Schreiber was a relative newcomer to the furniture business. Chaim Schreiber came to Britain in the war years to escape Nazi persecution. He started in business by making radio cabinets and he bought a bankrupt furniture business in 1957. By 1967, he was challenging Lebus and Gomme for domination of the furniture market. In the 70s, Schreiber introduced furniture centres, taking complete control of distribution, as well as manufacture. After economic problems in the mid-seventies and a merger with GEC, the Company continued to be one of the biggest names in furniture in the 70s.
Schreiber started in business making radio cabinets for Dansette and other larger electrical manufacturers. In those days, radios were either polished wood veneered or wooden covered with leather cloth. Schreiber learnt to make good quality and cheap cabinets to exacting specifications. The large electrical manufacturers controlled the market and demanded the cheapest possible prices. Schreiber needed to develop a manufacturing process that could deliver the best quality at the cheapest prices.
This business was doing well, but Schreiber wanted to break away from the control of these large organisations. In 1957, with the profits he made from radio cabinets, he bought the bankrupt furniture maker, Lubetkin. He scrapped the name and made his own furniture. In the mid-sixties, he made bedroom furniture using a technique he called 'furniture engineering'. His furniture was at the cheaper end of the market. He entered the growing built-in bedroom market in the late 'sixties. His bedroom storage furniture was finished in teak. He was slightly behind the fashion in the late 60s, but nevertheless, the business was so successful that he was able to buy Greaves and Thomas in 1967, adding a quality name to the Schreiber Empire. Although Schreiber achieved huge success in the late 60s, the Company really came to prominence in the early 70s. By then, Schreiber had an established reputation at the cheaper end of the market.
Chaim Schreiber was a man of strong principles. Always 'Mr Schreiber' to his employees, his management style was directive. However, he treated everyone equally and had a strong sense of what was fair. Schreiber cared deeply for his labour force. In 1970, he abolished clocking in and paid the workers in the same way as he paid the management. He disliked bad manners and admired honesty. If people working for him did well, he rewarded them accordingly.
Schreiber was able to make good furniture cheaper than any other company. Unlike G-Plan, he never employed a designer, but copied and adapted other designs. The one revolutionary aspect of Schreiber furniture was the shape of the drawers. They were curved for easy fitting. The main reason for his outstanding success in the early 'seventies was his manufacturing skills. By 1970, his turnover was ahead of that of Gomme. Schreiber's main competitor in the early 'seventies would have been Lebus, but their spectacular failure left the market open.
The furniture market of the early 'seventies split neatly into two sections: well-designed, but expensive furniture and furniture sold mainly on price. There was very little in between. Gomme was a master of design, Schreiber a master of price. These two firms exemplified the different marketing philosophies. Both were hugely successful. Teak dining furniture also remained popular in all sections of the market. As mentioned earlier, Gomme continued to sell teak furniture successfully. Schreiber also made dining room furniture with a teak finish. Their Tivoli sideboard was very popular; it was simple, modern and inexpensive. The finish, however, was synthetic.
Schreiber also introduced new upholstered furniture in 1973. There was a new sofa and two new swivel chairs. The first, the 'Tivoli', was very similar to designs from the late 'sixties. The second, the 'Castello', was mounted on a circular base. It had deep, buttoned upholstery in imitation leather, Dralon or boucle material. Its padded armrests were similar to the G-Plan saddle range of 1969, but the more rounded shape was typical of the 'seventies. Schreiber also announced new ranges of bedroom furniture in 1973: the 'Nova' in white and the 'Carolina' in rosewood and white. A nice touch, for the time, was a free set of coat hangers with each new wardrobe unit.
By 1973, Chaim Schreiber could claim to have furniture for the whole house. He added fitted kitchens to his already extensive range. An innovative deal with Chaim Schreiber's friend and GEC boss, Sir Arnold Weinstock, meant that GEC Schreiber kitchens could come with Hotpoint refrigerators and Cannon gas hobs built-in. Chaim Schreiber joked at the time that he would have taken over GEC, but Schreiber Furniture was not quite big enough.
Another innovation for 1973 was the 'Schreiber Furniture Centre'. Chaim Schreiber invited applications from the retail trade for shops to become the new furniture centres. They needed to provide 3,500 square feet of floor space and carry around 4,000 of stock chosen by Schreiber. The Schreiber warehouse would carry back up stock and Schreiber vans would keep the centre stocked via 'milk round' deliveries. Schreiber received 800 applications, from which he chose 280 stores.
As well as offering cheap furniture, Schreiber understood some of the frustrations of the buying public. He promised a 21-day delivery time on furniture once ordered from the furniture centres. People were used to having to wait much longer for deliveries. He was prepared to upset retailers in a bid to save costs. He refused to replace furniture damaged in transit. The retailer had to claim a discount and sell it at a cheaper price. Schreiber did not want the extra cost of taking it back. Schreiber success continued in 1973; turnover and profits were more than double the 1971 totals.
1974 was a bad trading year for the British furniture industry and 1975 was even worse. Schreiber struggled in 1974 after years of phenomenal success. Chaim Schreiber put plans for a new factory at Runcorn on hold. A merger with former partner, GEC, saved his business. Chaim Schreiber became Chief Executive of domestic appliance makers Hotpoint and Morphy Richards, as well as Schreiber Furniture. His old friend Arnold Weinstock thought Chaim Schreiber's common touch would help solve GEC's customer complaints problems.
With high inflation and incomes falling behind, many people took to self assembly furniture in the late 70s. Schreiber catered to this new trend and introduced a flat-pack range. Their 'Nova' bedroom range, also in white with gold coloured handles, was available as a 'Take & Save' pack you could load into the boot of a small family car.
The vast majority of young couples setting up home for the first time still went out and bought teak wall units in the late 'seventies and teak dining room furniture. Schreiber was the most well-known brand.
The furniture trade suffered badly in the final years of the 70s. Several firms went out of business, but Schreiber rode out the tough economic conditions and is still a well-known brand in the home improvements sector today. The Schreiber brand is now at Argos which stocks a range of Schreiber bedroom furniture.
By Steven Braggs, www.retrowow.co.uk