Can British manufacturers resist Far East competition? In a small village in the Pennines Robert Cockroft meets a man who has devised a way of beating the Chinese at their own game
THE mellow clarinet, conduit for some of Mozart’s most sublime thoughts, seems an unlikely symbol of political bungling. But that’s how Alastair Hanson remembers one piece of Government policy whose unintended consequences still affect British instrument makers.
Clarinets are a topic on which he’s qualified to pronounce. In the hulking shadow of a redundant textile mill near Huddersfield he designs, makes and exports them.
His firm is the largest of only three in this country to survive corrosive overseas competition. Where others placed their faith in tradition and failed, he put his in top-end software and machines.
Last month, one supermarket chain in this country was reportedly selling a Chinese import and case for £19.99. One of his hand-made, top-of-the range instruments costs nearly 200 times that.
Yet Hanson clarinets are in the hands of thousands across the world. And Far East manufacturers turn to his company in the village of Marsden for technical expertise.
In a curious reversal, this is the man who taught the Chinese to make better clarinets – then beat them at their own game. Yet for all his flair with the sweetly-spoken reed instrument, he grew up in the earthier world of brass, joining his local band at the age of four.
Home was Low Moor near Bradford and his choice of college course in Leeds combined his love for art and craft: music and instrument technology.
Soon he had set up business in a shed in his parents’ back garden, repairing and selling brass instruments. The die was set for a career which was to see him develop from musician into high-tech entrepreneur.
Along the way he worked with instrument manufacturers around the world and developed his own company into a global trader.
But for a moment, let’s fast-forward to 2008. By now Alastair is married to a professional viola player, Jenny, and making clarinets in a workshop at their converted farmhouse on the hills above Marsden.
Things are looking bright. The Labour government, as part of its “wider opportunities” programme has announced that every primary school pupil should have the chance to learn a musical instrument. Lessons are to be taught in whole classes as part of the curriculum and the aim is “to develop a world-class workforce in music education and to improve the support structures for young people’s music making”.
Music to the ears of any instrument maker. Or so it seemed.
Alastair says: “A lack of equipment was cited as hampering progress in music, as was the lack of teaching staff. The big change for us was that a national music fund was set up in 2008. “Suddenly education authorities had money. The question was were they going to spend it with us at perhaps £150 or £200 an instrument?”
To his dismay, councils were directed to buy the cheapest instruments. “So we didn’t get a sniff as we were seen to be too expensive. Instead cheap, awful Chinese models flooded into schools.”
After a period, however, common sense prevailed and by 2010 the policy had changed from buying the cheapest to obtaining best value. For Hanson Clarinets, the problem now became one of keeping pace with unprecedented demand.
“Orders were coming in thick and fast, it was a good problem to have.”
To prevent overstretch, the firm decided to supply only two authorities, Kirklees and Sunderland. The strategy to control supply and uphold quality proved wise. As the instrument cupboards of our schools filled, the Chinese – encouraged by early success in the UK market – ramped up production.
“I advised them not to invest so heavily but now they have manufacturing plants and large stock, but no customers. So they are selling them through cheap supermarkets at less than cost.
“This has distorted the market again. If you are making an instrument at real cost against someone who is liquidating stock, that is always going to be difficult.”
Alastair is speaking in the design workshop of his small, modern unit which employs five and stands on the site of the boiler house of the disused mill.
In one section, a computer-assisted milling machine bores a hole in a length of sustainable African blackwood. It’s the cylindrical section, married to the mouthpiece reed, that gives the clarinet its characteristic timbre. In another room, a craftsman applies the intricate system of polished metal rods and keypads that enable it to speak.
Besides clarinets, the firm makes Saxophones and parts for brass instruments and guitars. It also sells and repairs a variety of other instruments.
Across the road, the ghost of the Colne Valley Spinning Company stands witness to the devastation wrought on the Colne Valley’s textile industry in the 1960s by cheap imports. While it’s tempting to see the parallels, the differences are more significant. Alastair has worked with foreign competition and makes use of the experience.
Innovation is embraced and an analytical mind, coupled with his love for music, are clearly potent in driving the business. Early in the 1990s, he had moved from the workshop at his parents’ home to set up a retail and repair enterprise with teaching studios in Cleckheaton.
He eventually sold out to a firm called Norman’s – “a magnificent retail music operation and the country’s largest provider of instrumental tuition,” he says.
“When I went to work for them, they were among the first to start looking at buying instruments from China. So in 1995 they sent me there so I could learn how they made the instruments. I’d gone to be a consultant because while the prices of their instruments, whether trumpets, cornets or clarinets, were fantastic, the quality was generally poor.
