The Altitude Interviews: James Tobias – Where Quality is Expected
‘Getting it right first time’ is a mantra often expressed by a multitude of businesses, yet so often those very same businesses fail to really understand the importance of following this through; and indeed what it takes to reach this benchmark. Listening to Phil Jones, MD at James Tobias, and a number of his colleagues it was evident that this approach was at the heart of their business. They all want to make this business even better.
Even on a Friday afternoon the energy, enthusiasm and dedication of the James Tobias team was in evidence throughout my visit. Most telling was the willingness of each individual to tell their story of change, the ‘what I’m going to do next’ in their respective areas of responsibility. The idea of continuous improvement has been embedded at James Tobias.
James Tobias is a manufacturer of innovative storage solutions for business and service environments based in the heart of Somerset, with an end client base that would be the envy of most B2B organisations. However whilst the majority of end clients will come to understand the quality of the product that has been installed it is the James Tobias relationship with their client (intermediary) base, the specifiers, interior design consultancies, and the B2B construction specialists that forms the backbone of their success. Quite simply once they have worked with the James Tobias team it becomes fairly difficult not to want to work with them again.
Service delivery is often an overlooked aspect of a manufacturing business, and in James Tobias’ case, an added value element of their business that competitors find very difficult to match. Talking with Phil and his colleagues it actually made me smile to think that this unique aspect of their business was an unsung hero – as it, in many ways, epitomised the approach they have to the way the business is being run. Quality is expected in all areas.
A manufacturing site of any scale is a complex operation that requires not only coordination between distinct organisational units, such as sales, administration, finance, procurement, distribution, production and operations but, of most importance, coordination between individuals and teams within a complex cycle of manufacturing, from order to delivery. This only works if the team truly is working together and listening to Phil talk about how the business has changed in the past 12 months makes me understand why the outlook is so positive.
This is a team effort, no more no less, and everybody counts at James Tobias. The division of responsibility is simple yet the support for colleagues appears refreshingly genuine.
Production Quality – Focus upon product innovation and finishing
The level of enthusiasm for a storage product is quite simply astonishing yet it is quite infectious as I met others in the factory. As Phil points out when talking about the core storage product: “It is a fabulous system with nothing to match it on the market for quality, strength and durability.”
When the business started in 1990 on the back of creating a storagewall product that could be delivered to the market in under six weeks James Tobias set a delivery benchmark that Europe couldn’t compete with. Now with the benchmark between 3-5 weeks James Tobias made some notable manufacturing and operational decisions.
Taking control of as much of the process as possible became a sensible business decision. Once the raw material arrives at the factory the James Tobias team take it through design, cutting, shaping, drilling, construction, finishing and painting. This is the same be it wood or metalwork. Everything is controlled at the factory ensuring that the quality of product is maintained throughout.
The paintshop, for instance, epitomises the desire to maintain control of their product and protect their reputation for producing the finest storage products. It would be very easy to use external suppliers in this area but would they have the same level of dedication…unlikely.
A modern approach to production is embedded in the organisation as a necessity. The James Tobias team have to juggle on average 100-120 projects a month with a focus upon delivery and installation on a day requested by the client. Precision at an organisational and production level is therefore required throughout the operation.
Service Quality – Supporting reputation
Phil acknowledges that sometimes quality isn’t the issue for his clients and cost becomes the critical feature. Yet during his time with the business it has become increasingly understood that their job is to provide the client with the best possible product that not only enhances the intermediaries reputation but equally provides a platform to enhance their reputation. The James Tobias product does this.
“We’re interested in making sure that their lives are not hell. We provide them with the best product for their clients with a balance in ensuring that they appreciate the value of working with James Tobias as opposed to a competitor. By controlling the production, delivery and installation we take away a lot of problems from a contractor.”
With the increasing demand for high level design and installation, especially in certain business and service sectors such as banking and finance, James Tobias has a product set that perfectly complements innovative interior design.
Delivery Quality – ‘An Army of Ants’
Of particular interest is James Tobias approach to installation, once again establishing a benchmark few other competitors are able to match. Fitting is undertaken by one of the James Tobias teams so the knowledge of the product and what is expected is already embedded in how they operate. Equally because the planning and installation schedule is managed by the James Tobias operations team there is enormous flexibility on servicing client requirements.
Such is the flexibility and design standard of this product that a two-man fitting team can fit up to 26 linear metres in a day compared to a mere five metres for competitor products. This makes a manifest difference to delivery.
The business rarely fails to get compliments in this area: “Our fitters always get compliments. Someone once said to me ‘I always like your guys, they come in, announce themselves, blitz it, clean it and then they are gone’.”
A good example of the flexibility of the team concerns a recent installation at Handelsbank branch on the South coast. James Tobias had a chance to complete a nine-metre stretch of storagewall on a Friday afternoon in a two-hour window. The staff went to lunch and the two man team called in support from four other installers who were travelling home for the weekend. By 2pm when the staff returned to the branch the job was complete to the astonishment of the employees.
As someone noted “…it’s like watching an army of ants…they don’t talk, they just know what they need to do, work in union and then leave.”
Such level of work reflects well on the interior design consultancies that engage them and, as Phil notes, hopefully consolidates the features that make James Tobias different – ‘great products, great delivery, perfect installation, and satisfied customers.’
Product Innovation – Progress means working harder
Walking around the factory it was also clear that testing and innovation is central to the product’s success. The storage product at James Tobias has not stood still and design is as important as the ability to install quickly and easily. The balance is an interesting one.
Supporting this is the understanding that the development of the product requires the right fittings to get the job done, and once again quality is uppermost in their minds. For instance, German fittings a prerequisite and UK-supplied wood-stock are both choices that will enhance reputation rather than dent it.
Most recently James Tobias has developed the BuzzLocker which is a serious and clever bit of storage. Focusing upon customers and organisations (e.g. rail, coach stations) that require a secure storage facility that supports document, material or personal belongings exchange the BuzzLocker combines intelligent technology with beautiful design. The TANmode technology generates random locking codes that it deploys to the end user via SMS / email allowing them direct access to the locker when they need it.
Innovation and progression are core principles of the business.
Moving forward – progress through system and people development
It was so refreshing to meet and hear from people working in a UK manufacturing business that had genuine affection for what they were doing; real purpose and energy.
At James Tobias this progress looks to continue in a host of different areas from the development of even more effective monitoring and control systems, right through to a focus upon cutting down upon the time it takes to design and produce a client’s product.
Knowing what you know is one thing but acting upon this information is unusual in business and after speaking to Phil and a number of his team it was clear that James Tobias has a plan. They know what the goals are and are steadily working towards achieving them; and with a team that is fully committed to being the best in its chosen field.
As Phil explains: “There is a lot going on at James Tobias. We have all the problems of a design company, all the problems of a manufacturing plant, all the problems of a delivery firm, and all the problems of an installation firm. But we take this burden off our clients so that all they see is a fabulous product.”
The team at James Tobias is extremely hard on itself as they want to get better and don’t want to let each other down. So if there’s one thing that can be learnt from James Tobias it is this – if you are passionate about your working environment, your work and your product then progress and delivery will come naturally; and needless to say it comes back to one thing - ‘Getting it right first time’.