Colman’s: An Edwardian business 1969-1994

Location : Norwich

Colman and Colman/Reckitt 1969 – 1994

Rod Spokes worked 22 years with R/C, first as a Production Manager in the soft drinks department and then as an Industrial Relations Manager, Operations Manager and finally Chief Executive in the South Africa division. He has a great interest in Colman history.

I started my working life in 1959 when I went to University to do a sandwich course in Industrial Chemistry. I went to London and I did 6 months in industry and 6 months at University for 4 years. I worked two 6 month periods with Beecham’s as a chemist, and I did two 6 month periods with Tate and Lyle as a chemical engineer and then, having got married, I got a job with Rowntree’s in York, the confectionery business, and spent 4 years with them up to 1969, working both in London at the plant there, and in York, largely on the production side. I’d given up straight chemistry or chemical engineering by now, I got fed up with it, and settled into production management.

I moved in May ’69 to Colman’s in Norwich, and the job I was offered was that of Production Manager of the soft drinks department. The business, like most manufacturing businesses, was divided up into departments. Of course Colman’s is always seen as a mustard business, since that’s the iconic brand that created the business and is much used. The largest part of the business was, in fact, Robinson’s soft drinks, which was about 60% of the turnover business even then and grew even more later on.

My first boss was a gentleman called Ian Makin and the Works Director at the time when I started was H. J. Starling, better known as Jim Starling, who had been for much of his life at Colman’s the manager of the printing works, because Colman’s had a fully integrated printing works which produced all the boxes and labels and general stationery. And ‘Henry Jim’ as he was often affectionately called, was a very dapper man, always immaculately dressed. He lived on Carrow Hill and he was quite a renowned local artist. He drew lithographs of Norwich street scenes and street scenes elsewhere, and was for some time a Maddermarket player. He was a very artistic man who didn’t quite fit the normal criteria of factory managers. He retired after I had been at Colman’s for six months, and a gentleman called Philip Durrant took over. I did about a year and a half as Production Manager in soft drinks.

An Edwardian business

If I just go back a bit now to early impressions; it struck me when I first joined in 1969, to be quite an old-fashioned business. We still had coal fires in the offices, for example, and it wasn’t until around about ’67 that they closed down the chimney sweeping section. Colman’s owned a lot of houses then. They had owned at one time almost all of Bracondale, and if you were a Manager you could sometimes get a house on Bracondale. I was rather too late for that glorious bonanza! There was quite a lot of housing on King Street and City Road, including Jubilee Terrace which had been built in 1872 as a model workman’s area, and quite a chunk of Trowse, which tended to be for the supervisory staff. And so if you had a coal fire in any of these properties the company’s chimney sweeps would turn out and sweep it. But that had stopped just before I joined.

Colman’s always seemed to be a business by itself, an independent business, but it wasn’t. It had been up until 1938 when it merged with Reckitts of Hull to become Reckitt & Colman. Both businesses had the same founding ethos, very much a Christian ethos, looking after the workforce, fair dealing and all that, and they had similar products: they both manufactured starch and blue. Both Reckitt and Colman had followed the flag round the Empire, so there were substantial businesses in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, etc. But they allowed each of those to be autonomous businesses.

So when I joined Colman’s it looked Edwardian, not only because of the fires in the grates in the offices, but also because it seemed to be this independent business. The Chief Executive then was a gentleman called Rowan Hare, who was a very well-known character in Norwich. He would wander the streets speaking to everyone and he had a phenomenal recall of people’s names, but he retired, I think, at the beginning of the 1970s, and a gentleman called James Cleminson took over. Again he was a local person: he was a Director of Norwich Union; a war hero; he’d landed at Arnhem as a paratrooper, quite a revered sort of figure. He ran Colman’s for about a year and then became Chief Executive of Reckitt & Colman, and the world started to change quite dramatically, because he was instrumental in bringing in a firm of Management Consultants called McKinsey. McKinsey then were the very elite of Management Consultancy across the world. They’d just looked at the Bank of England and they arrived in Reckitt & Colman and made it into a much more conventional multi-national business rather than a set of little businesses doing their own things. So you started to feel from the early ‘70s onwards much more part of an international, multi-national business rather than this Norwich business.

