Why Prestige went off the boil

Despite the claim that 90 per cent of UK households have a Prestige kitchen product, the group has gone into receivership. Was this only down to mismanagement, asks Jane Lewis

Product designers will have been sad to learn that one of the UK’s most famous kitchenware brands has, to put it bluntly, gone down the pan. Prestige’s UK operations went into receivership on New Year’s Eve, leaving a question mark over the future of a company which, on the face of it, seems to have lost out to foreign competition.

The pressure cooker-to-bakeware manufacturer, based in Burnley, has used a host of well-known product designers over the years. Yet the receiver, Sue Watson, is reported as describing the company as “too large and cumbersome” to react to the marketplace. Prestige stands accused of failing to invest sufficiently in new-product development to fight off cheap imports, and the chief executive of parent company Prestige Group, Crawford Gray, who joined in May 1995, claims the company had not launched a new product in 16 years.

That allegation is challenged by Grey Matter managing director Kevin Thompson, whose consultancy has worked with Prestige in the past. Just before it was sold off by Gallaher in a management buy-in deal in 1995, Grey Matter had completed a three-year programme of new products which was about to be rolled out.

“When Gallaher sold Prestige, the new owners didn’t have the investment or manpower to back it,” states Thompson, who claims the company has become “more sales-led than brand-led”.

Historically, Prestige has worked with a number of consultancies and designers, including Nick Holland, now at Queensberry Hunt Levien, and Richard Miles of FM Design. Miles says: “There has been a period of many years in which Prestige may well have commissioned design but hasn’t implemented very much.”

Grey Matter worked with the company in the 1980s and again in the early 1990s. Mark Dempsey, Grey Matter’s head of product design, comments: “It’s very disappointing because we had developed a good working relationship. It’s a powerful brand and it’s worth keeping.”

He acknowledges the old management at Prestige may have been slow in getting new products into kitchens: “It’s true they had not done enough, but they recognised that and had put in place a new director, Barry Jacques, whose principal role was to develop new products.” Jacques left when the new owner took over in 1995.

Nick Holland calls the Prestige tale “a very sad story”. When Holland began working for Prestige in 1986 “it was very active in new-product development and worked with a lot of outside designers”. Holland adds: “A lot of it was wasteful. Some interesting things were designed for Prestige and it was a great shame a lot of them never came to fruition. The management style was a bit crazy. We used to call it the design graveyard because the chances of your designs seeing the light of day were small. Market share just kept going down and down.”

Tough competition from rival Asia-based manufacturers in addition to a historical lack of new products is being blamed for the UK company’s poor performance. It suffered 4m losses last year, and although it is still trading, more than 100 jobs at the Burnley factory have been axed, including that of chief design engineer David Anderson. The cuts extend to the entire marketing team.

“It’s a great pity because Prestige is a great British brand that has been allowed to die,” comments Thompson. But he is confident a buyer will be found, as the Prestige name is an attractive proposition to any housewares company. It is estimated that as many as 90 per cent of UK households have a Prestige product in their kitchen, though it’s unlikely the manufacture of such products will remain in the UK.

The heat is on to find a buyer.

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