One of the few givens in business today is the difficulty (some might say near-impossibility) of building a successful manufacturing business in the UK - and that anyone who has done it is a bit of a hero. So what do you call a man who has done it twice?
Mark Gooday, boss of amplification manufacturer Ashdown Engineering, can undoubtedly make that claim. He did it first with Trace Elliot, which in the 1980s became an international market leader in bass amplification and now with his latest venture, which is not only a major brand in the UK, but is exported widely and in quantity. Any golf club pundit will tell you it can't be done (and many in the MI business predicted just that when he started Ashdown). So how has he proved the doom-mongers wrong?
We had plenty of other questions on our list, too. Like, what really went on at Trace Elliot - and whatever became of it as a brand? Where did he get the money to start Ashdown? And what's the real story behind Ashdown being jilted at the altar by Fender last year?
Fortunately, Mark Gooday is a fluent, easy-going talker - not to mention a disconcertingly candid one at times. There was no need for the office thumbscrews here.
We began by asking about his Trace Elliot days. How had Mr Gooday got involved with the company, and thus the MI business, in the first place?
'By trade, I'm a sheet metal worker and I've been a bass player from school days, like most of us, trying it make it in a band. I'd ended-up managing a little sheet-metal company when I was about 20, a nice little business, employing about 30 people. Fred Friedlein, who was the owner of Trace Elliot, wanted some help to redesign and re-develop some of his products to make them cost-effective, because they were paying through the nose for them - this would have been around 1980 and he asked me. That way we started making things for Fred.
'Then, in 1983, he told me that Alan Morgan was off to America to set-up Trace Elliot USA and that he needed someone else to sit opposite him and help him run it. It was a bit of a shock to me, because he offered me a lot less money. But that's Fred - a lovely old guy - he actually came round and charmed my wife, telling her how this was the best move I could possibly make. So I did it and joined Trace as Production Director.
'It went well, but after a year the bottom line was that Fred owed me rather a lot of money, because he was paying me based on the savings I could make. So, I ended-up owning 25 per cent of the company. Fred had always had a gameplan of retiring by 55 and even by '84 he was coming in less and less. After a couple of years I'd been made MD and by '85 or '86 he was hardly coming in at all, leaving me to run the company.
'We'd built Trace up really nicely, we had a great time, made some money and, you know, I don't think you can have as much fun in the industry today, as you could back then. These days we all work very hard and you don't stay up till four or five in the morning then turn up at the Frankfurt Show at nine, trying to do a day's work, like we used to. It's all got a lot more serious. Even the young people in our company today don't go remotely near the kind of things we used to get up to!'
Moving delicately on (though not without reflecting that Mark Gooday is far from the first to have said how dour modern day business has become), what about Trace's eventual sale to Kaman? It took a lot of people by surprise.
'We sold to Bill Kaman in '92 and, regardless of what happened, he and I are still good friends. We still talk and he actually owns four or five Ashdowns. We had a great relationship with Kaman and, looking back, selling the company was a great experience. There was a lot to learn - and perhaps I should have heeded the lessons when it came to the situation with Fender last year - but it was great. It was very nice for about three years and then we made the big move to a huge factory with about 100,000 square feet, which was the build-up to establishing centralised distribution for Kaman to the whole of Europe.'
This, as readers will know, was one of our major themes in interviews last year, with opinions flowing back and forth on the pros and cons. Mark Gooday was one of the first to try it, so what is his conclusion?
'I still think it was the right thing to have done at the time and, had they stuck to it, we'd have had half the building as Trace Elliot and half as distribution for the whole of Europe. It was a great plan. We'd employed John Booth (now head of Roland UK) in around '95 to run it and it all looked fine. But then Kaman suddenly had other plans to use the money in the helicopter industry, so they closed the distribution company down six months after they'd started it, which hurt, and left us with a 100,000 sq ft factory which we could only realistically expect to fill half.