About 1972/73 there was quite a lot of change in the product range. Up until 1973 Colman’s had been flour millers: it was the very first Colman product which started with a windmill in 1804, milling flour before they got into mustard. Anyway the flour mill was closed down in 1973 and we stopped the flour business entirely because it was an unprofitable business. However, Colman’s had owned for quite a long while a business called Farrow’s in Peterborough, usually renowned for peas, dried peas, canned peas and the like. They also produced Gale’s honey and peanut butter, Tom Caxton beer kits and soda stream which were transferred across to Norwich. That changed the nature of the business and lots of new product started coming on stream.

In 1970, at the time when Cleminson arrived, there was great fear of a take-over. It was a time when there were a lot of business take-overs. Many old-fashioned businesses in the UK were being bought up by much more aggressive businesses. Businesses like Reckitt & Colman that had been around a long while were pursued, and one reason was because they often had large property stocks, not only factories and offices but housing. Businesses such as Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s and Lever’s all had vast stocks of employee estates which were put into the company books at very low valuations, so if you bought these businesses, you could sell off the houses and make a quick profit; asset stripping as it was at the time.

So Colman’s sold off their entire housing stock to the sitting tenants, apart from one, Bracondale House which sat next door to County Hall on Martineau Lane. They kept that for some reason. But they sold all the rest off to sitting tenants, and I remember, because obviously I knew a lot of people in the business then, that Jubilee Terrace houses were sold for £500. So, in the 1970s we came into the modern world where that sort of paternalism, which had fuelled businesses like Reckitt & Colman, was starting to die away.

So we were a changing business, we had sold off the housing, paternalism was moving away. We still had a sports ground, Lakenham Cricket Ground, which was used by the Norfolk Minor Counties side. We had a Cricket Week up there but throughout the ‘70s – and this is not only Colman’s, I think Norwich Union would say the same with Pinebanks – the number of employees using those facilities declined and if you wanted to make up teams you needed outsiders. The days when people wanted to spend their entire working life locked into the business ended. You know the ‘60s and 70s were a period of emancipation and there was a desire not to be bound to the company or allow the company to be the provider of most of your life. The sports ground was being less used by employees and there was difficulty in fielding entirely Colman teams. In the end the ground was sold off just after I left around ‘84/’85. Not a happy story because it was a delightful little ground. It was bought by a property developer who turned it into a sort of Sports Club and then after a fire left it vacant, they got planning permission to build houses. So, there we are.

The business I joined was quite a soft, slow, gentle sort of affair but by the mid-70s many of the old management had retired. A lot more people like me came in from different backgrounds, and there were more graduates. Change began with Cleminson taking over, with McKinsey Consultants coming in and Colman becoming a much more multi-national business. There was greater emphasis on profitability and costs, getting into new products and dumping old products like flour. There was upheaval on the industrial relations front, with Trade Unions becoming much more aware of company take-overs and what that might do to jobs. So altogether, Colman became a much more dynamic sort of business than it had been. It was quite a transformational time in the mid-1970s.

New legislation 1970s

In the early 1970s employment legislation began to change dramatically. We had the Equal Pay Act, Discrimination Acts, the formation of ACAS and compulsory arbitration over labour disputes. For a while I was Industrial Relations Manager, managing that change because we had on site seven Trade Unions and two Staff Associations, so it was quite a complicated employment system. We had one major Trade Union for the factory; we had a printing works with two Trade Unions; we had what was always called the Trades Department (i.e. maintenance workers) with their unions and another Trade Union for the Supervisory Group called MATSA which was part of the General and Municipal. We had a Management Trade Union, AMTS as it was in those days and we had the Staff Associations, so it was quite a complex system.

