More of a vocation than just business
On a completely personal level, Ian Ring would rather like his next step to be retirement.
But now is not the right time, partly because of pressure of work and partly because he needs to get the management structure of his business right before there’s any hand over. And he admits he would actually find it very hard to step back completely from the business he created, as in a sense it’s more a vocation.
“It would be awful just to work for money,” says Ring, founder-director of blacksmiths turned general forge turned restoration specialist Newton Forge, saying his ambitions have never really been about financial reward but more about doing something he enjoys. “Although,” he adds, “I have never lost sight that you have to make a profit.” At times, he says only half jokingly, his ambition has primarily been sheer survival. “It’s the fear of failure, the danger of not making any profit, rather than the joys of success, that keeps small businesses going,” he says.
That said, he admits that in his line of work, there can be something “quite magical” about the job, seeing a piece of metal change form into “something beautiful” or helping restore part of an historic property.
Ring’s great-great-grandfather was a blacksmith and his father was a farmer who had a forge. That helped shape Ring junior’s future career in his formative years. “I was fascinated by what you could do with fire and water to bend and shape metal. I once put my push-bike in the forge and of course it just folded in half. I was not very popular.”
He says the rural location suits the craft and non-industrial nature of Newton Forge. He sees himself in a sense more as an artist than a businessman. He explains: “I never set out to be a multimillionaire or be in those lists of the top 100 companies. Life would be abysmal if you worked just to make money. I’ve always tried to get the right balance between paying the bills and my family and friends and hobbies. If you let one overtake the other you can get into trouble.”
Ring did actually try to retire a couple of years ago but work got busier so he had to step back in. He jokes that he’ll become like the character “Old Mr Grace” from the sitcom Are You Being Served. “I don’t want to sell the business either,” he says. “I want to keep going as long as I can.”
He has already handed over responsibility for most functions to his managers and while he aims to keep the proverbial finger on the pulse in terms of financial responsibilities, he’s aware of the danger of interfering.
“If I’m here, people treat me like I’m the boss and will ask me questions, which could undermine and bypass those doing the day-today management.”
Part of his challenge was putting in a layer of management that the business has not had before. Long term it will enable him to retire but in the short term it presented the issue of managing an expanded team.
Growth potential is coming from a change in the business model over recent years, with the company having moved away from doing small commissions and making traditional blacksmith products such as curtain poles and fire lights. “We used to do anything,” Ring says. “Our attitude was eventually a sprat might lead us on to catching a mackerel.”
But that kind of work became less and less cost effective because it was easy for customers to get things like curtain poles cheaper elsewhere. “You can’t compete if your product costs £120 and people can get it for £19 in the high street,” says Ring. “Anyway, if you’re creative, and we are, it’s soul-destroying to make the same old things all the time.” So going into mass production as an alternative to bespoke would not have interested him, he adds. “I would not be here now, because I would not have enjoyed it.”
The solution was to put up the minimum order size, first to £400 and then £3000. “It was financially painful at first not to do those small jobs,” says Ring, “but we had to focus on the bigger picture, aiming for projects which were worth £30,000 to £250,000, because in fact they are just as easy to run.”
The focus is now very much on doing metalwork for heritage projects, working with glassmakers, stonemasons and other craftsmen on restoration jobs at places like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Cliveden House in Berkshire, and Sherborne Castle in Dorset.
With this different focus, the company is gaining work across a wide geographical area. It has to. Although there is not much competition locally, neither are there enough sources locally to sustain the business.
One challenge for Newton Forge is that larger customers such as the National Trust now tend to put work out to tender. Because they tend to be prestigious organisations, that tends to drive prices down, ironically because of competitors adopting a variation on that sprat to catch a mackerel approach that Newton Forge eschewed. But Ring says he doesn’t want to compete on price. “And we often don’t have to,” he adds. “The larger customers want someone who’s easy to work with, who knows how to overcome problems and who will plan the job properly and get it done in time.”
One of the projects Ring has been most proud of was restoring a 150-metre-long cast iron railing at a historic property in the Euston Road in London.
“We’re not just blacksmiths,” he points out. “We’re a link in the chain that gets a project done.”