Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council and Shaun Allen, founder and managing director of Durham Retail Displays.

Manufacturer changes its ways

A manufacturer of prison and custodial furniture has undergone reform of its own after diversifying its offer during the pandemic.

Durham Retail Displays (DRD), a Ministry of Justice (MOJ)-approved designer, manufacturer and installer of prison and custodial furniture, saw orders grind to a halt during the pandemic, as prison operators across the UK sought to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus within their estates.

Prior to the crisis, the company had outlined ambitions of exceeding the £1 million turnover mark for 2020/2021, however – like many other businesses in similar positions – the firm was forced to roll out an emergency ‘Survival’ business plan after realising it was unable to visit sites and fulfil orders.

Founded three years ago by managing director, Shaun Allen, DRD’s furniture is manufactured using technically-advanced materials that ensure its products are fire resistant and reject bacteria, fungal and insect attack, making it healthier and safer for inmates and staff.

This commitment to innovation and improving the health and safety of custodial environments has since helped it supply products to hundreds of police stations and prisons across the UK and establish a reputation as having some of the most versatile and durable products in the industry.

Shaun said: “We officially started trading on June 1, 2017, but for the first six months we didn’t raise a single invoice or produce anything other than samples for research and development.

“Due to the nature of our work, our products have to be safe and unable to be smashed or vandalised, therefore we spent six months making prototypes for approved third party testing, until we had something we knew was viable. Once we were happy with the product, we started trading and the business has grown rapidly since.

“We now employ 10 people, have a 9,000 sq ft office and manufacturing facility and work with some of the industry’s biggest names, from the Government’s National Offenders Management Service (NOMS) to G4S, Sodexo, GFSL and the MoJ.”

Despite the company’s orderbook remaining steady at the beginning of the pandemic, DRD found itself unable to fulfil orders due to tighter restrictions on prisons during the crisis and the firm was forced to adapt to the challenging market conditions it faced.

He added: “In March, we were deemed critical and essential workers and carried on working during the pandemic. However, by the end of the month, our workshop looked like Manhattan. Our furniture was piling up and we couldn’t get into prisons to install them due to the virus.

“We then received a call from one of our customers in a police authority to ask if we manufactured transparent screens. We’d only ever produced one so I came into work, made a secure screen, and sent it off. Not only did it protect from the virus but it was also smash proof. We fitted it to their charge desk and have since received orders from police stations up and down the country.

“Not only has this allowed us to pivot and continue operating during the pandemic, albeit at a reduced capacity, but it has also helped us expand our product offering and further expand our presence in the custodial industries.”

Looking forward, Shaun and the team are confident of reverting to their original business plan next year and – after recruiting a new member to its sales team – are confident of achieving their goal of reaching £1m turnover for the next financial year.

“We are slowly recovering from the impact of Covid-19,” he added. “Our orderbook is slowly filling up and the secure protective screens remain popular. “We also plan to invest in new machinery to help improve our products and processes and expand our footprint in other markets outside of the custodial environment, once we get through all this.”

Durham Retail Displays’ continued investment in the city has been supported by Sunderland City Council with the company continuing to expand its manufacturing facility on Washington’s Hertburn Industrial Estate since opening its doors in 2017.

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “Thousands of companies across the UK have joined the fight on the front-line against this crisis over recent months and Durham Retail Displays is a great example of this.

“The company has been able to think outside the box and not only develop new product lines to see it through this challenging period but also play a key role in keeping our essential workers safe and we’re proud of all the work Fran and the team have put in to support them on their journey.”

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