Equal pay obviously had an impact because factories, not only Colman’s, but most factories I worked in or ever went to, were usually pretty gender specific. There were certain jobs that from time immemorial had always been done by men and certain jobs that were always done by women. Fork-lift driving, driving anything, and manufacturing processes were almost entirely male; packing lines, that sort of stuff, were always female. But in the mid-‘70s you saw the start of some women wanting to do men’s jobs and, inevitably, some male reaction against it and also, ironically, some female objection to women doing classical men’s jobs. It took a long while for that to break down; I don’t think we got our first female fork-lift driver until the ‘80’s. Offices were never quite as rigid, but Trade Unions were a bastion of male supremacy. I’m sure a lot of trade unionists would vehemently disagree with me but that was always my perception of it. It took a long while, certainly in manual and semi-skilled Trade Unions, and skilled Trade Unions as well, to see women getting in. When I left Colman’s in 1984 we had no woman in any form of engineering job, carpentry, building job or anything like that. There just was no penetration of women into those roles. Things did start to change in the factory set-up where there were female supervisors, but they generally supervised women. You didn’t often get a female supervisor supervising a mixed workforce which a male would do. Change had begun but it was a slow evolutionary change until the 1980s. The senior management always talked about evolution rather than revolution. It makes it more comfortable but can often be fatal in business as well.

When Health and Safety Legislation was introduced noise was a big issue. Noise and dust! The sort of processes we had at Colman’s were inherently noisy and quite a number of them were dusty. Reckitts still makes a product called Senokot, a laxative, and Colman’s used to grind up dried senna pods for Reckitts, so there were always jokes about how you never got constipation if you worked in the grinding of senna pods because the atmosphere was always full of the stuff; you couldn’t avoid it! The worst dusty job we ever had! Dust and noise began to be taken very seriously by the mid-‘70s with the compulsory wearing of ear muffs; not always welcomed. For men, often it was a sign of macho ability to be able to withstand all such trials and torments as part of being a man at work, so ear plugs, ear mufflers and such like were not always popular. It was always the desire of management to work in concert with Trade Unions to reinforce their use because Trade Unions had a stake in it as well, but often people would rebuff them both. Safety shoes with steel toecaps became an issue for men handling heavy or sharp equipment, such as in the tin shops, where sheets of tin which could be incredibly sharp on the edges and the corners. Covering of hair, frequent washing of hands when handling raw ingredients also came in. So the 1970s was a time of quite substantial transformation in the life of the factory worker.

Consultants, expansion, redundancies 1980s to 1994

Around 1980 I became the Operations Manager, looking after all the production, security, engineering and other matters. At the beginning of 1980 we were told that a Consultancy was coming in to look at both factory and office activities; an outfit called Proudfoot. The name sticks with me. They were the “SAS” of the consultancy world and they took no prisoners. What Reckitt & Colman was doing corporately was looking at its worldwide business. There were massive changes in Europe as it became a free trade area and goods could be moved around without tariff barriers. Equally, goods could be made in any country in Europe and shifted to other countries without any tariff issues. It opened up an awful lot of possibilities and Reckitt & Colman spent a lot of money developing and buying up businesses in Europe; always household or pharmaceutical businesses (on the Reckitt side). They bought no food businesses.

Reckitt & Colman also developed quite rapidly into Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong – and they were playing at the edge of China but Japan was the prize then, in the way China is today. They were aggressively on the march across the world, recognising the new global world that was emerging. Unless you were big and strong in a few categories of product which you could sell across the world, you weren’t going to survive, and in food they didn’t have that position. They had a variety of food businesses round the world, particularly in the old Empire. There were food businesses in the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Holland, Caribbean, and none of them had the same product. Mustard was the commonest product; however, the big product in Norwich was Robinson’s soft drinks which didn’t exist anywhere else in the Reckitt & Colman empire. In New Zealand the main product was canned kiwi fruit which certainly didn’t exist anywhere else. Clearly the thinking was that unless more profit could be squeezed out of the existing food businesses they would be sold, so we had the consultancy firm in to seek to reduce our cost base, as they say in business-speak, which meant redundancies, a lot of job changes and some products sold off because they weren’t making money. It was for most of us, me included, quite a dramatic time of looking at things in entirely different ways. It caused a lot of turmoil. Then the business sort of re-settled itself in 1984 but that lasted only until ’94 when the business was sold to Unilever.

Between ’84 and ’94 Reckitt & Colman decided to get out of food entirely, apart from a couple of businesses in the US where they were locked in, and they put all their effort into household and pharmaceutical products. Pharmaceutical had some ethical products which needed a prescription but it was primarily concerned with over-the-counter products; those you could buy in a pharmacist or supermarket. Household products were fundamentally polishing, cleaning and laundry products and an enormous effort was made across the world such that they are now the world’s largest household products business. Food went and Colman’s in Norwich was sold in ’94 to Unilever, and the business is still there! That’s the remarkable thing about it. I thought it would have long gone!

