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The Derbyshire village dishing it up Gangnam style

17th Jun '16

To prosper in South Korea, traditional English pottery maker Denby reinvented the dinner service. As part of our Routes to Growth series, chief executive Sebastian Lazell tells Hazel Davis how they did it.

Company: Denby Pottery Company/Denby Korea Trading in: South Korea Sector: Homeware

How many types of bowl are there in a classic dinner service? If you answer two – soup and dessert – you’ve never eaten in Korea, as Denby, the 200-year-old British stoneware manufacturer is discovering to profitable advantage.

Last year the Denby Pottery Company decided to try to build on its trade in the country, where it has been exporting since 2008-09, by opening Denby Korea in Seoul.

But it wasn’t just the name that was tweaked, as chief executive Sebastian Lazell explains: “The Korean dinner service is all about a large assortment of different sizes of bowls. So it was a question of ensuring we had eight to 10 different items in our assortment of bowls to create a credible place setting for Korean entertainment.”

“We had no real strategic insight beyond the fact that South Korea was known to have a stoneware industry of its own. It was a pretty indiscriminate approach”

They don’t even have to match, says Lazell. “It’s a very different aesthetic. It’s about how the grey and black speckled works with the blue and green.”

That’s not the only consideration. Korean Denby fans tend to be in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, with the £10bn a year wedding industry an excellent source of sales. That the stoneware is 100 per cent British-made is another attraction.

Naturally, this age group are big Instagram users. “It’s all about how the product showcases food,” says Lazell, “how it photographs from above.”

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Virtuous circle: food photographs beautifully in bowls

The 200-year-old brand, now owned by Hilco Capital and posting a turnover of £50m, exports to more than 40 countries. All of its stoneware is made in the Derbyshire village of Denby, where it employs 800 people who produce about 120,000 pieces a week, each still

passing through 25 pairs of hands.

Denby’s Korean exports had gone through a third-party distributor. “We had no real strategic insight beyond the fact that South Korea was known to have a stoneware industry of its own,” says Lazell. “It was a pretty indiscriminate approach to international markets.”

That all changed when Denby Korea launched in Gangnam, the Seoul equivalent of Mayfair made famous by the 2012 hit record Gangnam Style and known for its upmarket shops.

“We wanted to take more control and put our own team on the ground,” says Lazell. “Distributors tend to want to run their own show, so when the agreement expired it made sense to go on our own.”

The company trades through 43 department store concessions. Its South Korean head office has a team of 12, but more than 100 others are employed through agencies and trained by Denby as brand ambassadors to run the concessions.

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Round and round: store concessions fuel Denby's sales

The company has also looked to exploit social media through KakaoTalk, “the South Korean Facebook with bells and whistles”, according to Lazell.

Denby runs competitions and events, including cooking and table-setting, through the platform.

“South Korea is one of the most digitally advanced markets, with very high-speed wireless connectivity,” Lazell says. “Smartphone interactions are at least 60 per cent of shopping interactions and that’s e

xcluding tablets. It’s a mobile-dominated, high-speed, tech-savvy, very visual market.”

Some bigger players in the ceramics industry have grown to where 75 per cent of their business is international. To join them, Lazell says, “requires us to do more of what we’re starting to do in South Korea – managing the brand ourselves. If you don’t do that you lack understanding and don’t build the right relationships.”


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