Magazine article Management Today

How to Regain the Sweet Smell of Success

Magazine article Management Today

How to Regain the Sweet Smell of Success

Article excerpt

A soapmaker and a high-tech materials specialist: two small businesses that could hardly differ more. Yet both are breaking with the past to find new markets. Andrew Saunders reports

Droyt's soap factory, home of the finest-quality transparent glycerine soap, does not look like a business in the throes of a 21st-century re-invention. A trip around the works, in Chorley, Lancashire (the heart of the old industrial North-west), is a step back in time. Original plank flooring smooth with soap, racks and shelving in age-darkened wood that interior designers would kill for, and everywhere the heady smell of soap perfumed with geranium, rosemary oil and musk.

Established in Saratov on the banks of the Volga in 1897 but pogrommed out of Russia by the 1917 revolution, Droyt's moved to Berlin. But by 1937 it was on the move again -- a Jewish company escaping the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany -- washing up this time at its present home, the old red-brick cotton mill on Progress Street.

Except for the white coats and hats now worn by the 25-odd staff, the factory floor area hasn't changed much in 64 years. The few machines in sight are hand-operated and pre-date the company's move to England. For example, the press that forms the soaps into neat bars is an octogenarian German device, still going strong. The atmosphere is scented as much by tradition as it is by the exotic perfumes of the products.

But appearances can be deceptive. Traditional doesn't mean backward-looking and nowadays Droyt's has some chic customers. Once the soaps are finished, packed and shipped, they'll grace the shelves of stores like Heals, Selfridges and Muji worldwide.

A far cry from the situation that faced managing director Chris Effendowicz when in the early 1990s he quit a career in the City to take over from his 85-year-old uncle. The soap was then being made and sold in the same way it had been since 1907, when synthetic detergents had yet to be invented and Anita Roddick wasn't even a twinkle in her grandfather's eye. 'We had one type of soap, which came in only two colours, and a handful of customers,' he recalls, Boots and Smith & Nephew being the biggest. Packaging was dowdy and more likely to appeal to hard-up pensioners than to the well-heeled urban 30-somethings who make up today's target market. Droyt's was ripe for re-invention, but with turnover down to [pound]167,000 in 1991-92, Effendowicz knew he'd have to move quickly.

Effendowicz's partner and sales director Alistair McCracken says: 'The first part of our strategy was simple -- sell more soap.' McCracken, who came on board as a partner in that year, is a Cambridge University-trained geologist. The company had never actively sold before; customers would come to Droyt's because of its reputation in the industry. Attracted by the quality of the product, designer outlets such as Liberty and the Conran Shop soon showed an interest, but McCracken had to be flexible. 'I learned to say "yes" when asked if we could do something -- embed chunks of one kind of soap in a bar of another, make a particular shape or colour -- and then go away and work out how to do it.'

The old cardboard packaging had to go too, replaced by the simple-yet-sophisticated look of clear cellophane wrap.

But they didn't change the manufacturing process. After the ingredients -- including food-grade palm oil, glycerine and Tate & Lyle granulated sugar (which no doubt finds its way into staff cups of tea) -- have been cooked up in a big pot they are poured into one-ton moulds and left to set for several days before being cut up into blocks. Thence to the drying room, a 40[degrees]C hothouse that smells even more exotic than the rest of the place. It takes at least six weeks to manufacture each finished bar -- costly and labour-intensive but the only way to produce the best-quality soap.

The company now makes 25 standard varieties (plus dozens of special one-offs), and in a decade of experimentation has discovered only two things that can't be done: making the soap light blue (it is naturally pale yellow so blue dye turns it green) or forming it into a ball (squash it too much and it goes opaque). …

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