Showered with success: Kohler Mira cleans up in Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 14:36 21 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:36 21 April 2015
We meet Liz Hazeldene, managing director of Kohler Mira, the UK's most successful shower brand
The chances are that your daily shower will be under a Mira, because the brand represents close to 50% of the UK domestic market. Good news for the 500 or so employees across the company’s Cheltenham manufacturing headquarters and its two sites in Gloucester.
Mira has been a well-known UK brand for years, but in 2001 it was bought by American family business Kohler and has grown significantly since then. Now its Cheltenham manufacturing base on Cromwell Road is incongruously surrounded by a very large housing estate.
Convenient for local recruitment as many staff walk to work, but not where you would expect to find a factory in these days of efficient town planning. In fact the factory was built by the original company Walker Crosweller in 1937 on a greenfield site outside the town, and its suburbs now wrap snugly around the five acre site.
The site doesn’t feel squashed when I arrive, but nevertheless managing director Liz Hazeldene, is on the case. “The location is so convenient for many of our staff, but we are considering redevelopment of the site to make sure we have state of the art facilities for our substantial design and manufacture capabilities, and space for customers and installers to see our products. We could go to a new site, which isn’t our preference, or we could redevelop this site one stage at a time.”
Liz has been managing director at Kohler Mira for just over a year, having joinined the company from ICI Dulux Paints in 2003.
She has a degree in business studies, a postgraduate degree in marketing, an MBA from Warwick and worked her way through a number of marketing roles before ‘going to the dark side’, into sales. She must have been rather good at sales, because it didn’t take long to became Kohler Mira’s commercial business director, a position created for her which she held for over four years before taking over as managing director.
Kohler Mira is a good, strong, profitable family business in US ownership. Liz likes the set up. “Kohler is a privately owned company and very hands-on with its overseas operations. I’ve worked in shareholder-owned companies where, naturally, it’s all about money. Kohler Mira reinvests around 96% of what it makes back into the business. The company has been in existence in the US since 1873 and the current Mr Kohler still runs it, having driven the business from $300 million to $5 billion during his 30-year tenure. He knows our business strategy, our market, our competitive set and looks at the business holistically. Fundamentally he cares.”
Along with the main site at Cromwell Road, Cheltenham, Kohler Mira has a small foundry elsewhere in the town and a distribution centre in Gloucester. It also has a purpose-built factory in Hull, where shower trays are manufactured for markets across Europe.
The majority of what Kohler Mira sells in the UK is branded Mira for the domestic market. But its commercial brand, Rada, is sold all over the world and its market share is predicted to grow as it brings out new technology later this year.
“All of the shower valves and cartridges for the Rada brand are made here,” explains Liz. “We are the global showering centre of excellence with 120 people working in new product development and we invest heavily here. So although it may be branded Kohler in the US, it’s technology created and engineered here.”
Not being very technology aware, I hadn’t appreciated the amount of design needed for taps and showers, especially those being used in commercial environments. Liz puts me right. “Our Rada brand is used in a huge range of environments, from ladies’ washrooms in a supermarket to scrub rooms in a hospital. These taps have to work a million times without failing. If a tap in a scrub room in an operating theatre in a hospital breaks, you have to cancel 30 operations. The technology that goes into Rada and the research behind it is hugely important. In healthcare there are other issues too. The taps have to be thermostatic because they can’t scald or they could kill. They can’t harbour bugs, and have to be flushed through, often every two hours, in a hospital. Water must run through a tap at above 60 degrees for three minutes at least once a week to kill any bugs. In hospitals there are people employed to make this happen.”
However, it’s not a fear of hospital bugs that keep Liz awake at night. It’s concern for those working in the company. “When I took over as managing director I thought I’d worry about the financials. I don’t. I am more concerned about building a work environment where people get to be the best version of themselves. If we can achieve that, the money takes care of itself. If people are happy and want to come to work to deliver what we are all focused on, then guess what, it works.”
But, she says, don’t use the word ‘engagement’ because as soon as you do, everyone looks the other way. It’s not about the vocabulary of human resources; it’s about individuals working together in a dynamic and busy environment: A community of employees concentrating on the end customer, setting themselves high standards of performance, she says.
Her strategy is working. In the last year Kohler Mira’s Sunday Times ‘best companies to work for’ score has gone up 40%. “What I really care about is whether people know how important their role is to business. We hold roadshows around our sites and monthly team briefings across the business. Everyone knows what our numbers are for the year and where we are tracking because we are brutally honest.”
Kohler Mira is bringing some manufacturing back from China because it can now be done effectively and flexibly here thanks to automation. “Most of our electric shower production is back on site,” says Liz. “Don’t get me wrong, we still buy a lot from China, including all our componentry, but because we have an increasingly demanding customer who doesn’t want to wait 12 weeks for the boat to arrive, and it’s costly to fly goods by aircraft, we can make more here efficiently.”
Talking of aircraft, Liz spends rather a lot of time in them. Between doing this interview and its publication, she will have done three trips to the US, one to Germany and another to China. Luckily she has strong home support. “I can’t do all this travel and have daily responsibility for my 12 and 14-year old children. My husband Ian supports my career and currently works school hours only. We live near Evesham and have found our own version of the work life balance. It’s not about having it all, it’s about having enough to be happy.”
Working for a US company helps, because the time zone difference means they kick in at mid-day in the UK. “If you want to work for an American business you have to be flexible,” says Liz. “If I need to work up to 10pm on a Friday, fine, but that means I can take the kids to school in the morning. I will never be in the office at 8.30am, but if you need me to take a conference call at 11pm tonight, I can do that.”
And then of course, working for the biggest shower manufacturing company in the UK, it’s a given that she’s going to have
the best installed at home: The perfect way to relax after that late night international conference call.
A people business
Half all those who work at the factory on Cromwell Road live locally.
“For those with the travel bug, Kohler Mira has businesses in China, India, Asia, Brazil and the USA. From a graduate point of view, there are huge opportunities and we have a good graduate scheme as well as apprenticeships available.”
In the community
Kohler Mira is a key sponsor of Cheltenham Design Festival and supports a nominated charity every year. Staff vote for their chosen charity, with whatever has been raised at the end of the year being doubled by the company. In
2014/15 its main charity is the Cheltenham Animal Shelter along with seven other local charities: Brain Tumour Support, The Butterfly Garden, Cheltenham Open Door, Footsteps, Pied Piper, Scoo-B-Doo and The Spring Centre. There is a great
enthusiasm for charity fundraising at Kohler Mira. Last year company staff raised £53,000 for CLIC.
A question of gender
Does Liz think that a woman runs a company differently than a man?
“No I think that humans run different companies in different ways. Do I run this company as a business? No I don’t. I run it as a business manager. Are my approaches different because of my social conditioning as a woman? Yes.
“Women don’t always enjoy negotiation as much as men do. Women will look at different ways to find a ‘win win’ situation. I am much more about a consultative approach. If you want a draconian manager who says ‘do what I tell you’, that’s not my approach. My leadership approach works well for this business. It’s more about the cultural fit than about me being a woman.”
This interview by Nicky Godding is from the May 2015 issue of Business & Professional Life