Southam's entrepreneurs

PUBLISHED: 15:10 19 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:42 20 February 2013

Dean Walton, Ray Duffy and Chris O’Ryan from Mask-arade

Dean Walton, Ray Duffy and Chris O’Ryan from Mask-arade

To the outside observer Southam is a typical little market town with not much going on. Behind its sleepy exterior lies a hotbed of entrepreneurial talent.

Southams entrepreneurs

To the outside observer Southam is a typical little market town with not much going on. Behind its sleepy exterior lies a hotbed of entrepreneurial talent. Businesses from small artisan producers to multi-million pound manufacturers are thriving in the small south Warwickshire town.

Elite Spiral Stairs

For more than 23 years, family business Elite Spiral Stairs has been producing custom-made spiral stairs for a range of domestic and international clients.
Handmade from a range of sustainable hardwoods or cast iron in a variety of timeless designs, its an example of a business where craftsmanship and pride in the work, rather than obsession with chasing mass orders, remains at the core of the working ethos.
For us its a matter of doing what we do, in a reasonable time and not having to work seven days a week. That is the most important thing to me. Its better that way as you find your staff are happier working for you if theres not constant pressure and theres a reasonable work load, says company founder Steve Scott.
Steve started the business with his brother Peter, now retired, in 1987. I worked for a spiral staircase company beforehand, Id seen there was a market there and I just thought I could do it better, to be honest, he explains.
It has remained a small, family-run business: Steves wife Cathy is the company secretary and his brother-in-law a business partner, and he is assisted on the factory floor by two other employees.
Born and bred in Stockton, the town was the obvious location for Steve to set up the business and its worked out well. We are based on a small industrial estate beside the canal basin and its a nice place to work. We all get on well because its a small community, he adds.
Listing clients in Sweden, France and America, Steve confirms that, particularly since the advent of the internet, their business has come from all over the world.
We tend to get a lot of customers who order through us because we make the staircases here in Southam and a lot of people appreciate the fact weve been around for a long time.


When Mask-arade, the novelty face mask company, made a pitch to the millionaires on BBC TVs Dragons Den millions of viewers saw the pitch fall flat on its face. On national television the company was told it wouldnt see profit for 30 years. Less than two years on the company is valued at nearly 750,000, shipping tens of thousands of personalised and celebrity masks a week from its Southam base.
Its no surprise the rate its grown. Everything we thought would happen is happening, confirms Ray Duffy, 40, who together with fifty-year-old co-owners, Chris ORyan and Dean Walton, founded the company in May 2009.
When Dragons Den was aired, which I admit for us was more of a publicity pitch but still amazingly nerve-wracking, our orders rocketed and went up by more than 400 per cent. It brought us out of the garage where we were hand-cutting the masks, and into a proper office with cutting machines. Weve met [Dragons] Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis since and they were like long lost friends. They should have jumped on board when they had the chance, he laughs.
The idea for the business arose, as with many of the best plans in life, following a conversation in the pub. Chris had been making homemade masks for years after entertaining his dinner guests one year by wearing the face of Terry Wogan, cut out from the cover of a Radio Times. One day he was talking to me and Dean about the business idea and a light went on in my mind. I thought this can be amazing, explains Ray.
Alongside the personalised face masks and life-size cut outs, popular for hen and stag parties, the company now makes more than 80 (and counting) celebrity face masks ranging from the judges of X Factor to Sir Alan Sugar. They have also collected 250 signed masks from well-known figures as diverse as George Bush, David Cameron, Stephen Fry, Sir David Attenborough and John Travolta with some, such as opera singer Placido Domingo, placing bulk orders for their own cardboard image.
While Chris continues to work in finance and Dean is a director at fellow Southam business, Alumet, the day-to-day running of the company is down to Ray, who previously ran an electronics brokerage business.
There is still nothing like our business on the market and the variety of things we get asked to make now is staggering; we made red dragon masks for the launch of the HMS Dragon warship in Scotland recently. Weve got a fantastic little business here making a product that makes people laugh and have fun and that rubs off on you a bit, says Ray.
Despite plans to align themselves with more distributors across Europe and, ultimately, the US, Southam will remain the companys home.
Geographically, Southam works for us, says Ray. I live in Leamington Spa, Dean works in Southam and the other two full-time employees live here. The business rates are attractive and the drive is attractive because everyone else is going in the opposite direction. Its a great little town and a great community.


Despite the problematic business climate Alumet managing director, Gary Summers is bullish about the companys prospects. We will put hundreds more jobs in the local area with our business model. Trust me, it will happen.
Gary founded Alumet as an aluminium window installation business in 1993, moving to the Southam premises in 1996. From a team of four people, the award-winning company is now one of the towns largest employers with a staff of more than 110, many drawn from the local area. From the 70,000 sq ft factory Alumet fabricates and installs a range of aluminium facades, including a bomb-blast resistant walling system and solar shading system. In 2005, the company opened a centre for training and innovation for the research of new products.
The latest development is in the area of renewable technologies, such as the installation of photovoltaic panels. That is my focus for the future of the business, says Gary. With plans to employ a further 60 people by the end of 2011 to help develop this new area of the business, Gary believes he is looking at a turnover in excess of 50million in a few years. It is a great thing for the area if the company grows.
Alumet is also actively involved in the local community. We do our bit for the local charities and sponsor the local rugby club and also get involved with the school, too, because we are trying to educate children to come and work here. Initially I chose Southam because the purchase price for the premises was very attractive but weve now been here so long weve got ourselves well established and known.
Ive never been one to stand still and so Ive invested money in people and training. There are massive opportunities.

Warwick House

A new business on the Southam block is the newly refurbished Warwick House. The Regency-style building started life in the early 19th century as a specialist hospital for the treatment of diseases of the eyes and ears founded by Dr Henry Lilley-Smith. Forced to close due to financial difficulties following his death, the building was later turned into a guest house and then, in 1965, became the Stoneythorpe Hotel. In January 2010 it was brought by the privately owned Tabor Group, who have transformed it into a wedding venue, which opened at the end of November 2010.
Its the ideal wedding location because the building lends itself to weddings, plus its a central location, ideal for a lot of surrounding villages and towns and with its proximity to Birmingham. There arent that many exclusive use venues in this area at the moment, explains sales manager and local girl Laura Cockayne, who has lived in Southam for ten years.
Extensively refurbished, many original features, including arched windows, large doorways and architraving have been restored and retained, while the decor has also been kept traditional but with a modern twist, adds Laura.
Warwick House will help to generate a lot of business for the town, while florists, wedding cars, dress shops, B&Bs and all of the associated businesses in neighbouring villages will benefit because more people will come in from further afield to use the venue. We have had people coming from as far as South Wales and Bristol, explains Laura
I think everyone in the town wants it to be a success, she adds. The building has been in need to tender loving care for some time and people are grateful its finally been taken over and looked after.

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