As the purveyor of some of the world’s most exclusive and eclectic furniture, lighting and home accessories, The Libra Company is a valued partner to furniture retailers across the UK. As the business reaches a landmark 50 years of trading, its MD, Paul McLaughlin, is keen to celebrate Libra’s rich heritage through the launch of its Icons series, whilst laying out some exciting plans for its future, writes Paul Farley …

It has been two decades since Paul inherited the mantle of the family business, and 2022 sees Libra celebrate its 50th anniversary. The business was established in 1972 by Paul’s parents, Joe and Christine, who started selling antiques and artefacts they’d sourced along the route of a three-and-a-half year road trip to Portugal, India and South Africa.

“First and foremost, we are a family business,” Paul begins, “and we’ve never lost that ethos. My parents built the company with a small, loyal team, and whilst we have come a long way since selling butchers’ scales from Portugal and the kitchen scales we manufactured in Cambridgeshire, we are proud to have members in our team today who have been with us for over 30 years. That is a real tribute to the business my parents built.”?

Libra’s sales director, Alistair Scott, entered his 48th year with the business this year. “He’s been with us for 48 of our 50 years,” says Paul. “And in our oldest accounts he’s been working with three generations of the same family. They love his expertise and knowledge – whilst we continue to learn from him, and the benefit of this expertise and longevity is evident across our business.? ?

“Our vision is simple – to supply exclusive products of the best quality, with excellent customer service and a can-do, customer-focused attitude. Our values – respect, collaboration, quality and positivity – are just as important to us.”?

The pioneering spirit of Libra’s founders, and the desire to uncover unique, original products that enrich people’s homes, is still very much alive and kicking at Libra, even in the wake of a pandemic which laid bare the inherent weaknesses of global supply chains.?

“Like many people, we took our lessons from the pandemic,” Paul says. “In our case, apart from the obvious challenges, the lockdowns brought about a great deal of reflection, as we started to question and challenge existing processes.?

“We took time through the pandemic to design most of the collection from scratch, because we couldn’t travel, and this has meant that our 2022 collection is our best yet. Covid reinforced that we have a phenomenal design team who create products and collections that you genuinely can’t find elsewhere. We aim to lead, rather than follow. We invest heavily to enable us to be the originators of our designs, and we have a long history of working with talented sculptors, designers and artists.”

As shipping prices soared, and factories and countries closed their doors, many suppliers were prompted to seek alternative sourcing arrangements. Instead, Libra chose to forge joint ventures with key suppliers in India and Indonesia, allowing it to hold stock at origin, then to finish and ship in 30 days. The shortened lead times have made a fundamental difference to Libra’s business, and its stock levels emerging from the pandemic.?

“What a relief it was to see stock levels bounce back so quickly post-pandemic,” Paul continues. As a result, Libra was able to deliver an impressive promise to its customers at this year’s Spring Fair – namely that 70% of the products on its stand were being shown for the first time, and that everything shown would be in stock within four weeks. Bolstered by ongoing storage and fulfilment improvements behind the scenes at Libra’s headquarters in Newmarket, Libra enjoyed its best trade show since 2015.?

“The feedback from Spring Fair was that our customers return to Libra time and again because they value our originality and creativity and the relationships that we forge,” says Paul. “Customers tell us we offer a great experience, that we’re easy to work with, and that we care. I’m really proud that we continue to offer this support, and inspiration, to our customer base.”?

Libra is celebrating a second point of difference in its 50th anniversary year by launching Icons, a curated collection of 50 of the supplier’s best-loved products from across its storied history. “As we mark our 50th year, it is important for us to celebrate our proud heritage and some special moments in time for Libra,” Paul notes. “Through our Icons series, we are relaunching timeless classics which are exact replicas of the originals, and others which we have reimagined for today’s interiors.

