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Expert Eye: Florence Roby

For more than 50 years luxury workwear supplier Florence Roby has traded successfully and grown its business.

Based in Prescot, the family firm supplies luxury uniforms for the hotel, hospitality, beauty and spa sectors. Its customers include hotels, hospitality venues, small salons, health and beauty spas, cruise ships and colleges.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Florence Roby faced an existential threat to its business – a threat that has yet to go away due to escalating costs of energy and raw materials.

Its core customer base was worst hit by COVID lockdowns with most having to close altogether. At one point Florence Roby’s trade was down to 20% of normal, and the company had to make a decision to reduce its workforce.

Director Jan Roby said the company has been part of the local community for decades, with a loyal staff base, many of whom have been with the business for a number of years. Jan added: “Having to let people go – good people who have done nothing but work hard for us – was absolutely heart-breaking.”

The Florence Roby brand was established in 1968 by Florence Roby herself, a bespoke tailor from St Helens. She started the venture in her kitchen and later brought husband Robert and son Steven into the business. Jan Roby is Steven’s wife so the family connection to the firm remains as strong as ever.

In its first few years the company’s focus was on hairdressing, hospital and healthcare dresses and ecclesiastical wear. In the 1990s it branched out into the beauty and spa hotel industry with the introduction of the Oriental tunic and trousers, breaking the traditional norms of ladies’ uniforms.

This was a big driver of growth and the firm prides itself on being prepared to innovate. Its fabrics come from a supplier in Nottingham and production of the uniforms is split between Florence’s Roby’s own manufacturing site in Prescot and an outsourced manufacturer in Lithuania.

Florence Roby herself died five years ago and now Steven, Jan and Ben are spearheading the fight to ensure her legacy survives. However, they are angry about how little support for the business has come from the UK Government.

“Through the pandemic we have applied for the grants offered by the Government, and distributed by local authorities, but we felt that considering the size and nature of our business the funding offered was inadequate in comparison to the damage the pandemic lockdowns had done to our sales,” said Jan. “The only extra money we were able to raise came from the Government-backed coronavirus loans.

“And, because we are a manufacturing facility with a big footprint, it means our business rates are quite high. We did secure a business rates holiday but this has only been for 12 months.”

Ben added that Florence Roby had attempted to become a supplier for PPE. “I’ve gone all the way to the Cabinet Office. I have spoken to so many people but got nowhere. In terms of grant support, it seems the approach of the Government was just to get the money out as quickly as possible and say, ‘look at how much we are doing’. But that support simply wasn’t based on need.”

Jan went on: “We have had amazing support from Knowsley Chamber and from a number of MPs. Bill Esterson (Labour MP for Sefton Central) has mentioned us three times in Parliament, and we also have the backing of Sir George Howarth (Labour MP for Knowsley).”

Similar to many businesses, Florence Roby is also facing a significant increase in its cost base as well as difficulties in getting supplies. Jan explained: “Fabric costs have gone through the roof and our supplier is having difficulty getting its supplies from the Far East. It means we can’t fulfil orders as quickly as we need to.

“In terms of our clients we have seen some bounce-back from the hotels sector and from cruise ships. However, our smaller customers such as small salons are being much more cautious about committing to spending because of the situation with the economy, and we completely understand this.”

Florence Roby’s business is seasonal with its busiest periods in the summer and the autumn. Ben said: “Hotels are more likely to place a big order in the summer as they tend to have a lot more cash because of the wedding bookings.

“In September we tend to get orders from colleges and as we get closer to Christmas, hospitality venues might increase their orders as they want staff to have new uniforms for the festive trading period.

Jan has seen Florence Roby thrive in normal times and has faith in the business model established by the family over the past few decades.

“We have worked hard over the years and we have given so much back to the local community. We had a very stable and loyal workforce, and we are so proud about what we have built here”.

If you have work/business uniforms and would like to support a local manufacturer as your supplier. Please contact Florence Roby.

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