Appetite for growth
After surviving two world wars and the Great Depression, a fourth generation fish and chip shop supplier is looking forward to a profitable 21st century. James Barton met chairman Bill Colbeck, the custodian of a remarkable and enduring legacy.
Henry Colbeck is the UK's biggest independent supplier to the fish and chips industry but if it hadn't been for a financial intervention in the 1920s, it could have all ended there.
Only once in its 114-year history has the Henry Colbeck business recorded a loss - and that was in 1923.
Third generation of the founding family Bill Colbeck, the current chairman of Gateshead-based Henry Colbeck, says: "My father [Douglas senior] had been working for Dunlop Tyres for several years after fighting in the First World War and returning to the family business where he invested a lump sum to rescue it in about 1924."
The company now has sales of £34m, employing 120 staff supplying cooking oils and fats, fish and packaging products to the catering and fish and chip shop industry.
In the beginning, it supplied mineral oils to the agricultural and industrial sector.
Founder Henry Colbeck was the son of a farmer who showed true entrepreneurial flair to set up the business in 1893 selling mineral oil to the booming privately-owned North-East collieries that had emerged to feed the progress of the industrial revolution.
Colbeck explains: "Although there weren't any cars, people still used the horse and cart at that time, mining and farming equipment still needed oiling for lubrication.
"When you think about what the world was like and how different it was, then it is astounding to think we have survived at all," he muses.
The business was originally established as a partnership between Henry Colbeck and another entrepreneur.
"I know that Henry had set up with a man called Todd but for whatever reason they decided to go their separate ways after only a couple of years," he says.
"Todd went on to form another company called Goodall, Bates & Todd which also supplied mineral oil and is also still in existence today as GB Lubricants, a successful oil lubricants and fuel business in Gateshead."
The business became very successful but Henry died suddenly in 1906 in his early 40s and two of his four sons took over the running of the business.
Bill Colbeck's father Douglas snr, who at 14 had been too young to take the reins of the business in 1906, eventually went off to fight in the First World War, becoming an officer machine gunner in the Durham Light Infantry.
Proudly recalling his father's war record, Bill Colbeck says: "My father was injured by his own side's artillery and was severely deaf for the rest of his life. After returning to Britain to recover he then returned to fight but elected to join the Middlesex regiment as so few of the Durham Light Infantry were left alive."
On returning from France Douglas snr started his career with Dunlop before rescuing the family business in 1924.
"He had to delay his wedding to my mother for two years because of his investment," says Colbeck.
Colbeck's parents were eventually married in 1926, Colbeck and his twin sister Elizabeth were born 10 years later.
As the collieries began to close the era saw the imperious rise of the motorcar and Douglas snr took the brave step of moving the business in a different direction. Whilst still maintaining the mineral oils side the company moved into cooking oil and edible oil blends.
"Of all the businesses supplying mineral oils we were the only one to move in the edible oils direction.
"It was a risk but in business you have to evolve with the market to survive, even more appropriate in today's fast paced world than it was then. The real risk would be not to change."
This was another defining moment in the history of Henry Colbeck and ensured the business continued to trade brightly through some economically difficult years in the run up to the Second World War and through to the post war era.
"We were never set up to provide more complex and sophisticated blends of motor oil demanded by that industry so it was wise to change direction," he explains.
When Bill Colbeck first worked in the company in the school holidays during the early 1950s, the company had grown from a virtual one-man band to having three sales staff, two van drivers and a warehouse man.
The rise of the British fish and chip shop had begun in earnest, to such an extent there was a rush of people converting their front rooms into shops on the back of its popularity.
"Remember in the 1940s fish and chips was the only food available without food coupons when rationing was still going at the end of the war," says Colbeck.
Douglas snr stayed at the helm of the business until his death in 1974 when his son Bill took over as managing director and his wife Isobel also joined the business.
Colbeck says: "My father always wanted me to go to university in case the family business wasn't there as I got older so I went to Durham University to study for an economics degree.
"Although at the time I would have been happy to go straight into the business but I am delighted that I had time out and my son Douglas did exactly the same studying business at university in London and then working for Eurotunnel before joining us in 1997.
"My father [Douglas senior] never actually retired, only falling ill four weeks before his death," says Colbeck.
