Tough triumph

Small businesses face a number of tough challenges in the current economic climate. Restrictions on Government funding and plans to cut schemes that support small and medium enterprises are far from the spotlight.

One hurdle that doesn’t receive a lot of attention is that faced by an established and successful business which is still doing well – but has limited manpower and expertise to drive forward the next stage of a business plan.

Tough Furniture Ltd in Craven Arms, Shropshire, is one such successful business.

The company specialises in strong but attractive furniture to suit the special needs of environments where abuse, carelessness or challenging behaviour can occur, such as bail hostels, residential homes and hospital wards.

Led by Managing Director David Vesty, the team wanted to accelerate their development plan and harness new technologies to draft and design new products.

An award-winning partnership

This is where a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) managed by the University of Wolverhampton came in. Graduate Associate Rhys Thomas, who studied Product Design, is employed on a two-year Classic KTP to transfer technical knowledge from the University and help to increase skills within the workforce. He is mentored by academic Rob Cooksey, a furniture design and development specialist from the School of Art & Design with strong commercial experience.

The company benefits from having access to University facilities, such as rapid prototyping and specialist training in photography and Photoshop to benefit its in-house sales and marketing output.

The partnership is clearly a success, as Tough Furniture recently won the Technology, Enterprise and Innovation Award at the prestigious Shropshire Business Awards. David Vesty was delighted with the award, and the support provided through the KTP.

He said: “The recognition of winning an award for Technology, Innovation and Enterprise is a real boost for the company. What we are able to achieve in a competitive marketplace is being greatly assisted and accelerated by the graduate and professional skills and resources made available to us from the University through the KTP scheme."

Improved competitiveness

The KTP scheme is a UK-wide programme which aims to help organisations improve their competitiveness, productivity and performance through a partnership with an academic institution. David is very positive about how the scheme is benefitting the company.

“The KTP scheme is an excellent way of getting that extra shot of manpower and expertise and has enabled us to accelerate our plans. It is essentially about finding a match that works between what the university has to offer and what the business needs,” he says.

“It is a difficult climate for all businesses but we have been able to upgrade the quality of the designs we put in front of the customer. We have a standard catalogue but we also customise furniture, and once we had the graduate and the right software in place, we were quickly able to improve the quality of the drawings we produce. This is something we are developing very strongly and this has enabled us to keep ahead of competition from larger companies.”

Tough Furniture is one year into the two-year KTP and David says there are other aspects of the project that are yet to be developed.

So far Rhys’ work has focused on design and customer presentations for direct selling purposes but the next stage will involve looking at marketing material, photography and advertising.

David recommends the KTP programme to other businesses which have a suitable need. “It has been cost effective, as we have had a known outlay. I would recommend it to other companies where it is appropriate – it is working very well for us and I have encouraged other businesses to consider it.”

Business Development Manager at the University, Nigel Jordan, is also pleased with the success of the partnership with Tough Furniture.

He says: “This KTP is the School of Art &  Design’s third programme with a furniture manufacturer and is testimony to the applied research expertise and Associate mentoring by Rob Cooksey and Dave Henley from the School’s product design division.

“We are absolutely delighted that Tough has won such a prestigious award and that we have contributed towards their success.”

For more information about Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, visit: www.wlv.ac.uk/ktp