UK: Cosipet - Dog days and after. (2 of 4)

UK: Cosipet - Dog days and after. (2 of 4) - After the traumas of the buyout, following on from a couple of years when the company stood still, the partners had rather optimistically expected 1990 to be "the year we got over the hump". Instead of which t

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

After the traumas of the buyout, following on from a couple of years when the company stood still, the partners had rather optimistically expected 1990 to be "the year we got over the hump". Instead of which the hump grew massively bigger.

The standstill occurred while Cosipet was an insignificant subsidiary of the overblown Bunzl group. In the years 1982-86 the big paper converter had gathered up businesses by the armful - distributors, transport firms, packaging producers, electronics manufacturers, plastics moulders. Among the later acquisitions - before the inevitable selling phase began in earnest - was a Manchester company in the last category, North West Plastics, which made, among other things, dog dishes. At the time Bunzl obviously regarded the pets' accessories market as a field worth cultivating: because very soon after it became part of the group, North West Plastics paid more than £300,000 for a minute business manufacturing soft goods for dogs in the rural West of England. Cosipet employed nearly 40 people when it passed to Bunzl. Twelve months earlier its profits had reached a peak of £50,000 before tax, on revenues of £500,000.

The business had been founded in Crewkerne at the end of the 1970s by a local couple, Alex and Isobel Griffiths, who began by sewing dogs' beds in one room of their small house. The cottage industry was surprisingly successful, and the couple soon took space on the site of an old brewery nearby. It was here that Carol Legg, a farmer's daughter straight out of secretarial college, came to help with the paperwork. She was Cosipet's first (and, for a while, only) office employee. A year or so before Bunzl appeared on the scene the company moved yet again, into its present building, a former (and at the time semi-derelict) flax mill set in rolling farmland a few miles to the south of the town, just across the county boundary in Dorset.

Both of the Griffiths, husband and wife, were expected to stay on for a year after relinquishing ownership, but life in a large organisation was evidently not to their taste. Mrs Griffiths, who ran the factory (her husband was the salesman), went almost at once. Kate Worthington, a Lancashire lass who had joined North West Plastics only a few months earlier as a management accountant - although without qualifications - was sent down south to look over the acquisition's systems, and arrived there to be told that Mrs Griffiths had just walked out. So the new owners found themselves with a distant subsidiary, and a factory full of female workers using processes unknown to plastics moulders, without a manager in sight. The solution was to ask Worthington to stay on and take charge: after all, she was female - and might even know something about sewing. It should have been an exciting challenge for a 30-ish woman without any genuine management experience.

Worthington's first year at Cosipet was actually fairly productive: turnover passed £900,000, and profits put on 33% compared with the Griffiths' last full financial year. The following year, 1988, revenue topped £1 million for the first time. But in her remote south-western fiefdom, Worthington was growing exasperated and rebellious. The big company syndrome became oppressive: "I would do my monthly management accounts in half a day, then spend two days dissecting them for Bunzl."

Far more upsetting, however, was the way that the parent's priorities changed as its earnings flattened, and then fell sharply, in the late 1980s. A group-wide need to conserve cash meant that new product development ceased, at least officially. Cosipet itself remained profitable, but all funds available at the year end were seized by the group - which also made off with reserves accumulated in earlier years. Then Cosipet joined a long list of (mostly very much bigger) businesses which Bunzl put up for sale.

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