'We then tried to acquire the company from Kaman during '96, but that didn't happen, and I even got to the point where I offered my resignation, as I knew I simply could not make money in a building that big, but it wasn't accepted. I suppose, in hindsight, I should have been a bit more grown-up, but it had been my entire life and I was very involved. And then, ten days before my contract was up, they "let me go", as they say. It's the way Americans do business - you walk away with something after a disagreement, but probably not what you were entitled to. A little person could win, eventually, maybe five or ten years afterwards, but you want to get on with your life.
'I think everyone expected me to go into the motor industry at that point, because I'm completely car mad, but I didn't. This is what I do. I like making things.
Before we get to how he founded Ashdown, what is his perspective on what became of Trace?
'Kaman made noises about closing it, but they didn't. Who knows what went on behind the scenes? Anyway, my management as was, bought the company and went on. They ran the company, sold the business to Gibson and made an awful lot of money out of so doing.'
Unvoiced is the fact that they did so without the involvement of the man who had done so much to establish it.
'I look back and blame myself for a lot of what happened. I should have gone to China or Korea, but my pride in those days wouldn't let me. "You don't want to make it there - we're British!" and it was kind of frowned on when you go back to that period. I couldn't bring myself to let our wonderful Trace Elliot brand be made offshore - and that was part of my internal battle with Kaman. I should have listened to them. They have some very intelligent people working for them, but I was a bit headstrong - I probably still am - and would not let the product be made offshore. That was probably one of the things that killed the company - we tried to make everything in England.'
What eventually became of the Trace Elliot brand is one of the great Marie Celeste mysteries of modern MI times. How such an exceptional brand name could have been left to flounder beggars belief. But what of the old Trace manufacturing facility? Apparently it is still there and still making amplifiers. Whose? No one wants to say, though educated guesses aren't difficult to make.
Mark Gooday, meanwhile, spent six months kicking his heels, working out a non-competition clause and, on the very day he was free to do so, started Ashdown Engineering.
'It was very strange - expecting Gibson to make Trace Elliot this huge thing in America, throw loads of money at it and streamline it - but I was gob-smacked. They stayed in that same humungous building, I never saw the advertising, marketing or promotion stepped-up and I know that within three years I'd taken at least 50 per cent of their UK business and possibly more of their world business, except in the USA, where Gibson had got going. What happened at the end, I don't know. It just seemed to come to grinding halt.'
Meanwhile, industry gossip has it that the Trace Elliot name was eventually bought by a leading British MI figure, but that he has now sold it and that it may, yet, be on the way back. More mysteries from the Essex triangle.
So how had Mark Gooday managed to get started again? Unlike the former management team that, presumably, made a few bob from selling Trace to Gibson, by his own account, he had walked away from Kaman without something less than a golden handshake. He simply did it the hard way, he says.
'I sold everything I had. All my guitars, my cars - everything I had and I owe a great thank you to Barry Moorehouse at the Bass Centre over that, because he kept a few of my classic basses so that when I made some money again, I could go back and get them, which I did. But I just cashed-in everything I could. To be honest with you it wasn't easy. I left the company with an overdraft, I had two kids in private education and no personal vehicles for daily use. My wife went back to work immediately and I admit I spent a few days with my head in my hands thinking "Oh, shit!". It had been my whole life, from six am to till nine at night and all the weekends and, suddenly, there I was on my own.
'But I had some ideas. That's really what I do - and probably do too much, as I'm always being told! But I knew what I wanted to do and came up with some products, using the same electronics engineer, Clive Button, who I've used, since 1987. We made all the prototypes in a little shed in Malden by the sea front - which was actually quite embarrassing when some of my prospective customers came to see what we were doing. But it was great fun and people were very good. The moment I was legally able to do so, I rang a few of my export customers and some of them immediately sent letters of credit, ordering products without question. All they had seen was a picture and prices - that was it.
'For the first three years I actually ran the company out of my dining room, had the cabinets made in Malden and made the PCBs at the back of my house. I can vividly remember sitting up, watching TV at three in the morning, building John Entwistle's first amp, for his birthday, then driving it there for nine or ten the next morning and finding that he didn't get up till three or four!
'All these old friends got in touch, like John and like Mark King. John Entwistle helped me in so many ways - he really did help to start the company.'
