Prestigious gunmaker Holland and Holland was founded way back in 1835, but as Helena Douglas finds, it’s more than willing to move with the times.
As gunroom manager at Holland and Holland’s flagship London premises on Bruton Street, Andrew Ambrose is super-smart in suit, striped shirt, tie and shiny shoes.
He is surrounded by cabinets that house specimens of the shotguns and rifles that have made the company’s name over the past 178 years.
It was not always so for the 38-year-old who previously worked for a jeans company looking after its export clients.
“That was a completely opposite environment,” he says. “We wore jeans, it was very casual, but looking after clients gave me a good insight into people and that translates to the job I am doing today.”
Andrew, who has worked for Holland and Holland for nearly 15 years, started out as gunroom administrator with responsibility for implementing a computer system for the company’s firearms register, which was still kept in handwritten ledgers. He then became a gunroom salesman after spending nine months in the factory learning about the craft of gunmaking. Last year he was promoted to gunroom sales manager.
As he shows, the qualities needed for the job are many and varied. “You have to be able to deal with people from different backgrounds and cultures, from all around the world, and all of whom have different requirements. No day is the same. One minute I may be selling a £5 can of oil and the next discussing a £110,000 double rifle. It’s also crucial for me to understand the guns we sell, which is why I worked at the factory as it gave me an understanding of the gunmaking process, how the guns work, why they take so long to build and why they cost what they do.”
Clearly the role is also one of providing excellent customer service. “Taking an order for a bespoke gun can be the start of a two-and-a-half year relationship with that client while the gun is being made,” says Andrew. “There is a lot of communication between us. After that time the client comes back for the gun to be serviced, to buy shooting clothes and so on, so we maintain that relationship which can carry on for years. Clients like to feel they are part of the Holland and Holland family, and we like that too.”
Holland and Holland employs about 80 staff, including 35 craftsmen. It makes all of its own guns – around 50 shotguns, 20 bolt-action rifles and five double rifles a year – and is the only gunmaker in the country to build them under one roof. “The guns are built from start to finish at our factory in Kensal Green, north London, but we do use some outworker engravers as many of them work from home.”
Bespoke guns make up about 40 per cent of Holland and Holland’s business, with the remaining 60 per cent made of ‘off the shelf’ sales. This percentage, Andrew says, has changed hugely over the past three decades. “Thirty years ago you wouldn’t have seen any guns in the cabinets – nearly all our sales were bespoke orders. But we have a different clientele now and our business has had to change. Today many clients won’t wait – they want a gun right away. We have to had to react by building for the shelf. Essentially, we now need to second-guess what our clients will want in terms of stock type, barrel lengths, engraving and so on.”
Holland and Holland is an aspirational brand, and a big part of its appeal is its history. “Clients are buying into the history as well as into our consistency and reliability,” explains Andrew. “We haven’t had a major design change with our ‘Royal’ side-by-side model, for example, since 1922, but we do now use CNC machinery. There is no point in having a skilled craftsman reducing a hunk of metal down to the size that is needed when their skills can be better used elsewhere, and furthermore, the technology leads to greater consistency. And while our guns are expensive, we can always equate our prices to the number of hours it takes to build them. An average H&H shotgun can take 700-800 man hours to build, and a double rifle upwards of 1,500 man hours.”
So what sort of person will part with a large chunk of money for a Holland and Holland shotgun or rifle? “In the past they were likely to be wealthy through inherited money,” says Andrew. “But nowadays they are from different backgrounds, different nationalities – the Russian market has grown considerably – and different cultures. We are often thought of as elitist, but we deal with clients from all backgrounds. The important thing to remember is in terms of clients you can never judge anyone by what they wear or sound like. We welcome anyone, and what does link our clients is that they are all passionate about shooting and our guns.”
Interestingly, since 2008, when the world economy went into decline and interest rates fell, Holland and Holland has seen an increase in the number of clients buying its guns as an investment. “Our guns do go up in value, albeit slowly,” says Andrew. “We can demonstrate the investment value to clients, but they do need to keep the gun or rifle for at least 15-20 years and not expect to make a fast profit.”
With interests falling and belts tightening, how has the recession affected the company? “We saw a dip in 2010-11 as confidence waned a bit, but last year was strong as we do operate in a bit of a bubble. We’d always like to sell more guns, and what has changed is the growth we’ve seen in the Russian market, which is second only to the USA in terms of our exports.”
And Holland and Holland has been quick to move with the times. It changed its production methods to reflect the fact that clients don’t want to wait for guns to be built. “That affects the way we work and how we decide what guns we build for the shelf,” Andrew says. “As a result the factory has had to rethink its planning and scheduling, and the sales team has to change its behaviour to be able say ‘Yes, we have the gun now’ to the client.”
Andrew also explains that more of the business is done on the phone and by email. “The internet has revolutionised the way we work. We now sell guns based on photographs on our website, which is the first thing many of our clients see and so has to be excellent. We are also constantly reviewing our marketing and PR activities, and put on events for potential new clients as well as attending the various exhibitions. That all means we don’t have to rely solely on footfall coming through the door, and because of that I think Holland and Holland has a secure and strong future ahead of it.”