Working Life at ercol – Past, Present & Future
By ercol on 16 May 2019
With new design technology and innovative methods of manufacturing, the world of furniture is always changing. Things are no different at ercol. We are continually looking forward, but to maintain our furniture’s unique character and style, we must honour the past too.
This philosophy only works because of our loyal team – some of whom have been with us for several decades. We spoke to Operations Support Manager, Roy Graves, and Chairmaker, Dave Munday, to find out how things have changed over the years and why they have remained part of the ercol team for 40 and 50 years, respectively.
How it all began
Both Roy and Dave joined ercol at just 16 years old – Roy as a Wood Machinist Apprentice and Dave as a Chairmaker. Like most 16-year-olds, they didn’t imagine themselves staying at the same company for anything more than a few years.
“I didn’t imagine it would be a job for life, I was young and was offered the job,” admits Roy. 40 years later, he is a vital part of the ercol team. “I think the reason I’ve stayed here so long is that along with the great team, over the years we’ve had fun also” he explains.
Introducing new technology
In those four decades, Roy has overseen some huge changes, not least the introduction of Computer Numerical Control (CNC)
“Originally, I was one of four trained on the CNCs – a computer-controlled cutting machine which automates control of machining tools (drills, lathes and boring tools), that can cut various hard materials in a series of movements and operations. That was around 1984 and we only had one machine.”
“We had a couple of computers back then and I remember one guy saying, ‘one day you’ll have CNCs all the way down this factory’. I told him, ‘don’t be so silly’… But a few years later, there they were. I couldn’t have imagined how much they would have changed the whole world and how we work.”
“The machines that were taken out and replaced by the CNCs made many of the processes much more efficient, the team and I came up with some unique coding that we still use today on new projects.”
Maintaining the hand-crafted approach
Technology now plays a big role in the manufacturing process at ercol. But that doesn’t affect the traditional approach that sets our furniture apart, according to Roy. “Technology is vastly different. But, as we keep assembly techniques quite traditional, we use the technology to enhance what we’re doing, but not to change what we’re doing.”
That’s echoed by Dave, who explains how – despite the new technology – things are remarkably similar 50 years since he started at ercol. “I came in as a Chairmaker. There were 5 of us that started together. I don’t like working on machines and the chairs were all done by hand – the majority still are.”
Dave was originally based on another site in 1968, moving to the ercol site in High Wycombe in 1992, followed by the new purpose-built factory in Princes Risborough in 2002. However, his original role as Chairmaker still exists, hand-crafting beautiful pieces of strong, functional furniture. If anything, the biggest change is simply one of scale, he suggests. “For me, it’s the number of products we had back then and the size of the site now to then.”
“Previously, everything was done by rotating lines going down the shop floor and we each had one task to complete. I think the main thing that has changed in my role now is that I do more processes and work on a chair from the start to finishing the complete piece.”
The ercol brand values
One question that remains is why, in a constantly changing environment, so many of ercol’s team stay here so long. “The majority of people become part of the family at ercol,” explains Roy.
This family approach allows us to adapt together, maintaining our ethos and brand values – allowing us to continue to manufacture our furniture in the UK as well as with our partner factories abroad. We still attract apprentices and Roy works closely with them to guide them and also get them used to a working environment.
“The outside world has changed, and we have had to change with it. At ercol, we react to changes in the environment. It’s something that is uniquely ercol. We aim to change people’s perception of what we are and continue trying to engage with them.
“We’ve adapted, but our brand values haven’t changed.”
Looking to the future
Dave will be retiring from ercol shortly, but that doesn’t stop him thinking about the potential of future projects at ercol…
“I have worked on the 1913 (our evergreen chair) or a similar version, ever since I started at ercol. It’s the only one of those fireside-type chairs that has survived. It would be interesting to relaunch some the older suites with a modern twist…”
It’s this forward-thinking attitude, willingness to constantly re-think what we do whilst being faithful to our heritage, that makes ercol so special.
We wish Dave all the best for his retirement and a well-earned break – thank you for making us who we are.
You can spot Roy working with the CNC’s and inspecting and finishing a seat frame on our film from 1987 ‘The Love of Wood’.