Neil Kavanagh's Musings
A Brymitre Living Legend
Neil Kavanagh was there at the beginning and at the painful end of a rather remarkable company called Brymitre. These are his unedited comments as sent to me by email
When I first worked there in1973 there were 7 of us.
Bill Rae, Bill Pointer, Mick Fenton, Joyce Denton, Fred Barton a young girl called Sarah and me.
I was 21 years old, had just left college and was playing in a rock band in Maidstone. I joined an employment agency called "Extraman" to earn money for rent and food - they sent me to Brymitre - I was paid 50p / hour, worked 3 days a week and they had a bus which took me to East Peckham and collected me at the end of the day as I had no transport.
Bill Rae who had been headhunted by Jonathon Bryant to build Brymitre was an exceptional person, young, hungry and very intelligent with a huge drive to take the business forward. At the time Brymitre was in its infancy and only had 1 customer - we made assembled school lockers out of laminated chipboard for a company called "Hostess". Bill Pointer was the foreman, Mick was chargehand, Joyce was Joyce bless her (never argue with Joyce) and the rest of us were active bodies.
Over time we gained other small customers like "Electronic Manufacturing" who made record players and small cabinets to store records in. All small orders - 50 of this 100 of that etc.
The machinery at the time was a travelling saw, a router, a spindle, a flywheel press and a table with a clamp for glueing, that was all.
More machinery was bought, notably the Giben saw which at the time was a cutting edge piece of kit (I know you are familiar with the Giben) and a huge investment as it had capacity to cut boards way beyond the quantity needed for the orders we had then.
I was trained to operate the Giben - it could cut many boards in one hit and had a scissor lift and an auto pushing facility for loading, and only needed 2 people. Whereas the table saw required 3 people - 2 to lift a single board onto the moving trestle and a third operate it. The Giben could cut more boards in a day with 2 persons than the table saw could do in a week with 3 persons - amazing technology at the time.
The problem was I was the only one trained to operate the GIben and I only worked 3 days a week, so every week Bill Rae would ask me to join full time and kept offering me more and more money. I wanted to play bass in a rock band so continually refused.
I worked there part time for around a year - at the end of that year my band broke up so I had no band and had to get out of my lodgings in Maidstone. I decided one option was to go back to live with my mum in Manchester and was sorting that out when Bill asked me again to work full time and offered yet more money - I said I would but only on the condition that I could find somewhere to live locally as I had no transport. Bill being Bill jumped on that opportunity and within an hour came and told me he had found me lodgings in Golden Green, which was just down the road.
So, 2 things happened - firstly I moved to Golden Green and joined Brymitre and secondly I stayed in Kent and met my wife to be who was the daughter of my new landlady - how seemingly small decisions change lives.
Anyway, Bill Rae, Bill Pointer, Mick Fenton and me were sitting in the office having a meeting when Bill Rae said we need to find more things we can make and new markets for the business (at this time nothing we did was flat pack - it was all assembled). Numerous ideas were discussed when someone said "we could make speakers" - "I don't know anything about speakers said Bill - "well I do" said I - I have a keen interest in audio and have studied acoustic engineering.
So, we set out to make speakers. Within a short time the labour force grew to 20+ and we outgrew the factory in East Peckham. Also, our ability to assemble any more cabinets became a huge problem with space and labour so we started a night shift.
Two more things then happened that were the key to the next development phase - firstly we bought the old "Optilon" factory in Ightham, and secondly we made the decision to convince customers to take flat pack products and assemble them in their own building to meet their needs, dramatically reducing their costs whilst offering us the opportunity to ramp up flat pack production and not have to assemble, handle and store so many bulky items.
Within a couple of years or so virtually all our competitors had ceased trading, and we had orders for up to 50,000 speakers per week and 10,000 TV's.
I personally walked out of Alan Sugars office (Amstrad) in Tottenham with an order for 1 million speakers and half a million hi-fi racks - he didn't know how many he wanted so he ordered a million and called them off at around 10,000 to 20,000 per week.
As I said there were 7 when I joined and at its height we had up to 250 staff with around 200 reporting to me when I was the production manager- bloody stressful that was !!
I was one of the last to go - I had to make 200 people redundant and did all I could to find them jobs.
When Tony Parkin finally gave me my redundancy letter there were no more than a few left.
They asked me to stay on to sell off the equipment, which was a mistake.
Everyone who came along to look offered scrap value, which pissed me off, so I upped the prices so they would bugger off - especially when I was offered a few quid as scrap for the line, which was a revolutionary piece of kit.
I helped design and build the line - Bill gave me Jess and Roy Emms 6 months and detailed us to build a machine capable of putting a plank in one end and having a piece come out the other ready for V-grooving with a maximum of 0.2mm tolerance on any dimension.
We struggled with accuracy for a while - the tooling groove idea was the compelling factor which made it possible, another light bulb moment from Bill Rae.
Funny thing though - after I left Joe Olenski (a Polish man who owns OHM - they make serious loudspeakers) bought a load of the kit including the line and tried to set up a Brymitre clone in Poland. After a couple of years struggling he gave up - he just couldn't find the right skills no matter who he employed. That says alot about what we all achieved - we may not have thought what we did was very compelling but in fact we had a world class team and probably never realised it.
25 Years later around 2015 - I am with my own company "Old Barn Audio" and we decide to go into making professional speaker cabinets. We have all the knowledge of design, but we need a cabinet manufacturer. Someone said to me "you should speak to OHM in Manchester" - so I called them and Joe Olenski answered the phone.
Whilst talking I asked him if he had always been based in Manchester as I was from Manchester and went to school with a boy called Olenski which I thought was a coincidence. "Which school" says Joe - "Stretford Grammar School" says I - that was my brother said Joe.
We talked some more and he asked me what I had been doing so I told him about Brymitre - he was dumbstruck - I can't believe it said Joe - you and your colleagues were the people I really needed, and I would have paid any amount to get a few of you together in Poland to get my factory running.
I promise you that is true - it's a small world.