Gifts Today magazine

Tribute to Chinacraft’s Gerald Lipton

Sir Stuart Lyons, once chief executive of Royal Doulton, delivers a tribute to Gerald J Lipton MBE, owner of retailer Chinacraft and a legend in the fine china business, who recently passed away

Gerald J Lipton, founder and owner of British retailer Chinacraft passed away recently.

The leading independent china and glass retailers in the UK with a history of shipping orders all over the world for over 60 years, Chinacraft remains an independent family business based in London with a very experienced team of people whose average length of service exceeds 20 years.

With the recent passing away of founder Gerald J Lipton, Sir Stuart Lyons (Chief Executive, Royal Doulton 1985 – 1997) delivered a speech at the Memorial Service in May. See the speech below....

“I first met Gerald in 1985, in his office at Barlby Road. I was a new chief executive – soon to become chairman – of the Royal Doulton group, which included Minton, Royal Crown Derby and Royal Albert, as well as Royal Doulton itself. Chinacraft was one of our largest customers. I was ushered to his door and walked in diffidently. Gerald was leaning back in a black leather armchair, his feet propped up on a stylish glass desk. Grey suit, white monogrammed shirt, smart tie; silver hair and silver-framed spectacles; a cigar in one hand, a telephone in the other. He beckoned me in with his cigar and unravelled his legs. So our friendship began.

By this time, Gerald was already a legend in the fine china business. His success came from humble origins. Gerald lost his father when he was only seven and left school at 16 to support his family. From a partnership in china export with Maurice Grant, he set up his own business with a family loan of £1,000 and a licence from the Board of Trade.

Like other visionaries, Gerald saw what his competitors did not – a burgeoning demand for fine English products to dress the tables of the world. He had to secure supplies of decorated china in the face of restrictions by the government and restrictive practices in the industry, but he remained tenacious. He tested the Chinacraft retail concept with his sister Jeanette in Hendon in 1951, and opened his first West End store the following year.

The Oxford Street store was a retail mecca, a magnificent corner site, with open window backs behind the glass frontage, so that the whole interior was visible from the street. Brilliant display lighting shone day and night. Crystal goblets sparkled in mirror-backed showcases with rococo edging. Fine bone china dinner and tea services glistened on tabletops or were spot-lit against muted wall decorations.

Such was Gerald’s determination and efficiency that the Oxford Street store was open for business a mere 17 days after he took vacant possession. Over forty stores followed, all of them reflecting the same style of brilliant shop-fronts, displays and lighting. Chinacraft became the destination of choice for fine English china, eclipsing all its rivals and developing a huge export business in the USA, Europe, and the Middle and Far East.

It is impossible to describe Gerald’s achievements between the 1950s and the 1990s without acknowledging the extraordinary partnership he formed with his sister Jeanette. Jeanette had an unwavering eye for quality and brand, which she fitted to the aspirations of her customers. She saw how shape, pattern and surface decoration appealed to different constituencies: European or American, new bride or empty nester. She understood the nuances of Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, of Stuart Crystal and Waterford.

Gerald was the controlling mind, the strategist and financier, a man who knew his business inside out. While Andrew North managed the budgets and cash flows, Gerald drove the business and knew enough about accountancy and law to keep his advisers on their toes.

If Gerald was forthright, it was because he had firm views on business practice and standards. He was straightforward in all his dealings, a man of his word. He negotiated astutely, but fairly. Integrity was his watchword. He expected to do business with chairmen like himself, who had the authority to give their word and not to dither.

He was also capable of great loyalty. Walking round the extensive complex of Barlby Road with him, it was clear that he cared about his employees, knew their names and family circumstances, understood their domestic struggles, and inspired their affection in return.

Gerald was wise as well as experienced. He saw that nothing lasts forever. He anticipated market changes and responded with ingenuity. As fine dining and entertaining at home decreased, Gerald grasped new opportunities for china distribution in the hotel and restaurant industry.

I remember having lunch with Gerald in a West End hotel twenty years after our first meeting. To his chagrin, he did not recognise the dinnerware. He smiled, took out his wallet and pulled out a plastic card I had given him many years before. It was his membership of the Royal Doulton Turnover Club. “This card,” he read from the reverse, “entitles the bearer at any time and in any place to turn over a piece of china.” He did just that, and inspected the backstamp. This simple act gave him more pleasure than the steamed fish on his plate.

Gerald loved the Chinacraft business, because it helped him express his own personality and joie de vivre. He loved being a leader and instigator. He loved style and creativity. He had great personal warmth and humanity."

Gerald enjoyed living well and was generous to others. He took enormous pleasure in using the fruits of his success for his beloved Wendy and his children, – Carolyn, Jane, Sam and Tim, – in whom he took such pride. They can truly be proud of him. It was a great privilege for me to work with Gerald and to have him as friend.

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