“As we reviewed our back catalogue, we identified products that really mean something to us – for example, the Brompton Square Lantern, which John Lewis sold in its thousands, or our first wall sconce from the early 1990s. One of my personal favourites is the Twisted Willow Lamp base, because it was the first lamp I ever bought. Encouragingly, it did well at this year’s Spring Fair!”?

Alongside the Icons, Libra has also launched three trend-led collections – Neutral Accents, Maximalism and Midnight Hues – which bring further character to its rich Spring/Summer ‘22 offering. The collection includes a new partnership with one of the UK’s leading upholstery manufacturers, offering made-to-order sofas available in various sizes, hundreds of British and European fabrics, and incorporating European FSC-certified hardwood frames.?

“Whilst we can’t manufacture everything in the UK, it is great to be working with one of upholstery’s biggest brands,” says Paul. “The 12-week lead time, obvious high quality and great breadth of choice has proven very popular with our retailers.”?

Despite the cost implications, the new partnership is also driven by sustainable and ethical concerns, which Libra takes very seriously. “Climate change is an important topic for all of us,” Paul continues. “I firmly believe that if all businesses innovate to demand less of the planet, it will make a difference, and that SMEs can play a key role in the change we need. We should not wait for legislation to force us – business must be a force for good.?

“At Libra, we have been challenging ourselves on how we can be more proactive and innovative in our attempts to combat climate change, and also how we can add value to the communities we work in. We are a family business, and I want our children to be proud of our legacy.?

“At present, we’re working on our own carbon footprint and assessing our environmental impact – from packaging and cardboard to carbon. We’re working with specialists to measure our impact and build a clear picture, from which we’ll set targets on reduction, recycling, waste and resource use. Later this year, we’ll also publish our clear plans on how we aim to reach net zero by 2030.?

“Our offices in India and China actively seek out Sedex-registered factories, and we carry out our own third-party inspections in every factory with whom we work. I am pleased to see the UK’s retail industry asking more and more searching questions about their supply chains. We can all play our part and demand more of our suppliers.”?

Given Libra’s long history, it is unsurprising that Paul has an eye on the company’s long-term future. The past 50 years have seen Libra adapt successfully to the changing marketplace around it, and Paul appreciates the need to continually evolve.?

“So much has changed since my parents started out back in 1972,” he reflects. “Supply chains have changed fundamentally. Pandemic restrictions notwithstanding, there’s much greater international accessibility, a far greater breadth of suppliers, and new rising powers in global manufacturing.?

“Tastes and product categories have changed, too. It is 30 years since I went on buying trips with Dad, and 25 years since I helped set up show stands. Our collection is almost unrecognisable from those days of butchers’ scales and glass paraffin lamps (Dad was always very proud that he managed to get those lamps into Habitat – our first big sale!).”

Looking to the future, Paul sees scope for further controlled growth in products and sales. With Alistair Scott retiring at the end of this month, Libra has appointed two successors to cover his territory – “big boots to fill!” – and meanwhile, the head office team is being bolstered with new customer service co-ordinators and a web design specialist, while its warehouse is being further expanded.?

“We plan to continue growing our brand to the point where we hope it will be well known to the consumer and can therefore drive more demand for our customers,” says Paul.?

From 19th-22nd June, Libra is inviting customers to attend its Summer Open Week in Newmarket, with a special anniversary party for Libra’s friends and family taking place on the 16th.?

“So much in the retail landscape has changed over the last 50 years,” Paul says, “but we are still here serving customers with a knowledge and longevity which cannot be imitated.?

“We are proud of our history, and look forward to the next 50 years of Libra.? Our ongoing vision is to create exclusive products that make homes beautiful, and I hope to be able to pass our family business onto the next generation to ensure a bright future for our customers and children alike.”?

Discover more from Libra's new collections in April's Furniture News magazine, here.

Pictured:?More is more – Libra’s Maximalism collection, full of “outlandish, fun and bold designs”, proved popular at Spring Fair, says Paul