I left Norwich in ’84 and went with Reckitt & Colman to South Africa where I worked for eight years in their household division (i.e. cleaning, polishing and laundry products) and became the Chief Executive. When I was made redundant, I became Chief Executive of what had been the Reckitt & Colman South African food business but now belonged to a South African company called Tiger Brands. I did that for another four years and then retired. So that was the end of my working time. I had 22 years in total, 14 at Carrow and 8 in South Africa, with Reckitt & Colman.

So the period from ’84 to 94, from what people have told me, was a period of uncertainty. We’d already had the big Consultancy, big shake-outs, but what was the future of the business? I guess it was around ’92 that people become aware it was going to be sold. It went from a business of about 1,800 employees in 1990 to around 250 today because when Unilever bought it, they took out all the office and technical work, the research & development and marketing and sales. All that went to their own substantial facilities elsewhere, leaving a small scale production unit at Carrow in Norwich. But it’s still making mustard, it’s still making soft drinks, it’s still making sauce mixes and mint. I thought it wouldn’t last long because Unilever has factories all over the UK and across Europe. I thought the site would become apartments because it has a very long waterfront close to the edge of the city, overlooking the football ground. But it hasn’t happened yet.

An ethos of education and training

Colman’s always prided itself on the education of its workforce. Obviously its school is long gone since the Local Authority, the City Corporation at the time, took it over by1899.

There were always opportunities for in-house training in my time there. We put a lot of effort into training our factory supervisors and selecting our supervisors, rather than, “It’s Charlie who’s been here longest who gets the job” which, more or less, was the old process – Buggin’s turn style of operation. We had apprenticeships, particularly in the skilled trades such as engineering and electrical, where the education element was provided by City College. We did a degree of supervisory training for factory supervisors and part of that was also at City College, and there were opportunities for employees to apply for funding to do any course they wanted at City College; I don’t think a lot did but it was available. We had some in-house training on very specific issues relating to the business; hygiene issues, changes in legislation, issues around safety, and particularly noise and dust and product safety. We had a Training Manager and Assistant who didn’t necessarily deliver the training but would organise it. There was management training and some of that took place outside at Management Colleges or Management Business Schools. So there was an ethos of education running through it but equally there was, certainly at management level, an increasing emphasis on employing graduates in appropriate subjects, so they came at least with a relevant educational background.

The whole ethos of Colman’s from the time it first came to Carrow in the 1850s was vertical integration; you did everything possible yourself. It’s why they had a paper mill where they made paper, why they got into printing works, and why on the deal ground they’d buy in planks of timber to convert into cases and boxes. You did all your own engineering work as far as humanly possible. You couldn’t make machines, you bought those in, but you did everything else. We used to take on quite a lot of apprentices in the skilled trades on the engineering and building side, but later we stopped taking on building apprentices – carpenters, bricklayers and painters – when we went through a process of contracting out work. It’s really a process that started with the closing down of the chimney sweeps but increasingly jobs like bricklaying, painting and carpentry were put with outside contractors and there were a number of redundancies amongst the existing staff in order for that to happen. However, all the staff made redundant from the skilled trades was given an opportunity of, I think two years, to bid for work at Colman’s once they got themselves established. Quite a number did set themselves up in their own little businesses.

Getting a job at Colman’s

You would certainly get some preference in getting a job, not necessarily in advancing, but in getting a job, if you had a parent who had been there or was still there. On the factory side it was almost entirely Norfolk and Norwich people but on the management side there were more people like me, who’d come from far away and had gone through University. On the factory side you could hear Norfolk being spoken all around you, and Norfolk names. So you did get some preference, deliberately, if you had a family connection but, in no sense, on the factory side or the engineering side was it a closed shop. However, the printing works was a closed shop because of the two Unions there, the NGA or National Graphic Association and SOGAT or Society of Graphic and Allied Trades.

During the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s we always had a quota of school leavers. We would take on 15 year-olds, usually on the production lines and there they got another form of discipline because we had older women on production lines. We spread the new school leavers out and the older women – quite tough ladies very often – would make sure the 15 year-olds toed the line. They really did the supervisors’ work for them but it happened because of the bonus schemes we operated until the early 80’s; there was the basic pay and then a bonus on top for many jobs on the production lines related directly to output. The tin shop was a classic because there, a really good operator could whistle tin plate through the machines really quickly and make quite an additional amount of earnings, so a 15 year-old was not allowed to jeopardise that earning level, and was soon brought into line!

