Tom Fleming speaks to a businesswoman who works with the pressure of 325 years of family heritage on her shoulders.
Founded in 1685 by a French Huguenot immigrant, Toye Kenning & Spencer is a business with a heritage.
In celebration of its 325th birthday, the firm recently hosted a gathering of a very unique club – the Tercentenarians.
The club is open only to those businesses that have been trading continuously for more than 300 years and retain links with the founding family.
The company produces civil and military identity products and other regalia including state insignia, medals for the Royal Horticultural Society and international Honours Caps for the England Football Team as well as jewellery and accessories.
The family business is overseen by chief executive Fiona Toye who was born and bred on the North Island of New Zealand.
Her journey to Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter began in 1979, when she sold her piano at the age of 19 to fund her trip to the UK.
She explained: “I had started studying English Literature at university in New Zealand but didn’t know what I wanted to do ultimately.
“During one of the vacations I got a job at the Chief Ombudsman’s office in Wellington that would ultimately lead to a law degree.
“At the end of the qualification I would be tied to work in the same place for many years and suddenly realised my life was mapped out. I was young and wanted more freedom so rebelled, sold the piano and set off.”
Fiona successfully applied to Guy’s Hospital to train as a nurse and so her base was London.
“The city seemed huge,” she said. Every day was as lively as Friday night in New Zealand so I had a real culture shock.
“I kicked off living in the nurses’ quarters but through my brother I met a close friend and we moved in to a flat together in the Inner Temple. It was while living here that my connection with Toye Kenning & Spencer began.”
Fiona met Bryan Toye, at the time chief executive and chairman of the business, when he gave her a lift home from a barbecue in Highgate.
In 1982, less than two years later, they were married and their first of four children, Charles, arrived in 1983.
Stewardship of Toye Kenning & Spencer had been passed from father to son through many generations and it was truly in Bryan’s blood; from working in the company as a boy in his school holidays the family firm had been his passion.
Throughout its 325 years, Toye Kenning & Spencer has always remained true to its original values – superb craft skills, innovative design, quality and service.
Today the company’s creative designers inspire its craftsmen, who are experts in weaving, gold and silver smithing, enamelling and embroidery and make regalia, badges, buttons, medals, cufflinks and trophies.
Fiona said from the very beginning Bryan engaged her with the operation of the business.
She had always loved art and anything to do with design, working for example as a cartoonist whilst at university, so learning enamelling and product design from the experts at Toye was incredibly rewarding.
She was also an active supporter of his political life.
While pregnant with Charles she campaigned for Bryan in Lime Street Ward, when he was first elected as Alderman of the City of London.
Fiona went on to have three more children – Lily, Freddie and Guy – but never settled to just one role.
She was an active fundraiser in the City, wrote an illustrated cook book and worked in graphics and art in the fashion industry.
In 1949 Toye Kenning & Spencer took the incredibly rare step of electing a woman to its board so as Fiona gradually became more and more involved in the business, eventually picking up the reins of sales and marketing, she was following in groundbreaking footsteps.
But about three years ago her involvement was transformed when Bryan had a massive heart attack in the Birmingham factory.
“He’s fit and well now after a triple heart bypass, but he’s lucky to be alive,” said Fiona. “Bryan lives and breathes the company; it’s in his blood. So his sudden and prolonged removal to hospital left a huge hole.
“At the same time we lost certain senior executives to a competitor. Through 325 years the business has obviously had all sorts of ups and downs and gone on to thrive but for me it was an initiation by fire. I was lucky, the team came together and gave me the support I needed to take the business forward.”
After preparing and tabling a strategic plan outlining the future of the business, Fiona was elected chief executive by the board in the summer of 2009 and began to put the plan into action.
“This business is an amazing entity,” continued Fiona.
“It has grown and evolved over three centuries under the stewardship of one family, a remarkable achievement.
“One of its real strengths is the workforce; they are immensely talented, creative and multi skilled, which means we have a wonderful platform for success,” she added.
“I believe we have retained these skills because we are a family business and so have a long term perspective, the result of which is that we foster a culture of nurturing and re-investing in talent.
“In my view this is why so many of the successful businesses in the Jewellery Quarter are family owned and run.
“But looking ahead, one of the real challenges we face, along with others in the Jewellery Quarter, is how we attract young blood to the sector and then support and encourage them to develop the skills we need.
“This is one of the most significant issues we face and so I am joining with others in the Jewellery Quarter to develop an effective skills and training initiative to deliver what our sector requires.”
Irrespective of the skills initiative, Toye Kenning & Spencer cannot stand still if it is to celebrate its 650th birthday in 2335.
“Today the company has a strong management team and together we have been reviewing our entire business, honestly appraising our strengths and weaknesses at the same time as considering the available opportunities so we can redefine our target markets.
“Continual reinvention is going to be as crucial in the future as it has been in the past.
“I hope the firm continues to be family-run because I think the focus is then on long term success rather than short term gain and I believe it creates a constructive culture,” continued Fiona.
“But we must be able to attract creative people with new ideas into all areas of the business; craftspeople, customer services, sales and operations.
“This means that someone’s surname cannot dictate their position in the company.
“We do and must continue to reward good people and make sure they can realise their ambitions within Toye Kenning & Spencer.
“It would be wonderful if my children take the business forward – indeed two are already working for the firm – but, for long term success, they must do so on their own merit.”
One of the unexpected benefits of running the business is the amount of time she is now spending in Birmingham. “The city always appealed but having settled in the capital after coming over from New Zealand I had always been London-centric.
“Birmingham is a wonderful culturally vibrant city full of lively individuals – we deserve to be City of Culture in 2013.”