Ashdown is now six years old and seems to be doing well. 'Yes, we've got a massive market share in the UK,' Mr Gooday says. 'And exports are growing. We've just bought an industrial estate to put our own buildings in so that we can continue with UK assembly, but the lesson we've learnt is we have to go offshore for the products that demand that price level.'
Is he willing to put figures on that?
'In excess of £3 million turnover now, which is not bad for a young company. And I have to add that we had, in effect, last year off, because of the thing with Fender.'
Which beings us to the next question on our list. It is common knowledge that Ashdown was nearly sold last year to Fender which, at the last minute, seems to have dropped its offer, in favour of buying fellow Americans, SWR. Is Mark Gooday's willing to throw light onto precisely what happened? His answer is both candid and surprisingly good-natured.
'Well, again, it was a fantastic experience. I spent a lot of time with them, going round their factories and they are lovely people - absolutely adorable, the whole company and, yes, I was absolutely gutted it didn't come off. Everything was ready, the contracts were done, due diligence was finished and on the Friday before they were giving me the money on the following Tuesday, they bought SWR.' Impressively, he seems able to laugh about the experience.
'I look at it and think "you idiot" and I'd always said to people that I thought it was too good to be true. But it was part of my plan, to build the company up for five years then sell it.'
Was that really what he wanted to do?
'Oh, I don't know. It was in my head that it was possible to do that. I'd learned quite a lot about amp building and I've had some great help on the way from Geoff at our with a marketing company, The Bridge, who I've been with for 12 to 15 years. There are straightforward rules for doing these things and I think you can build a brand if you follow them, so in the back of my mind, that was always a possibility.'
But doesn't saying that leave Ashdown customers wondering how deep his commitment really is?
'That's very true - but the bottom line is that having had that kick in the nuts, they are probably the only company in the world that could buy me, or that I would want to go and work for. I wouldn't have sold Ashdown to them and walked away. I wanted to work with them and I've no intention of retiring in my life, ever. I enjoy what I do every single day. I was going to head-up their bass division as well as run Ashdown and for a bass player like me, that was case of "Holy Shit!" - loads of money and the best job in the world!
'Perhaps I had rose-coloured glasses on, but being older and wiser I thought that maybe I could have more impact on the company than I'd had on Kaman. I'm not sure that's true - but it's what I felt then.'
So how does he feel now? Bitter?
'Not at all. It took me about three or four days to get over it and, yes, it hurt us for six months as a lot of our customers reacted much the way you said. Some people didn't pay their bills too quickly and kind of stopped ordering for a while. In some European countries it was taken as general knowledge that they'd been going to lose the line and that it would be taken on by Fender, but that all came round very quickly.'
As part of the buying process, presumably Fender had learnt everything it needed to know about SWR's major competitor?
'Oh yes, it gave me the biggest kick up the arse. I'd got a tad complacent and I have to thank Fender for this - they made me look at every one of my products in an entirely different way. They analysed everything to death. They wrote reports that were massively constructive to everything we do and we've taken on board what they did, gone through all the approvals around the world, which has cost us God knows how much and we've engineered our products to be far stronger. That's all down to Fender. I was highly impressed with the way they work. They don't cut corners.
'Within months of it happening we then had two other very large American companies approach us. But this time we said, you're going to have to put the money in the bank first.'
With so much inside knowledge now in the hands of a major competitor, what did he do?
'We completely re-vamped our product line, re-engineered every single product, changed the aesthetics of everything and produced a new brochure. So within three months of Fender thinking they knew all about our company, we were another company.
'In the end, I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me and the answer now is that we are not looking to sell and we are looking forward to the future. I'm not even thinking about it now.
'My goal is to try and succeed in America and that's the same for all of us - it's what everyone wants to do, though with the exchange rates at the moment, it's a nightmare. My other goal is to succeed in the guitar market, which was something I always wanted to do at Trace.'
It was, it has to be said, not something Trace ever succeeded in achieving (despite some success with acoustic amps) and there remain the marketing trials of making guitar players want to buy a product which is seen as being solely for bass players.
