Edison's invention of the light bulb put paid to Price's Patent Candles' glory days. Now an ex-banker hopes to rekindle its flame.
'I spend a lot of time thinking about robotics,' says Richard Simpson, gloomily pressing the sequence of vending-machine buttons that causes a viscous liquid masquerading as coffee, white, no sugar, to be extruded from the machine's nether regions. 'Labour is just so damn' expensive in Britain. In China, I could employ an electrician for a week for what I pay one for an hour here in London. It really makes you think.' Simpson sips thoughtfully at his auto-coffee and suppresses a slight shudder.
Now, it may seem something of a red herring to begin an article on Britain's oldest firm of candle-makers - Price's Patent Candles - with an excursus on its chairman's taste in hot beverage, but Simpson's coffee machine is significant for three reasons. First, the sight of a chairman pressing his own vending buttons suggests that one is in the presence of that species of operation known in business circles as 'no frills'. Such is indeed the case at Price's candle works, a venerable but undeniably down-at-heel cluster of Victorian industrial buildings on the Thames at Battersea.
Second, Simpson's coffee dispenser is unusual in Price's purlieu in that it has lights that wink, bleepers that bleep and small metallic arms that perform human functions. Floreate cast-iron pulleys and large wooden ladles are rather more the way on Simpson's factory floor, and the arms that operate them tend to be of the tattooed variety.
Last, the curious liquid congealing at the bottom of Simpson's plastic cup suggests the existence of another commercial truth that may well haunt the young entrepreneur's waking hours: that not every sphere of human endeavour can (alas) be adequately replaced by obliging and ununionised machines.
To understand the real significance of Simpson's coffee, however, one needs to go back to 1830. In that year, five Scottish brothers named Wilson formed a firm called E Price and Co (Mr Price, as it happens, never existed: the brothers' decision not to christen their familial brainchild Wilson and Co was based on Victorian snobbery about trade).
Thanks to a handy way with such state-of-the-art techno-wizardry as stearic acid bleaching, steam distilling and wick plaiting, Price's Patent Candles - as the company was to be incorporated in 1847 - became official candle-makers to the Crimean War. The timely invention of paraffin wax helped convert small-scale tallow chandlery into a mass-production process, so that, by the end of the century, the Wilson brothers' pseudonymous infant had come to number among the most successful companies in the Empire. As well as servicing a vast imperial demand, the firm had cornered something like 80% of the domestic British market - and this at a time when candle manufacture counted as a social utility on a par with coal mining. Price's product was to be found wherever there were stiff British upper-lips. Among the last letters written by the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott was one congratulating the freres Wilson on making a candle that did not seize up at -70degF.
But, as with the unfortunate Scott, even frost-proof candles were not enough to fend off the chilly times that lay ahead for Price's Patent Candles. First, that smart aleck Edison thoughtlessly invented the light bulb. Then (the church having traditionally been a good customer), God fell from favour. Price's established penchant for technological innovation allowed the company to survive these commercial coups de grace intact - its Battersea works began to turn out motor lubricants for Rolls Royce, leading to the company's eventual acquisition by Shell Oil - but the heady days of the 19th century were over for good.
It was in this rather disconsolate state that Richard Simpson found Price's back in 1991. 'Frankly,' says Simpson, frankly, 'the firm had become the equivalent of a pimple on an elephant's backside. As a division, it was taking up enormous amounts of Shell's management time, and to be honest, it just wasn't worth the trouble so they just let things slide.' Simpson, for his part, had recently left Morgan Grenfell and was 'looking around for a company to buy, in the range that I could afford. I mean, it's all very well looking at BAT and saying "great company", but one has to be realistic.' If a decayed candlemaker sounds like an unlikely provoker of adrenalin for an AWOL merchant banker, Simpson is the first to agree. 'I knew hardly anything about manufacturing and nothing about candle making. All I knew about was the Yellow Book and the Blue Book. But I do also know a great brand name when I see one, and Price's was without doubt a great brand name.' The word 'dodo' might also, of course, be reckoned to have a certain euphony in some circles, but Simpson baulks at the analogy. 'If you want an indication of how things could be over here,' says Simpson, 'all you have to do is look at Europe. The Germans spend about 10 times as much on candles as we do, the Swedes over 20 times as much. And that's just table candles. There's also a massive market gap for specialist products, such as scented candles for your downstairs cloakroom. They're more effective than that horrible Haze stuff and they look nicer and smell nicer, too.' Certainly, Simpson's logic has an undeniable appeal in theory. Even in these harsh, electro-lit days, Price's annual turnover for 1993-94 is expected to top the £7 million mark. Ten times £7 million is rather a lot of money, 20 times £7 million doubly so. In practice, there are problems, however. The most obvious of these is how to set about converting a race of resolutely unromantic light-bulb buyers into a nation of candle burners. Simpson notes with undisguised glee that the recent (indeed, according to some unpatriotic onlookers, extant) economic recession was actually good for British candledom: 'When people couldn't afford to go to the Gavroche any more they started to entertain at home again,' reasons Price's chairman.