The Henry Colbeck business originally traded from the Quayside in Newcastle but at the start of the 1960s, when Colbeck first joined the business from university, the Colbecks moved to Felling.
Colbeck says: "As soon as I took over from my father in 1974 one of the first things I did was stop the mineral oil side of the business. My father had kept a token operation going but I felt that as a small business the increasing technology and sophistication in the market had become too technical for us to survive in."
This was the year Colbeck's wife Isobel came into the business and began to actively develop the man-management side.
Colbeck says: "The most impressive thing that anyone can bring to a company is creating a loyal workforce and that is what Isobel brought here."
This loyalty has been rewarded and Colbeck has given 10% of the company's share capital to the workforce.
The company has continued to expand and in 1982 it moved to its current site in Gateshead which has substantial warehousing and distribution facilities.
Isobel, who is also a non-executive director and major shareholder, says: "We grew the sales team from two people to four people in England and one in Scotland and in 1985, working closely with Procter & Gamble, we established a telesales team."
There are now 10 regional sales people and an eight-strong telesales team which both work closely with a fleet of 29 delivery lorries.
Over the years the company has expanded its product range and now stocks about 2,000 related products and can supply everything a fish and chip shop owner would need except frying ranges and potatoes.
Colbeck is highly animated as he makes his point: "It is so important that our drivers work closely with our sales team because these are the relationships in our business that really count.
"We assign a certain telesales person to a specific field sales manager who only deals with certain drivers. This way our customers can establish good long-standing working relationships with us. The lorry driver is often the face of the company for our customers.
"We learned lessens early that the market we work in is very fragmented with 90% single shop owner operators who are busy working and what we look to do is offer them as much support as we can from marketing to providing the best products to support them at the best price."
Henry Colbecks supplies about 2,500 fish and chip shops throughout the North-East, Scotland and Yorkshire and has ambitions to grow to £50m sales over the next five years.
The family still owns the business. Colbeck's son Douglas, who is the company's English region sales director, has been the majority shareholder since 1997. Colbeck's wife and daughter Joanna are the other major shareholders.
"My son has the majority stake in the business now and I have every confidence he can, with Andrew Naylor the managing director, continue to take the business forward," Colbeck says.
Douglas married nine months ago and the couple are looking forward to raising a family.
The business continues to evolve. With the launch of a new biodiesel collection service the company has joined the fight to help the environment.
"It has become illegal to dispose of fats and oils down the drain so we operate our own collection service to help our customers get rid of theirs safely," explains Colbeck.
The company has invested £100,000 in developing its own biodiesel processing plant scheduled to open soon and is preparing to run its fleet of lorries from the resulting fuel.
Douglas says: "We have come full circle from providing mineral oil for fuel and lubrication, then moving into edible oils, we are now moving back, in a small way, into fuels in the form of biodiesel."
The business, it seems, is in safe hands.
What car do you drive?
What's your favourite restaurant?
Locally, Terry Laybourne's Jesmond Dene House. In London, as a treat, The Savoy Grill and in France, The Royal Champagne near Epernay.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My wife and Victor Meldrew.
What's your favourite book?
The profoundly moving Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor.
What's your favourite film?
What was the last album you bought?
Lesley Garrett's When I fall in Love.
What's your ideal job, other than your current one?
Like a good friend of mine - to be a professional wine connoisseur.
If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?
`Have a nice day'.
What's your greatest fear?
Being physically or mentally incapacitated.
What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Always look after your greatest asset - your staff.
Worst business advice?
Taking so called `professional advice' on a short term stock market investment that lost 70% of its value within a six-month period.
What's your poison?
Gin and tonic.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times and The Economist.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£1.40 - one week's pay as a National Serviceman.
How do you keep fit?
Walking, swimming, gym and rugby refereeing in season.
What's your most irritating habit?
What's your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
I admire - and am eternally thankful for - Winston Churchill's heroic leadership during the Second World War.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Humphrey Lyttleton, William Hague.
How would you like to be remembered?
With a smile!
Newcastle RGS 1945-48
St Bees School, Cumbria 1949-55.
Durham University, Degree in Economics.1957-60
1960 to present.
1965 to 1974: director
1974 to 1997: managing director
1997 to present day: chairman
Qualifry, founded in 1986
1986 to 2007: director
2006 to present day: President of National Edible Oil Distributors Association