The Carlsbro Story
From T.V. repair to corporate boss - Carlsbro's struggle to the top
Stuart Mercer was a TV repair man – white coat and small van – looking after dodgy hire sets. When he left school – as soon as he could – he was a pattern maker working in wood for items that would later be manufactured in metal.
In 1962 he was 19, living in rooms, newly married and expecting a first child.
Today 13 years later he's the boss of 21,000 square feet of new factory on a trading estate in Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Around 70 people work for him and his Mercedes and luxury yacht proclaim the success of Carlsbro amplification.
He still looks extremely boyish, as if the struggle hasn't really taken a personal toll at all, but the story indicates that it must have.
Mercer survived the nightmare that has sunk thousands of other small business men. One morning he arrived at his factory to find it had completely burned down.
"I lost everything," he recalls "It was a really bad time. Apparently our cabinet factory was blazing away at 3am and it wasn't until I arrived in the morning that I knew anything about it."
Perhaps it's characteristic that his first thought was of recovery. "I remember seeing the building had no roof on it. I realized that everything had been destroyed and my mind immediately started working on how quickly I could find other premises."
That was three years ago. Carlsbro was then a big name in the North of England amongst artists of every hue, but it's only in the last year or 18 months that the make has become a brand leader.
The story started when Stuart was 19 and busy with TVs. He met a musician who realised he had electronics knowledge and started complaining about the unavailability of good amplifiers. He persuaded Stuart to build him one.
"I spent a couple of months working out a circuit and a design and I built a little 15 watt combo amp that I thought he might like. Because I'd been a woodworker I was able to build a really professional little cabinet and I took it round to show him. To my disgust he'd lost interest and I was left with the amp I'd built.
"Although I've never been a musician my family were musical and my grandfather had a shop in Sheffield. That was E. Spooner's and I took it round to him. He liked it and said he'd try to sell it in the shop for me. At the same time he asked me to build another one. He was interested in miking up pianos for pubs using contact mikes and that was the reason he wanted to sell the amps."
Still working as a TV repair man, Stuart started building amps in his spare time and also doing repairs on amps that came into Spooners.
"I was living in rooms at the time and I had a real problem with space. I used to build the electronics in the bathroom and then move them out so that I could start to build the cabinets. In the end I asked a few friends if they knew anywhere I could use and one offered me the back of his uncle's greengrocers. So I started this tiny workshop in Mansfield Woodhouse. I was still knocking out the odd amp for my uncle's shop and doing the repairs that came in.
"Very slowly things started to build up and people such as Shane Fenton and the Fentones asked me to build something special for them. I remember that Benny the bass player was never satisfied with his sound and he asked me to build a bass cabinet for him.
"At that time there was absolutely no information available about loudspeaker enclosures, apart from the obvious things intended for hi-fi and I realised that if I put an 8" bass speaker in the type of cabinet they recommended it would be really huge. I experimented with reflex cabinets and eventually produced a cabinet that was compact but which also had a good bass response. In fact that cabinet has altered very little to the present day."
As the group scene grew in the Nottingham area, so did Stuart's business. Eventually holding down the TV job and making equipment became too much. "I went for lunch one Saturday and never went back. It wasn't really like me, but I suppose I'd had too much really. I started work on my own account with £20 capital I had earned as profit for installing an intercom system in an ice-cream factory.
"My wife was very understanding. We were only just married and I was often up working till 3am trying to make and repair enough to keep us going. For three months I made about £12 a week profit which we could just live on in those days. When I think back now I realise that at 19 I hadn't a clue about running a business and if it hadn't been for my wife making a careful note of our earnings and expenses, we'd have been in a real mess."
Eventually the Mercers got the council house they'd been promised for so long. With the added space available, he started to build more earnestly. "Around this time a job I had applied for a year ago came up. A firm wrote to me offering me a job in which I could work from home and they would give me a van and a phone. It was too good an opportunity to miss and for the next year Stuart kept the business running and held down the job that provided the van.
Carlsbro is an odd name for amplification. One would naturally think of names like Vox (latin for voice), Hi-Power or proper nouns, but Carlsbro came about by accident really.
"I've often thought what a silly name it is," admits Stuart. "It came about because Carl was my grandfather's stage name and I just added the 'bro' bit at the end. I've often thought of better names since then."
A year later Carlsbro amplification was healthy enough for Stuart to part with the useful van and the job that went with it. "I kept the telephone of course," and he was rich enough to buy himself an estate car.
By this time early Carlsbro PA systems could be seen about the county of Nottingham. Invariably they consisted of a Leak 50 watt amplifier, a Carlsbro pre-amp that was the forerunner of today's mixer and speaker cabinets which usually contained one 12" speaker each.
By 1965 the business had grown sufficiently for Stuart to employ three people to help him. Barry Selby joined at the time and to this day he still assists Stuart in the business.
"Our gear was beginning to get known in a wider circle, really. The Beat Boom was on during these years and at that time I bitterly regretted that I wasn't big enough to take full advantage of the situation. They were fantastic years, but we were really too small to take full advantage of the situation. Now I'm quite thankful that I wasn't ready. Look at some of the names who were big then – what happened to them? Our gear was in Birmingham at this time and quite a few of the bands were using it, but it hadn't reached London."
London didn't fall to Carlsbro until the end of the sixties. One of the first major bands using a PA from Carlsbro were the Strawbs.
By this time Carlsbro had two factories. A cabinet factory and an electronics assembly shop. It was the cabinet shop which burned to the ground.
"To this day we don't ready know what caused the blaze. The fire brigade put it down to an electrical fault, but all the power was turned off from the main switch before we went home. Apparently there were some old circuits under the floor boards that were still live. That wiped out all our stock and machinery. Of course we were insured, but as usual we weren't insured enough. At that time we had just planned to build our own factory on an industrial estate. We had some money in the bank and we were planning to use it for the new factory, so we bought some new tools and within a few days we had started production again."
The new factory is a 10,000 square foot building which Stuart built on land they bought leasehold on a industrial estate in Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Since that time the company's position has strengthened increasingly and within the next three months a new factory built onto the side of the existing plan is due to open. This will give Carlsbro 21,000 square feet.
A major part of the success is due to the solid-state range which Stuart produced 18 months ago. "I'd been watching transistor technology for some time. The early stuff just wasn't reliable enough, there was terrible trouble with the power stage. I still design everything myself and I began trying to get a reliable solid-state amp that had the same sound that I got with my valve lead guitar amps. That's a very particular and peculiar sound that comes from the tone circuit in a guitar amp.
"I often work in the laboratory at home until early in the morning. I don't get to the factory very early in the morning but I tend to work very late at night."
Carlsbro's continuing success is an achievement many manufacturers seek to emulate, but Stuart's own attitude to it is a little disconcerting.
"It's not been planned, you know. It's all just happened. We had somebody down with University training to tell us how to plan our progress. But that didn't work out at all, things just happen without us planning them."
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