Updated: Aug 7
One of the latest buzz phrases around right now is ‘circular economy’. It is a phrase that is likely here to stay and a concept that has been a shot in the arm for one Merseyside business.
Circular economy refers to the reuse, regeneration or recycling of materials and products. With climate change and sustainability high on all of our agendas it is an idea whose time has come and has brought the old tradition of repair and maintenance back into fashion.
This is good news for Staffords, a company started just over a century ago, in 1918, by William Stafford. Then called WJ Stafford, the business rode the wave of the surge in demand for typewriters, then usually imported from either Germany or the US.
Liverpool-based William branched out into other office machinery and his major claim to fame was he supplied football pools tycoon Sir John Moores with his first calculator to support the fledgling operation.
Following the Second World War the business was taken over by William’s son Ken. It prospered thanks to the increasing automation of offices, particularly banks - a section of the market that was successfully cornered by Staffords.
For the next few decades it repaired and maintained typewriters, telephones and later photocopiers, fax machines, word processors and personal computers, for many of the leading high street banks.
A network of 13 service centres was established across the UK, from Scotland right down to the south of England, primarily to serve Staffords’ banking customers.
However, as the 20th century drew to a close we became much more of a disposable society. Mass-produced electric and electronics devices became so cheap that it was more cost-effective to dispose of and replace rather than repair.
And it was in 2001 that Staffords, now run by Peter Stafford, grandson of the founder, saw an opportunity when the emphasis on sustainability made repair and renewal fashionable again.
“We were fairly large in business to business, mainly the financial sector,” said Peter. “We supplied typewriters, calculators, word processors and fax machines to the high street banks.
“Because we were selling to the major banks we established a network of service centres.
“We dealt with Barclays and Lloyds and all the other banks and building societies. As the machinery became more developed it was a higher level of equipment to support.”
One of the major manufacturers that Staffords had dealt with over the years was Japanese consumer giant Panasonic. In 2002 a senior service manager at Panasonic left the business to take a leading service role with Groupe SEB.
This is a French consortium that is a global maker and supplier of small domestic appliances and its brands include Krups, Rowenta and Tefal.
“Because we had this professional background in dealing with equipment in business he asked us to look after their equipment,” explained Peter.
“We had all the necessary background, experience, technical expertise and accreditations that he was looking for to support his brands.
“This worked well as we had already recognised a shift in where the market was going. So this allowed us to pivot to support household electrical items such as coffee making machines, food mixers and vacuum cleaners.
“We look after coffee machines, steam generator irons, vacuum cleaners, along with Beer dispensers. Anyone who has a fault on those can get them repaired by us in the UK
“Another customer is Kenwood Delonghi and we look after their food mixers and some of their coffee machines. Miele vacuum cleaners is another client.
“People are now more conscious about sustainability and the environment. And there is new legislation called the Right to Repair Act which came into force in 2021 which provides that manufacturers are required to supply parts and technical support for up to 10 years from the date of manufacture.
“This has led to the growth of the circular economy which ensures things don’t just end up in a skip or in landfill.
“Where it is financially viable most electrical appliances can be repaired. So instead of just being glued together appliances are increasingly being screwed together to facilitate a repair or upgrade.
“While manufacturers tend to be very efficient at making new products and getting it shipped out to retailers, where they have struggled in the past is with logistical support and in particular the supply of spare parts etc.
“Setting up logistical routes for spare parts and components takes time and cost and there are still very significant volumes of high end domestic appliances imported into the UK with little or no technical support.
“The lack of service support leads to equipment being routinely replaced with a new unit and the returned item being scrapped no matter how trivial the fault. The number of lithium battery powered devices being discarded is astronomical.
“For anything portable that is found in the home it is far more cost-effective to get a courier to deliver the item into us rather than sending an engineer out for it to be fixed on site.”
With the change in the business came a need to seek new premises. For many years Staffords had been based at Gibraltar Row, close to Liverpool waterfront.
Peter and his team decided the time was right to sell up and relocate to more modern premises. In 2021 they identified a new-build warehouse in Knowsley Business Park. They subsequently acquired an adjacent unit and now occupy 22,000 sq ft of space.
Employee numbers vary throughout the year according to seasonal demand but tend to be between 65 and 70. Although its main focus is now domestic appliances, Staffords has retained its links with the banks, looking after banknote counting and forgery detection machines.
Another avenue of growth the business has pioneered has attracted the attention of one of the world’s biggest coffee machine brands.
Dave Latham, Staffords’ technical and operations director, explained: “There is now a big trend towards what is called advanced replacement, or pre-loved.
“Traditionally if a customer had a faulty or broken machine, we would send a loan machine and their machine would come in and we would repair it and send it back. The consumer would then send back the loan machine.
“That was a four-legged courier process that had a big carbon footprint. With advanced replacement if your machine fails today you will get a replacement tomorrow. We then repair and refurbish the first machine to an “as new” condition and it is sent out as a pre-loved item for the next person.
“It is rare that items cannot be repaired and fully refurbished and through years of experience we can obtain very high yields of recycled products.
“We recently won a big contract with Nespresso based on that model. They are thrilled. They have sent over people from Belgium and Switzerland as they are keen to see what we do here and replicate the process globally.
“Our repairs are of course manual because each fault can be different. But all our processes are now automated. Nespresso, for example, can track the progress of their machine as soon as it comes in to us until it is returned to their customer
“Via a new software system all our clients and the end user customers can get visibility about what is happening to their machine at any point in time.”
Sustainability is a trend that is only going to increase and Peter sees big opportunities for Staffords in the years ahead.
He added: “Our growth will be in bringing in more brands and products. As the cost of waste disposal goes up then more items are becoming viable to repair.
“Everyone is now coming around to the idea of the circular economy. They are more advanced on this in Europe driven by European legislation but we are quickly catching up. Anyone now supplying equipment into the UK will now have to start thinking this way.
“So many businesses are now looking at sustainability and the circular economy and it really has given us a new lease of life.”