'Yes, and Fender saw that and wanted to take our guitar amps and use another name on them. They saw us as a bass company, too. It's an internal argument we've had for 25 years now. Do we put a different brand on it? But we're like a stick of rock - cut us and it says Ashdown all the way through and so it's very hard. What we're trying to do is downplay the Ashdown name with the guitar range and market it as Fallen Angel, with Ashdown as the brand that makes it, so people look at it and think Fallen Angel, first.'
It is, of course, the Holy Grail for amp manufacturers. Fender wanted SWR precisely because it sold bass amps. Notwithstanding the fact that Fender invented the very concept of a bass amplifier (not to mention the bass guitar), it still felt it needed another brand to appeal to appeal to bass players.
'It's a strange thing, isn't it? Mesa Boogie probably sells more bass amps than people realise, but I'd be surprised if it's more than ten per cent of their production. That said, our guitar amps are 30 per cent of our turnover and NAMM saw a big push on our guitar range, with Frankfurt being the show at which we push the bass products. America is very much more guitar orientated, which is one reason we're doing it that way'
In addition to all the usual reasons given why the US is a hard market for UK manufacturers to break into, Mr Gooday throws light on an aspect not often touched on (and in so doing reveals the extent to which he is more marketing savvy than most). It's not just currency problems and the logistics of repping and shipping that a manufacturer has to contend with - even the brand-building marketing is constrained by the size of the country.
'Everything takes longer in America. The word of mouth that we might achieve in this country doesn't happen there. Here, you have a little underground network of dealers that can create a brand very quickly and the magazines here are very fast, too. If I send out a product for review, it will probably be in the magazine next month, but in America you're probably four or five months out. This meant that for any press we hoped to get for NAMM, we had to let US mags know three or four months ago, which is really hard for small companies to do. It's all slower.' The buzz, it seems, takes far longer to get going in such a huge territory.
Though he is approaching the US market via Ashdown USA, he is being careful not to repeat the mistake made with Trace Elliot USA, which cost the various parties involved a lot of money and paved the way for the sale to Kaman. 'I won't go down that route unless it's the very, very last option and if I did, I would use a venture capital company and set it up with proper funding, The big mistake Trace made was that it had no funding. You cannot do America without lots and lots of backing. But I have no intentions of doing that, so what we have is Ashdown USA, which is our name, but with a group of people who were our rep team when we had a joint distribution scheme with HHB, and they've set it up. It's their company, but I own the brand and control the marketing. They stock our products in New Jersey and Reno and after about a year, it is starting to grow.'
Tellingly, the company already has its own marketing manager concentrating on Ashdown in the USA and the all-important artist liaison man working for them in Los Angeles.
So, inevitably, to the question of the day: how much Ashdown product is being manufactured in China, and how much a little less far East, in Essex?
'All of our Mag, Electric Blue and practise amps are made in China. All our high-end, handwired and valve amps are made in England and will continue to be so. But anywhere were we've got to be competitive, we have to make in China. We were kind of behind the times. I know Laney were out there before us, but we've been making parts out there for about three years and I took it slowly. It's extremely difficult to get it right. We go out there every month just to keep on top of it and you have to do that. E-mail and the phone just doesn't work. You think you've had the same conversation, but you haven't and you have to be there, physically, to make it work.'
That said, the continuing pace with which Chinese imports are replacing Western produced goods worries him. 'I think we've got five years and then something's got to give. We're trying to be global about this and we start assembling our high end products in the USA in March, sending components from here to be assembled in the USA with a US-made cab and a US speaker. Despite shipping costs, I feel that will give us an edge in the USA.'
Whether Mark Gooday and his team manage to break the US market, whether someone else comes along and makes him a multi-millionaire overnight by buying the company (though he insists he would be perfectly happy if Ashdown carries on as it is now for the next 20 years), what counts most is what he has achieved. And what the rest of us can learn from that is - contrary to popular belief - that new brands can be built in the UK - and at least some elements of them can be made here. If for no other reason (and there are plenty) Mark Gooday deserves our thanks and applause.