PROFILE: Henley Audio

‘Everything we do is exclusive’

Henley Audio is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. ‘Business is great,’ MD Laurence Armstrong tells Sean Hannam. ‘We’re looking to grow with the brands we have and with new ones’…

Hi-fi distributor Henley Audio has gone back to its roots, which is very fitting, as its managing director and co-founder, Laurence Armstrong (pictured left), used to be a hairdresser.

“I trained at the London College of Fashion, but I didn’t finish the course – I was doing a lady’s hair and I had a eureka moment. I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ I couldn’t imagine doing it for the rest of my life, so I walked out of the course,” he tells ERT, sat in his office at the company’s 20,000 square foot-plus headquarters in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

“I enjoyed talking to people and selling, so I went down that route.”

This year, the company, which used to be known as Henley Designs, celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark this occasion, it has renamed itself Henley Audio – the name it had when it was first formed, as the result of a management buyout of the UK division of hi-fi accessories brand Ortofon in 1997.

In the early Eighties, Mr Armstrong pursued a career in the consumer electronics industry, including stints at House of Fraser in the Army & Navy department store in Bromley, Harrods in London and then working for Denon’s sales team.

He next joined Ortofon as UK sales manager: “Ortofon was struggling – I brokered a deal. If I managed to turn the company round to profitability, they’d sell the UK division to me. It took me three years to turn it around and then another five years to find a bank stupid enough to fund it!” he says.

Henley Audio’s product showroom
Henley Audio’s product showroom

“It was the late ’80s, CD was out and vinyl sales were in free fall – I was trying to find funding for a company that was selling needles for record players. I had so many doors slammed in my face, but I saw an opportunity for building a distribution company. That was what I always wanted to do. When we started with Ortofon, our stock was in a filing cabinet.”

He adds: “We were called Henley Audio because, at one point, I was going to open a shop in Henley and run Ortofon UK out the back of it. I binned that idea and a year later I found a bank manager in Watford who was a hi-nut. He arranged a Small Firms Loan Guarantee, which was the biggest one he’d ever done. That’s how I funded Henley Designs. We felt the name Henley Audio was a little bit too restrictive, but we’ve now gone back to our roots and we’ve come to our senses – we are ‘Audio’, we’ve always been ‘Audio’, let’s call ourselves ‘Audio’.”

Still owned by its founders, Mr Armstrong and sales director Nick Fuller, Henley Audio is the exclusive UK distributor for audio brands including turntables and phono electronics manufacturer Pro-Ject, hi-fi cartridge company Ortofon – it’s the second largest Ortofon distributor in the world – Unison Research, Box Design and Lehmann Audio. It also has a pro DJ division.

“Everything we do is exclusive,” says Mr Armstrong.

ERT asks him how the vinyl revival has helped his business.

“It’s been great, but what we’ve found is that, while our business has almost certainly grown, the players in the market have also exponentially grown. The cake is bigger, but everybody is now selling record players. Everyone has seen the growth in this wonderful area of the market and they’ve got back into it,” he says.

Based in Didcot since 2000 – the company moved to new premises in August last year – Henley Audio, which has a staff of 22, supplies a dealer network of almost 500 retailers that are looked after by the company’s in-house sales team.

Henley Audio headquarters in Didcot
Henley Audio headquarters in Didcot

Says Mr Armstrong: “We have a fantastic dealer base – we deal with just about every audio retailer in the country. We are very independent-focused – we’re all about relationships. We know most of the independents by first name and they know us. “We also work with Richer Sounds and the small multiples – Audio T, Sevenoaks Sound and Vision and Superfi.”

In Didcot, Henley Audio has its own service department of specialist engineers, a stylish product showroom, a demonstration area and a training room. Its large open-plan office also includes customer services, a technical and marketing department and finance.

Mr Armstrong says that overall business is ‘great’: “We’re doing very well – we had to move last year, as we were bursting at the seams in our old building. Part of the reason for moving here was not only to give us room to grow with the brands that we currently have, but also to grow with new brands.”

Henley Audio has recently signed up music software player Roon, as well as mid-market radio and turntable system brand + Audio, US brand Klipsch and Danish speaker manufacturer Jamo, which is now owned by Klipsch.

“That will put us directly in Euronics territory, with soundbars and portable offerings,” says Mr Armstrong.

Henley Audio describes the bulk of its business as “mid-fi” – boxes from £200 to £2,000.

Adds Mr Armstrong: “We’ve recognised that a lot of the brands have offerings that can take us more into the mass-market – that’s part of what we’re trying to achieve.

“We have a guy who is calling on a lot of Euronics dealers, smaller retailers and record stores, which are a great avenue for us.”

Looking to the future, he tells ERT: “Our five-year plan is to grow quite a lot bigger. With the brands we have coming on, I’d be surprised if we’re still in this building in five years’ time – we should’ve outgrown it. That would be fantastic.”

  • Image top: L to R – Henley Audio managing director Laurence Armstrong and sales director Nick Fuller