While this fact may provide a degree of immediate comfort, however, its obverse implication does not. One cannot rely on even the present Government to perpetuate a recession for ever, and Simpson's theory does tend to suggest that the firm's current candle-burning constituency may simply gallop off in search of the brothers Roux once the good times return.
Simpson's answer to this is to compare what he would like to happen for candles with what has already happened with wine: that candle-burning should 'cease to be seen as simply a middle-class phenomenon'. Waiting for the lower orders to catch on may take a little time, however, and Price's chairman is thus working on a contingency plan. If the overall existing British candle market cannot itself be conveniently grown at will, Price's share of it - currently reckoned to stand at around 25% - may nonetheless prove to be expandable.
With this in mind, Simpson has spent the past two years trying to make some sort of sense out of the management morass he inherited from Shell. In essence, this has meant rationalising Price's physical presence - closing down a division in Colchester trenchantly described as 'an absolute pig's ear', relocating head office back to the Battersea factory site from Surrey - while simultaneously remodelling the company's divisional structure. This last is now targeted at three discrete markets: commodity candles - 'the kind of thing you keep under your stairs', in Simpson parlance - largely aimed at supermarkets; gift candles - Price's current catalogue includes such waxen desirables as aromatherapy dispensers and flammable Santas with removable hat-snuffers; and church supplies. Such curious historical arcana as bespoke hand-dipped tapers and edible candles for the SAS still survive, although - given Simpson's new dispensation - for how much longer one would not like to say.
If all this sounds admirably common-sensical - 'You could say we'll end up as three different companies,' hints Price's chairman - there is, nonetheless, one overriding problem. In Simpson's re-invented chandlery, production will effectively be divided into two sorts of tasks: those (like coffee-making) that lend themselves to automation, and those that do not. Strange to relate, the world market in candle-making robotics is not a highly evolved one. In its old, technocratic days, Price's response to this inexplicable oversight was to run up machines of its own, but, relates Simpson, sadly, 'all the lathes were sold before I bought the company. It was very foolish management'. Consequently, Price's has been thrown back on investing in customised Danish and German machinery. But such industrial gew-gaws cost: the rejigging bill at Battersea has already topped the £1 million mark, which - as Simpson, a monster of British understatement, concedes - 'is a lot of money for a company of this size'. This is unfortunate. The bog-standard commodity candle market - which will, Simpson hopes, eventually account for some 40% of Price's turnover - is both a highly price-sensitive one and the one best served by automation. Having to buy expensive machines will not make competing on margins any easier.
Contrariwise, the gift market is less prone to margin-paring, but the production of highly crafted goods does not lend itself to automation. (This is even more the case in the manufacture of beeswax church candles, although Simpson loyally notes that his ecclesiastical clients 'do at least enjoy rather high credit ratings'.) What Price's really needs, in other words, is cheap machinery capable of running off high-marginned Santas by the boatload: an eventuality that does not, alas, seem likely to occur.
In any case, there is another aspect to the business that must be under close consideration at Price's antediluvian Battersea works: to sell them. Simpson will not confirm that such a move is on the cards, but nor will he deny it. The logic for sale is certainly compelling. Mid-Victorian warehouses may be charming to look at but they do not lend themselves to modern Japanese production-line methods. What is more, it is only a matter of time before somebody comes along and lists them. The factory's 100-yard river frontage must make it among the choicest chunks of real estate in London, and certainly a sizeable capital injection in Price's corporate arm would be unlikely to go amiss just at the moment.