Unless you’re German, you’ve probably never heard of Wolfgang Grupp or his textiles firm Trigema. That’s fine, Grupp is okay with that.
Based in the town of Burladingen, deep in Germany’s Southern Catholic heartland, Grupp runs his multi-million euro business with a familiar, almost self-parodying Germanic pragmatism. “Problems are there to be solved, not complained about,” he once told a German interviewer.
Despite Trigema’s great success, the company has developed with a religious devotion to growing according to a set schema. The reason we don’t wear Trigema in The UK is because Wolfgang Grupp isn’t really interested, choosing to focus on a pre-ordained territory.
This was done for a reason: control. Trigema manufactures all of its textiles in Germany, with German workers (even guaranteeing the workers’ children future employment). There’s a point, Grupp argues, that a company needs to sacrifice some growth to maintain control.
Longthorne Guns is one of the UK’s few remaining gunsmiths in a small, but bustling, market.
It’s easy to fob Grupp off as a throwback but there’s an increasing tendency in manufacturing to shun the concept of relentless expansion. To the west of Grupp’s micro-kingdom, back in England, is Longthorne Guns, one of the UK’s few remaining gunsmiths in a small, but bustling, market.
Speaking with a Midlands lilt rather than Grupp’s diphthong-heavy Swabian German, James Longthorne Stewart ran a precision engineering business for 30 years, frequently manufacturing parts for guns, before deciding to enter the gun trade for himself.
“In 2006, we started moving from manufacturing parts for guns, to just making the weapons in-house.” They finally produced their first firearm in 2010, the four year interval allowing for the design of their unique gun barrel which uses one piece of metal to make the barrel set.
Now, Longthorne Guns is all set to move to new, larger premises in Northampton. “We’ve invested a lot of money in our business,” explains Stewart. “In the next seven years, we want to increase production from 150 to a 1,000 guns a year.”
In the next seven years, we want to increase production from 150 to a 1,000 guns a year.”
Despite this growth, Longthorne’s Guns maintains a Grupp-ian commitment to keeping every facet of production under one roof. In recent years, the English gun trade has tended towards having either part or all of their ‘in-house’ guns manufactured overseas by the large Italian, Spanish and Turkish manufacturers.
But it’s a trend Longthorne Guns is profoundly disinterested in. “Production has to stay under one roof,” Stewart says definitively. “We see it a lot with other companies where they dilute their product and their brand by growing too fast.
“All of the sudden it’s taken over by accountants who think the bottom line is the most important feature of the business. When actually the product we produce is the most important
We see it a lot with other companies where they dilute their product and their brand by growing too fast.”
“We have to make a profit, don’t get me wrong. It’s not one of those businesses where you can say ‘oh, I’m running at a loss so that my customers are happy’. I have people that rely on me to make a profit.
“But,” Stewart argues, “do we have to make a 110% profit, or are we happy with 95% profit? If the 95% profit means we get to keep the customers happy and keep it all under one roof and everything stays according to the original vision and original plan - then I’ll pick less profit.”
It’s not lack of ambition that guides entrepreneurs like Stewart and Grupp. Longthorne Guns is set for impressive growth, adding 20-30 employees in the next few years to the current 15 (many of them young apprentices). But it’s a business completely adherent to a vision.
Next step for Longthorne Guns is to move into producing semi-bespoke firearms. At the moment, the guns are completely custom. The prospective owner selects the wood and metal, then spends a whole day with Longthorne to make sure the gun is a perfect, ergonomic fit.
The semi-bespoke range will lessen this burden somewhat. This new off-the-rack range is made possible by the groundwork from their custom designs, explains Stewart.
“Everything we’ve designed component wise was designed with the mind we’ll have to produce more of them. The question then is: ‘What can we do to reduce the human labour and replace it with automation, leaving the workers to focus on the bit that matters.”
It was our intention, from day one, to build a company that was bigger than just me.”
The “bit that matters” refers to the process of specialisation that Longthorne’s workforce is currently undergoing. “We get the bulk of the shape of the gun done with machinery. All of the final finishing and assembly and polishing; basically making the gun look and feel nice and work reliably is done by hand.” And each worker has begun to focus on an aspect, with an handful of employees being skilled in multiple disciplines.
Longthorne Guns’ ambition of increased, more refined production is one that The UK gun trade hasn’t experienced. The most well-known manufacturers – like Holland & Holland – still produce very small batches of very expensive guns (“around 80-a-year,” Stewart says).
“It was our intention, from day one, to build a company that was bigger than just me,” says Stewart. “Although, I’m the captain at the moment - we’re already looking to replace me. As long as the vision is maintained, its philosophy is maintained, it’ll continue growing. You need people that’ll embrace your vision and your philosophy.
“Maybe if I had thought more sensibly I would’ve picked something easier to make,” Stewart says, thinking out loud. “Make flowerpots or something, but you wouldn’t do this work if you didn’t love it.”