“The problems turned out to be the quality of machines and raw materials. For example they would try to make a clarinet with a drill that didn’t run true.
“I met a Taiwanese businessmen over there who introduced me to the Beijing Instrument Company. The upshot was that we ended up building a clarinet factory. The staff didn’t always react well to my suggestions but once they had established that I knew what I was doing, respect grew. I helped lay the concrete and specified the machines and in 1996 it opened, making 5,000 clarinets a month – 75 per cent for export. My Chinese wasn’t up to much – I could order a taxi, a meal and a beer but not much more.”
By 1997 Alastair had left Norman’s and was working for a Japanese instrument maker, Korg. His task was to identify why it could not sell its Taiwanese-made brass and woodwind instruments into the UK. “It turned out the design was not quite right for the British market, so my job was to improve the design, marketing and sales.
“The problem was when this was done and I returned to England I had burned my bridges with my previous firm so I had think about doing something.”
Lacking nothing in bravado, he went back to Norman’s, which was importing instruments from Germany, Taiwan and China, and proposed to make them a better product in this country – for the same price. “They were up for it,” he smiles.
His plan was to show his new clarinets at the 1998 Frankfurt trade show. There was one snag: he’d never made a clarinet.
“I knew the theory and the design but I had never put one together myself. I was living in Newsome, Huddersfield, and on the eve of the show I was still finishing them on my dining room table.
“I arrived at the show with eight, the Americans loved them and I took an order for 500 from one company. I daren’t tell them I had no way of manufacturing them. To make one from ebonite and brass had taken me five months.”
Two of that batch found their way into the hands of visiting members of the US Air Force band. Then it was home for a visit to the bank – and a £10,000 loan.
“I bought software to design the clarinets and at first I outsourced the engineering to a local firm. But what we could not easily make were the keyparts.”
His experience abroad was to yield fruit. “Some of the lads on the shop floor in the Chinese factory had left to set up their own business making key parts, done to my original drawings. There was no reliable email to China in those days so I had a fax machine by my bed and I would fax over drawings to show precisely what I needed and they would make and send them over here. If there was a problem, I would fly over to sort it out.”
There was a crucial limit however to this global division of labour. Alastair realised he could not share all his ideas with these specialists.
“They knew how to make one small part of an instrument very well but had I given them all the drawings they would have copied it. I came to realise that it’s wise in business not to give everything away.”
By now, orders from Norman’s were rolling in and the hybrid nature of the business – parts made in China applied to bodies made in Yorkshire – was established. Even his wedding reception and honeymoon were sacrificed to the burden of orders.
“We were to be married on a Saturday in August 2003 but we had an order for 700 clarinets that needed to be delivered on the Monday. We had the ceremony then all of us, family and friends, went back to box up the instruments ready for delivery. We made it.”
By chance, a wedding guest was involved with saxophones and before long that instrument was introduced into the Hanson range.
A key figure in their production is Roy Dixon, father of former Arsenal footballer Lee Dixon. He arrived at Marsden three years ago wishing to learn to play the instrument and he went on to develop a model that echoes the sound of a 1950s American sax.
While it is designed and assembled in Marsden, Alastair uses his global network to have some parts made in Germany and Taiwan.
Roy Dixon is not the only unlikely recruit. Ray Franks was plastering at the Hanson home until Alastair intervened. “He now makes clarinets and is one of the most talented instrument makers I’ve ever worked with.”
Mark Smith was operating a pneumatic drill and shifting stones until he was recruited to work a lathe at Hanson’s. He’s now sales manager.
Alastair says: “Part of business is being prepared to spot talent in unlikely places but the most important thing is to identify the bits that can make money and the ones that can’t.
“Boosey and Hawkes, the biggest British instrument maker, closed because they succumbed to competition from overseas. We succeeded by cooperating. What the Chinese and Indians have got is cheaper labour and a driven, educated young workforce hungry to succeed in manufacturing. We’ve not got that in this country.
“But what this country has is a reputation for quality based on more than 100 years and a reputation for bright ideas. So why try to beat the Chinese on cheap labour? Why not design something better than they have – and then co-operate in making it?
“Some of the best things in my life came about because of hard times. My dad had a bad accident when I was small and couldn’t work but it gave me a work ethic.
“My final school report said ‘Alastair is the class clown but has a flair for making money’. Every time there is a downside, I try picking out the opportunities.”
One such is the growing market among retired people who are wishing to start or return to the clarinet. Another is America. “And a factory in China now wants to buy components made in Marsden,” he grins.
All of which means there is no little time for him to relax by playing an instrument.
He reflects for moment. “My last professional gig was three years ago, playing an alpenhorn for Sir Charles Saatchi at the opening of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.”