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Sebastian Lazell: Managing director of Denby Pottery

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 August 2015

New Managing Director Sebastian Lazell

New Managing Director Sebastian Lazell

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Sebastian Lazell was recently appointed managing director of Denby Pottery. He speaks to Derbyshire Life of his exciting plans to rejuvenate the iconic Derbyshire-based 200-year-old firm

New Managing Director Sebastian Lazell in the beautiful shop at DenbyNew Managing Director Sebastian Lazell in the beautiful shop at Denby

Everyone knows the importance of good personal hygiene, with most of us buying dozens of products to groom, cleanse and freshen our appearance each year. The personal care business is now worth billions of pounds and companies are very keen to win a share of this lucrative market – how to do this has become a science, requiring tremendous insight and understanding of what consumers want and need. We all have preferences of which brands we like and which we trust. Every time we buy a tube of toothpaste to protect our teeth, or select a deodorant to improve our fragrance, or simply purchase washing powder to clean our clothes we are consciously selecting a preferred brand – but what’s astounding is that at some point in our lifetime there’s a very good chance that our personal care product choice will have been influenced by Sebastian Henry Lazell.

Having honed his wizard-like sales and marketing skills at one of the world’s oldest multinational product companies, Sebastian is a master of shaping, nurturing and promoting infant brands and turning them into the well-known household names we use today. Over the past three decades he has travelled the world, covering the continents of Europe, America and Australia, with a brief to increase the visibility of some of our favourite high-street shopping-basket-essentials including Persil, JIF, Dove, Sure and Lynx. He has recently been appointed as managing director of Denby Pottery with a remit to breathe new life and fresh ideas into the Derbyshire-based pottery giant – and he is relishing the challenge.

‘When the opportunity arose to join a business with over 200-years of history I was immediately excited – that combination of a strong powerful brand with heritage and craftsmanship, with deep-rooted tradition in this county and country was very appealing,’ says Sebastian. ‘Denby Pottery still uses time-honoured skills and traditions; there’s a great story to tell here, one that is much stronger than many of my competitors who have English roots but don’t make their products in England, and I can’t wait to tell it.’

Understanding the importance of a good brand and how it relates to the consumer has always been a big part of Sebastian’s life. Growing up in London he recalls: ‘As a young boy I remember my father, a man who spent his entire working life in advertising, coming home from the office and giving me a chewy, chocolatey sweet to try and let him know what I thought of it. Well that chocolate treat was a Curly Wurly and the rest of its appeal is now history. My grandfather was a businessman selling consumer products in the 1950s – a great time for promoting new and exciting products many of which were coming here from America. So with my father in advertising and my grandfather in sales, there was a certain kind of inevitability that I was to end up in a consumer-centered, brand-orientated set of roles.’

'Fettling' - Putting the final touches to teapots before the first visit to the kiln'Fettling' - Putting the final touches to teapots before the first visit to the kiln

Sebastian’s passion and thirst for knowledge and learning took him to the University of Oxford to study English literature. After graduating with a first class degree he used his love of words and language to take his first steps on the career ladder with a graduate sales and marketing trainee role at Unilever, one of the most respected businesses specialising in food, beverage, cleaning and personal care products. ‘In practical terms reading beautiful assemblies of words at university and needing to craft them for essay writing helped me to become a good communicator. I quickly understood how words can play a key role in helping to sell products and services,’ he reflects.

‘Working at Unilever was wonderfully enriching and rewarding. I enjoyed listening to and interpreting opportunities, and then using words to weave everything together to make it work,’ explains Sebastian. During his early years with Unilever he held various UK and European marketing roles for brands such as Persil and Domestos. By the mid-2000s he took over the company’s oral care business and within three years he had created a vibrant dental range of products to help protect people’s teeth. By 2008 he was rewarded for his commitment to the company with promotion to the role of chairman of Unilever Australasia.

Having devoted a great portion of his working and married life being located overseas he took the decision to look for new opportunities in the UK. ‘My wife Belinda, who I met at Oxford University, along with my four children, were very supportive of my career and travelled with me throughout the world during my time with Unilever,’ remembers Sebastian. ‘On returning to the UK I took up a senior role with the Good Hair Day (GHD), the Leeds and London-based hair and beauty fashion brand. I loved my time with GHD and still play a role with the company on its board of directors. What’s interesting is I’ve just come from a teenage business (GHD was founded 15 years ago) to join a bi-centernarian business at Denby Pottery – a firm with a much longer history.’

Sebastian is proud of Denby Pottery’s long association with Derbyshire, which began when the company was first established in 1809. ‘It is unusual for the premises of a company to still be at the source of its origins. It is very special to be able to walk through my door into sales then through another door and find that you are standing in the pottery where we are still making the product – that’s very immediate and now; and I love it.’ At this point in the interview, as we sit in his office on the third floor of the gargantuan brick and glass building on the edge of the village of Denby, he is quick to remind me that all of Denby’s handcrafted stoneware is made from the strongest Derbyshire clay – located and sourced from the doorstep as they have done for centuries. ‘This brand has grown up locally and stayed locally – I believe strongly that Denby is an iconic brand and business,’ he says proudly.

Afternoon Tea with 'Orchard' from Denby's Heritage CollectionAfternoon Tea with 'Orchard' from Denby's Heritage Collection

Despite a high level of local awareness of Denby products, Sebastian is eager to spread the word to new audiences. ‘I see this as being the next logical step in the development of the company. In Derbyshire, almost 100 per cent of people will know about us, but we are largely unknown in many parts of the world. This needs to change – we have a great message, our “Made in England” production methods present a wonderful story that appeals throughout the world. We need to use this message to encourage people to acquire and assemble our high-quality, beautifully designed, long-lasting tableware and dining sets which are made here in Denby,’ he explains.

