A Family with a Stroke of Genius

The Journal (Newcastle, England), February 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Family with a Stroke of Genius


At 29 he's not long since taken the helm of his family's 150-year-old brush-making business. Rebekah Ashby meets Ben Cottam ( the sixth generation of Cottams to run one of Sunderland's best-known manufacturers ( and discovers his phenomenal brush with history.

In 1858 Samuel Cottam travelled North from Hull and set up a brush-making business on Wearside.

Fast-forward almost 150 years and Samuel's great, great, great-grandson Ben Cottam has taken over as managing director of this remarkable, sixth-generation family business.

The 29-year-old, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, joined the pounds 2.8m business ( which still manufactures brushes in Sunderland ( in 2001 and stepped up into the top role two years ago.

He says: "The first time I came into the business I suppose I must have been a few weeks old and there are people who work here now who were here when I was born.

"Even though there's an awful lot of history here, there has never been any pressure from the family (to join the business) and I think that's why we've been such a success for so long.

"I made the decision in my final year at university. I had come out wanting to go into automotive manufacturing but decided that the opportunity I had here was just too good.

"That said, we haven't got any misplaced sentiment ( if tomorrow we weren't making money, and decided we should be doing something else, then that's what we'd do."

And Ben is not only determined to make money, he is also determined to move the business forward ( starting with its premises.

Cottam Bros. ( which makes brushes for everything from cattle to scratch themselves on, to stimulate milk production, to the hi-tech cleaning of oil and gas pipelines ( currently operates out of seven separate buildings on the Sheepfold Industrial Estate, behind the Stadium of Light, posing obvious logistical problems.

Although nothing has been signed, the youngest member of this North-East manufacturing dynasty has his eye on a new site in the city to bring the historic business under one roof.

"You can see how we have ended up with seven buildings," he says. "We've been here (at Sheepfold) for so long (since 1926) that, as soon as a neighbour moved out, we've thought 'hmmmm, we'd better have that building', but it's not very practical.

"We make the best of a bad site here and, operationally speaking, we will be so much more efficient because, at the moment, we are limited by a road running through the middle of our site, for example.

"Lean manufacturing is something we are keen on but we are very restricted with this seven-building situation because it just physically disrupts the flow of things."

Lean manufacturing techniques are a far cry from the beginnings of this business when skilled brush-maker Samuel Cottam was instructed by his uncle, who ran a brush factory in Hull, to open up a similar business in Sunderland.

But before he could open the North-East arm of Cottam, his uncle's factory was wrecked by fire ( and so the financing for the Sunderland business went up in flames.

With the basic tools he had brought from Hull ( and a house in the Hendon area of Sunderland ( Samuel began making brushes by hand.

With a boring machine ( worked by foot, a pair of hand shears and a pot of hot black pitch that was used as a setting agent, he would force the brush into a wooden head.

And, with hard work, he built the company into a viable business which moved into premises consisting of a four-storey house with large basement.

When Samuel died in 1894, son George William Cottam took over the business, moving his family into the rooms above the workshop at 22 Lambton Street, Sunderland.

"If you look through the history there were so many ups and downs ( family feuds, splits in the business and virtual bankruptcy. Luckily, we are a lot more stable now," he laughs. …

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