In Memoriam: Tony Brown

Tony Brown of Bisley furniture. PIC DARREN JACK.

Anthony Charles Brown, Tony or Mr. Brown to many, the chairman and owner of Bisley has died aged 86, on 4th April 2023.

By Anna King, Founder and Director of Informare Ltd. 

Tony was a remarkable person, respected in the world of contract furniture as a man of great integrity, who built the hugely successful manufacturing business Bisley on a foundation of hard work and investment, coupled with enormous respect and care for the circa 1,000 people he ultimately employed.

Under his leadership, Bisley expanded massively in line with the growth of the knowledge sector and its requirement for offices, the company now inhabits a 17-acre site in Newport, South Wales, where it manufactures both steel and wood products to serve the workplace and home office and has become synonymous with innovation and quality.

My relationship with Bisley and Mr. Brown (because the two are quite synonymous to me) began around 15 years ago when I started to manage the PR as an external consultant. Having Bisley as a client was a key catalyst in the creation of my company and I have never forgotten it and will be eternally grateful to Tony and the board.

It was 2008, peak credit crunch and the advancement of technology meant the need for paper storage was diminishing and flexible working was on the rise. This presented a challenge for Bisley as a manufacturer of steel storage, so with a huge emphasis from Tony on ensuring that the workers had “something to make’, Bisley successfully pivoted the business to produce different types of furniture solutions, often with storage at the heart.

Born in Surrey on 2 April 1937, Anthony Charles Brown was the son of Freddy Brown and his wife Agnes (known as Nancy), where the origins of Bisley can be found. Freddy was a panel-beater, founding his business in 1931, moving to a larger site at Bisley ten years later, where it became a wartime manufacturer of jerry cans and steel containers used for dropping supplies by parachute. After the war effort the business switched again to make steel wastepaper bins which was its first in-road to the office sector.

After a period of national service (which he loved), including some time serving in Korea in the rank of sergeant, Tony joined his father in 1960 to work at Bisley, eventually buying the company in 1963 from his father with the support of his wife, a member of the wealthy Vestey dynasty and the private equity pioneer ICFC (later 3i).

The factory was the absolute domain of Mr. Brown and probably where he felt most at home, supporting the process wherever he could; for 9 months he worked the ‘twilight shift’, working on the spray plant or loading – basically whatever was necessary – and he didn’t miss one shift!

Stories of his behaviour are legendary, from whizzing around the site on a bike for speed whilst dodging moving paint lines, to taking his wife’s dog for a walk on a flat-bed conveyor so he could continue to have discussions on the factory floor with his workers.

Tony cared immensely about all his employees and his displays of humanity and kindness were as astounding as they were frequent, supporting people both financially and medically.

In recognition for his passion for manufacturing, Tony was awarded an OBE in 1993, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Furniture Makers’ Company in 2016, for his outstanding contribution to the British manufacturing industry. Bisley’s quintessential MultiDrawer and filing cabinets are considered by many to be modern classics.

Tony was incredibly proud of Bisley’s international expansion, for which Bisley has received numerous accolades, including two Queen’s Awards for Export Achievement, several Design Guild Mark awards for its products, and being a recipient of the Manufacturing Guild Mark from The Furniture Makers’ Company since 2015.

Tony’s other passion was rugby, in 1997 he became vice-president of Newport rugby football club, subsequently the chief executive and a major shareholder. Bisley is of course a long term sponsor.

Most recently, Tony’s unwavering care for those he employed was evident in the recent establishment of the Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) in 2022, gifting 51% of Bisley to its employees to ensure its long-term success.

I last saw Tony in the summer of 2022 still sharp as tack but clearly unwell, and I am sure he was in significant discomfort but once again, his overriding concern was for Bisley and the people of Bisley.

I also know – because he told me  – that he was very pleased to have Richard Costin in place as CEO, he had found someone he could trust implicitly and I believe that was of great comfort to him.

I don’t think that Bisley ever left Tony’s thoughts he was one of kind – a complex, wonderful character who touched so many lives whilst building a truly heroic business, the inevitable continued success of which, will be his ultimate legacy.

Tony Brown was appointed OBE in 1993. He married first, in 1961, Rosamund, daughter of Sir Derek Vestey, 2nd Bt, and great-grand-daughter of Edmund Vestey who co-founded the family’s Liverpool-based meat-supply empire. Divorced in 1980, Tony married secondly his former secretary Marilyn Stevens, who died in 2013. He is survived by his son and daughter from the first marriage.