Bottles of all shapes and sizes - growing an independent manufacturing business
Bottles of all colours, shapes and sizes line the walls of the meeting room at William Croxson & Son, all examples of the variety of products supplied by the food and beverage bottle supplier that was founded in 1872.
Glancing around at the collection, much of it historic, Group Chairman James Croxson – great grandson of the eponymous founder – muses: “My ambitions have changed a lot. I always had targets; I used to think ‘maybe we could make 250,000 bottles next year’ but I never thought we could get to a million; half a million bottles was the furthest I could see. Then you realise ‘actually it’s possible’; and my first big order was a million sherry bottles in 1974. I woke up only this morning thinking about a minor issue with a 70 million jar order and our biggest order ever was 200 million units.”
Growth in turnover
There has been similarly surprising growth in turnover. “It was £30million this year and we are hoping to finalise a deal with a big European brewery worth well over £1million. I would never have believed that was possible twenty years ago.”
While wanting to grow the business further, Croxson has no specific turnover goal. “My accountant tells me profit is the most important figure so I focus on that and staff get profit-related bonuses.”
His ambitions are more generic, to do with expanding the export business. They already export to more than fifty countries and have agents in France, Germany and Belgium and sales operations in Australia, New Zealand and the US, which are doing very well. Croxson says: “I want to do more in Europe – that’s one area where we haven’t done a huge amount.”
He was approached about setting up a glass factory in Australia as they would have received government grants but Croxson felt the distance and “family issues” made the idea impractical.
One of the company’s greatest achievements was last year when it took over a furnace with a capacity of 275 tons of glass per day and created eighteen new design bottles over the course of a month, for sale, to customers in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the US, to be repeated in the spring this year. “That quantity had never been done before by a company like ours,” says Croxson. “It took eighteen months of planning and achieving it gave me one of my business life’s best feelings.”
As an international business, William Croxson has seen major benefits from advances in technology. “Technology changes everything and has made life so much easier from a communications and logistics point of view,” says Croxson.
“Our board meeting tomorrow will be done by Skype: me at home in Worthing, the others in Australia, Ireland and here in Morden. “We once had to ship a consignment from Saudi to Fiji via Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. And for another project we had to air freight the products from Melbourne to Glasgow and from China to Kent. You wonder how on earth you’re going to do it but technology helps in the planning. It’s a slight difference from the 1920s when we shipped bottles to New Zealand and communication, which was only by letter, took four weeks.”
As well as exporting, the company also imports, sourcing from local operators around the world on a just-in-time basis. In particular, Croxson buys in large quantities from China or India. They have a designer based in China, which means new designs can often be produced on a next-day basis because that country is eight hours ahead.
And Chinese quality is good, observes Croxson. “We had a special project made there and when the container arrived it was like opening a present with no idea what was in it. I opened the doors and I saw the bottles were just perfect. We have now shipped over 500 containers and have ordered more for some customers on a three-year contract.”
Smaller runs are usually sourced within the UK. Though UK manufacture costs more – not least initially in terms of having the bottle mould made – the quicker delivery times and lack of currency risk, can negate the extra cost of buying British in small batches,” he says.
One of their small-batch customers is a young Surrey gin distillery, which has gone from ordering 1000 bottles initially to 700,000.
Brexit will work both ways for the company as they buy a lot of bottles from Europe and also sell a lot back. “I’ll let the accountant sort it out,” says Croxson. “As long as we’re making money both ways it’s not a problem. What we will do is buy more from English manufacturers if we can, although there have been bottle shortages so we will continue to import too.”
It is often said that subsequent generations fritter away the family business, and Croxson observes: “In Grandad’s day it was a very profitable operation but I bought it from my father when the business was in serious difficulties. I knew how to solve the problems and I did. I’m a numbers man. I sat down with Dad and put it all in writing. The day I took over more than thirty years ago was the day we started to turn the business around.
“These premises were derelict when we acquired them; half the roof was missing and there was no electricity, nothing. Nine weeks later we moved in. The bank manager came round and said he would never have believed it was the same building.”
He goes on: “Not long after I joined, I suggested we should include milk and beer bottles and food jars in the range. My dad said we don’t do those. I said why don’t we? And he shrugged and replied, well you go and do it then. My first sale of jam jars was one pallet to a company that now buys millions of jars a year.”
One of the business’ USPs is its reputation for helpfulness.
“We have become known as problem solvers,” says Croxson. “We have five warehouses around the country so we can address supply issues pretty quickly. I have had taxis pull up here at five in the afternoon to pick up beer crowns because a customer had run out of them.”
Customers can buy standard existing designs or ask the company to create special designs for them. The latter brings the challenge of not making bottles that look too similar to existing brands. He cites Coca Cola and Baileys in particular as being protective of their IP. “Any company that tried to copy their bottles – and many have – would not survive,” observes Croxson.
Interestingly, Croxson’s are sometimes in competition with their own suppliers in the sense that a supplier might be selling direct to an end customer. Croxson avoids bad feeling over situations like this by being honest about it. “We ring the supplier and tell them,” he says candidly.
Indeed, co-operation with the competition is a feature of the market, he says. “We’re the biggest independent bottle company in the UK and we buy and sell to all the others. We might have bottles that another company needs and it’s better to have a sale than not, as long as both sides make money.”
What attributes are essential to business success?
“You have to have energy and be willing to fight,” replies Croxson. “And have good quality people and advisers around you. One of our board members uses the word ‘strategy’ in every sentence. He’s brilliant at long-term thinking. Half the battle is getting the right people. The best advisers are people with common sense who have been in business and have been knocked to the ground and got up again. People like John Harvey Jones – that’s who you need. Sir Richard Branson – he’s another one who’s had failures and said ‘OK this doesn’t work, we will get on with the next idea’.”
Croxson wants the company to remain a family business. “I know some have a life cycle but I believe this business can carry on as long as people want bottles,” says Croxson. “August and September were our best months ever and this year we have broken every sales records we ever had. I guess that’s something to be proud of.
“I probably have less stress now than I ever had. If there’s something I don’t want to do I just find someone else to do it! That’s how it should be. But I’m only in my sixties so I have a few years in me yet; my ambition now is to be here until I’m 100 to annoy the children.”
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