Sebastian joined the company in January and has responsibility for over 800 staff, who last year helped to create, make and sell and incredible six million pieces of pottery – including tens of thousands of individually designed cups, plates, jugs and mugs – at the Denby factory alone. ‘A great proportion of my team is based here in Denby, many working in sales, production, marketing and design, with the rest contributing to the growth of the business in local retail outlets and others at some smaller potteries. I want to be a visible and highly involved leader. I am not a long distance manager and I love getting out and about, and learning more about our people and business,’ he admits.

Unlike many other medium-sized manufacturing businesses, Denby Pottery has always engendered a strong sense of cultural loyalty from its staff – with many workers having devoted their entire working lives to the company. ‘Many people have come to work directly from school and spent the rest of their time here. If I meet someone who says they have been here for 20 years they can still be regarded as a relatively new arrival – so my four months’ service makes me an absolute infant! I am so humbled by those people who have worked here for 30, 40 and sometimes almost 50 years – which gives this company deeply embedded skills and knowledge,’ reflects Sebastian.

His arrival at Denby marked the end of a decade-long reign by the company’s previous managing director Garry Biggs. Sebastian is grateful for the foundations his predecessor put in place when he took over the business. During this ten-year period Denby’s turnover grew from £36.2 million in 2005 to over £42.6 million by the end of 2014. In recent years, this year-in-year-out growth has seen the business expand into new markets throughout the world including Korea and Japan, as well as acquiring other smaller potteries at Poole in Dorset and Burleigh in Staffordshire.

‘When there is new leadership there is always opportunities to inject a bit of new energy and a fresh spark. However, I also want to build on the work of my predecessor Garry Biggs, who over the last ten years achieved good growth momentum, profitability and the development of new products,’ Sebastian acknowledges. But he is not resting on these achievements and is confident that there is much more that can and will be done to bring further success. ‘There is a genuine desire here to make this business even more successful – the richness and energy of our people gives me as a leader huge amounts of strength. We are a growth business and we want to keep expanding – it would be very significant if we can crack through a barrier and become a £50 million turnover business.’

By using the skills he acquired during his time with Unilever, Sebastian is determined to assist with the evolution of the Denby brand. ‘We need to understand the consumer of today and respond to their changing needs and demands. We have a wonderful design team here and we will use this expertise to create new Denby ranges to complement other Denby products. This has already been done successfully with the introduction of rice bowls to the Korean market and we hope to repeat this success with further new products. We’ll also use the expanding world of digital communications to welcome new and younger people to the brand.’

At the core of Sebastian’s vision for building the Denby brand is making the most of the fact that their pottery is sourced and made here in Derbyshire – something the company has always done well. ‘Telling people that our products are made in England is very popular with both UK and overseas consumers. When I visit our stores our customers are always delighted when they hear that our pottery is produced locally; so we have recently rebranded all our boxes, website and catalogues to use the iconic Denby tea-pot logo with Union Jack and the ‘Made in England’ message,’ he says proudly.

Sebastian continues: ‘We are also keen to make shopping as easy as possible; we want to take the stress and anxiety out of buying our beautiful tableware sets without the need to lug multiple kilos of pottery. People will always want to come and have the chance to touch and discover our products – because they are all different and unique – but our customers from near and far can also see the full range of our products from the comfort of their home. By simply logging on to www.denby.co.uk everyone can make their orders online.’

At the heart of the success of Denby Pottery over the years is its strong connection to the people of Derbyshire – and Sebastian is keen to build on this too. ‘We love welcoming visitors to our fantastic flagship destination store here at Denby – and we will continue to invest in our popular series of event and activities, such as the annual visit by James Martin and our summer and winter fairs,’ he says. ‘Local people love Denby; they have grown up with it and have a strong cultural identity with it. I am also pleasantly surprised that when I have met local people, business leaders and politicians during my first weeks in the role they have all expressed a strong affinity for Denby Pottery.’

After four months in his new role Sebastian is enjoying working and living in Derbyshire. ‘When I first came to Derbyshire I was commuting home and staying in a few local B&Bs. Recently I have moved into a charming cottage near Carsington Water and I am really settling in to the local area. I’m now really looking forward to getting my ordnance survey maps out and discovering some of the beautiful countryside this county has to offer,’ he says. ‘I’ve already been to a Derby County match with some of my neighbours and I’m really looking forward to going to a county cricket game.’

Sebastian’s knowledge and skills in projecting brands to new markets combined with his growing admiration for Derbyshire will ensure Denby Pottery has a very exciting future ahead – and it is also heartwarming that the man who provided us with the cleaning products to wash them is now very much at home making our pots!

Denby Pottery – Did you know?

• William Bourne established Denby Pottery in 1809 after a seam of clay was uncovered at Denby three years earlier during the construction of a road between Derby and Alfreton. Over the past 200 years the company has been making beautiful pottery from its base in Denby.

• Denby stoneware can handle itself in the busiest kitchens. From the smallest cup to the biggest casserole, all its pieces can be used with confidence in the microwave, dishwasher and freezer.

• Denby has developed its own unique glazes. A hundred years ago salt glazing became a less popular method of decorating pottery and Denby developed its own glazing style. Today Denby has a library of over 5,000 glaze recipes, all harder than steel.

• Each Denby piece is unique and passes through 25 pairs of craftsmen and women’s hands before it reaches yours.

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