I also recollect younger people when they got married and the elaborate display of dressing them up on their last day at work before the wedding; it was quite a ceremony carried out by the older women. The girls certainly weren’t dismissed as they would have been in times past.

The Art Department

The business had its own art studio, a group of graphic artists who would design much of the packaging and some of the advertising. The trouble was that they were often side-tracked into providing birthday cards and retirement cards for people and I think it became a bit uneconomic. They were closed down in the early ‘80s as part of the whole transformation of the business. However, Art went back an awfully long way and was part of the self-sufficiency programme. In the early 1900s the company used Alfred Munnings as a poster artist, and Hassall, a very well-known poster producer and poster artist of the time, produced a couple of glorious ones called Klondyke, in which a miner is heading for the Klondyke gold rush in the Yukon, full of optimism, and comes back having lost a fortune and not gained one. But he satisfies himself by sitting there with his feet in a mustard bath to ease away his aches and pains and his disappointment, having not found any gold. So art was another theme running through the place.

Were Colman’s good employers?

The question comes to mind ‘Were Colman’s good employers’? Well, my own personal view on this is “yes”, they were good employers. They would have been criticised by the Trade Unions as being relatively poor payers but that would have been true of most Norwich companies. We were surrounded by an agricultural county and the number of people working in agriculture declined as farms mechanised and got larger. As pay was relatively poor you didn’t have to pay a lot above agricultural rates in order to attract workers, particularly when you provided a raft of benefits and a pension fund.

Colman’s had its own in house pension fund from the 1920s, a time when almost nobody in business had pension funds outside the holy trinity of Rowntree, Colman and Unilever. So you got a pension fund, a decent, largely non-discriminatory pension – although I seem to recollect that women doing part-time work didn’t get a very fair deal out of it but everybody else did. It was quite a secure job too as you had to do something really bad to get sacked from Colman’s. The total workforce, office and factory, was stable at about two thousand people from 1860 through to 1990 so it was a pretty steady, solid job. There was the opportunity of housing and there has been medical care on site from 1862 when Colman’s had the first industrial nurse in the country. Later there were more nurses as well as an ambulance and a visiting doctor.

At Colman’s you had a secure job, reasonable pay and a good pension scheme – on which I’m still living, thank goodness! There were educational facilities, company goods could be bought at a discount and until the mid-1980s there was a social club, if you wanted to use it. So it was about the peripheral benefits as well as the hard money. You didn’t work at Colman’s to get rich and that would apply to the Chief Executive in those days right down to the lowest level, but it provided, I think, humane, decent, secure employment. Things did not change until the beginning of the 1990s when Reckitt and Colman corporately started to recognise that they didn’t have a future in food, and then the world did change. But until that time, it was good.

Discipline wasn’t harsh and I think we were always pretty fair. We didn’t sack many people; you had to do something quite bad for that. There was a good disciplinary process to go through which some managers would criticise for being too soft; there are always some in any management team, however good the employer, who want to fire people on the spot but I think we were always pretty good. We never ended up in an Industrial Tribunal. We had a couple of one-day strikes over pay but industrial relations in most factories are rather like grumbling appendices which rumble on over many small things but never develop into a major dispute.

I think it was a good place to work and I think most Colman employees I’ve spoken to since I’ve returned to Norwich have happy memories. I know we all get rosy-eyed over time, but I hear few grumbles. We have a Pensioners’ Magazine, not a specifically Colman one, as it comes from what is now Reckitt Benckiser, the business that took over from Reckitt & Colman. In it you have all the people deceased in the last quarter and if you look at their ages, very few Colman employees die below 80 despite a lot of the older ones having done pretty heavy manual work during their working lifetime. They are remarkably long-lived. It’s also a feature of Norfolk and hard water and perhaps drinking enough red wine, but they are a long-lived people.

All in all Colman had many virtues and would never have had zero-hour contracts in my day, even if they had existed!

Rod Spokes (b. 1941) was interviewed in Norwich for WISE Archive on March 2nd 2015

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