firm made a substantial sum selling the global rights.

That success encouraged Mr Spinks to go a step further, building its own machinery to make the springs. The company now uses computer design to develop its constantly evolving technology. About eight of its 300 staff work solely on innovation, constantly looking for new patents.

Five years ago the company developed a low-height ‘pocket spring’, which could be crammed into much thinner mattresses. “What it achieves is a lot of comfort and not very much height.”

Harrison Spinks’s latest advance is a tie-up with car seating giant Johnson Controls, which should see its low-height springs installed in car seats from 2015.

The firm believes this manufacturing advance will appeal to an increasingly environmentally-aware consumer, allowing it to replace foam cushioning with springs. “Our spring allows them to make a thinner car seat back,” said Mr Spinks. “The problem with foam is its afterlife – it’s not very good from that perspective.”

It has also expanded into natural fibres for its mattresses, and is even growing the timber for its bed frames in a forest near York.

Department store chain John Lewis prompted the firm to begin making its own mattress fillings. “They were saying: ‘We would like to go all natural’. Rather than just go all natural, we decided to see if we could grow some of the fibre locally.”

Harrison Spinks now rears sheep and grows hemp and flax on its 300-acre farm in North Yorkshire. It bought the farm for £3m in 2009. Its Texel, Leicester and Swaledale sheep flock yields thicker, stronger and more resilient wool, ideal for mattresses.

Four generations of the Spinks family have been involved in the bed industry since the firm was founded in 1840. The company produces 57,000 mattresses a year, with sales of £25m, and owns the Harrison, Somnus and Spink & Edgar brands.

“Our growth forecast predicts we will have trebled or quadrupled (turnover) by 2016,” said Mr Naylor. “(We will be an) £80m-£100m company if everything goes to plan.”