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Interview with Arnold Fulton

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2008-10-07

Arnold Fulton

Arnold Fulton

If there’s one person who is happy when it rains, it’s Arnold Fulton. For over 50 years,  Fulton has been designing and manufacturing umbrellas that bear his name. Leslie Bunder discovers more about his life and going from Polish refugee to millionaire.

How has the Fulton umbrellas business changed over the years?
It started 50 years ago on a very small scale, in east London’s Commercial Road with just one worker. Now we are the largest company in the UK and we are supplying everyone from chain stores to department stores, and we have a subsidiary in Toronto, distribution company in Moscow and a distribution company in Stockholm. So it's all on a much larger scale. Also we now concentrate on research and development, particularly technical development, and the production is done in our factory in China.

Where did you used to manufacture?
We used to manufacture in Commercial Road in East London, and in 1967 I went to Taiwan and we set up a small factory there initially employing 60 people, in the middle of Taipei. In 187 we moved the whole lot to China, where it grew to the current size of around 4-500 people.

Have you always stayed as a private company or have you considered floating?
We considered floating around 18 years ago, I decided not to and I'm glad we didn't.

What do you think about manufacturing in China? Would you ever bring it back to Britain?
It's unlikely in the next decade or so. Some factories are extremely good, very high standard, particularly the factory we use. The safety standards are on a par with Europe, production is on machines which I actually designed, the quality control is the same as in the UK, we have a manager in Shanghai who is actually an English chap, graduated from Cambridge in Engineering, and he oversees the whole operation in the Far East. So it is done in fact in a better way than it is done in Europe at the moment because labour is reasonably available.

As a private family run business, what is the biggest challenge you face on a daily basis? Is it the big corporations?
No, because the umbrella business is not huge as a whole in comparison with clothing or shoes or sportswear and so on. So the very large companies aren't particularly interested unless they want to buy. We've been approached by many companies. My younger son runs the company and simply wants to continue. So I think we will, since we are ahead of our competitors in product development which includes technical innovation – which is my strength – and lots of fashion, which is now a very important factor, we have three in-house designers who spend all their time designing new prints, new shapes and so on.

You arrived in this country as a refugee – what was the original family name?
Frucht, and I changed it to Fulton just before I graduated in engineering because I wanted to apply to de Havillands for a job – I was always interested in aircraft – and my tutor before I graduated advised me to change my name. So I asked 'Sir, are they anti-Semitic?' and he said 'No, certainly not, but this is a post-war period, and with a name like Frucht they will think you are German and they won't even look at your CV'. So I decided to change it.

So your family are German.....
No, Polish. It's a Jewish name in Poland.

Have you ever been back to Poland yourself?
Yes, I went for the first time in 1968, and quite recently a year ago for a friend's Barmitzvah. Actually it was a Barmitzvah at the age of 70 – he lives in California, and he decided to have his 70th birthday party in the synagogue in Krakow, where he was born, and have a proper Barmitzvah because he never had a Barmitzvah. So it was quite a touching and moving week we had.

So your family was originally in manufacturing?
My father was actually a master tailor and at that time was considered big scale because to have 17 workers was considered a big operation. This was just south of Warsaw in an areak known for its famous Black Madonna.

Based on your experiences as a refugee, did you choose Britain or did it choose you?
No, I lost my parents when I was 12 while they were in hiding in Warsaw. I don't know if you saw the film The Pianist but part of my story is identical to his. I don't know if you've ever heard of Rabbi Victor Sheinfeld – well he brought 150 orphan children – I was one of them – via Sweden – and first I went to his school, then a grammar school, then university and so on, then I started work as a young engineer.

These days, what synagogue is your synagogue of choice?
Well I belong to the Kinloss Synagogue in Finchley because my eldest son lives in Golders Green and he wants me to go there.

After what happened with you and your family in World War II did you ever question your faith?
Depends what you call my faith. I'm not a very religious person, but I feel very strongly as a Jew, always have and have been involved in activities here and in Israel. I'm on the board of governors of Shenkar College of Engineering And Design for example. I feel very strongly as a Jew and always have done.

I read a report in 2005 which said you would be going on aliyah...
Yes, I love Israel, I go there around four or five times a year. There have been some complications – the person involved went bankrupt and so on – but it may still happen eventually.

Are Fulton umbrellas sold in Israel?
No, but we are developing a neutral product which is an umbrella for the rain and the sun, which has ultra-violet resistance and other features, and we are planning to distribute it in Israel and probably the Middle East.

What do you see as the future for umbrellas?
I think the future is bright, even in the rain, because umbrellas have become a fashion accessory as well. When I started umbrellas came in two types, about six colours and four handles and that was it. In umbrella manufacturing people just got various components from various people and just put it together. Except for the fabric – which we design the patents and it is made in Taiwan – we design and make everything – mouldings, metal components. So the industry has changed dramatically.