There's something about the name that positively invites ribaldry. Take the following report of a County Court trial earlier this year. "The presiding judge having difficulty hearing the defendant, defence counsel explained that his client had a sore throat. 'Tell him,' said the judge, 'to suck a Fisherman's Friend.' Counsel passed on these words of advice and the defendant again mumbled something. 'What did he say?' asked the judge. Counsel replied: 'He says he thinks he is in quite enough trouble already, your Honour.'"
Leaving aside a reasonable suspicion that the judge's remark might have been a flagrant incitement to crime (you never know with the judiciary these days), the defendant's caution was understandable. Let's face it Fisherman's Friends are, well, an acquired taste. For those unfamiliar with the product, the aforementioned Friend is what is known generically as "medical confectionery", more prosaically as a lozenge.
This particular lozenge has the texture of a ceramic tile and the flavour of enriched plutonium. Testimonies to its potency are manifest and broad. "We had a letter from a police inspector this morning, claiming that it had cured his tennis elbow," says Doreen Lofthouse, managing director of the firm, Lofthouse and Fleetwood, that produces these dietetic isotopes. "When we looked up all the ingredients in the pharmacopoeia, it did seem possible that it might." My own sympathies tend to another, female customer, who wrote that the after-effect of eating a Friend was akin to having her "her tubes gone through with a vacuum cleaner." Speaking personally, when Tony Lofthouse, the company's chairman, proffered one of his new Super Strong Mint Fisherman's Friends, tears ran down my cheeks. "It's strong, that," said Lofthouse, a little de trop. But read this and weep.
This year, the couple's firm, in the more-or-less ex-fishing port of Fleetwood in Lancashire, will manufacture four billion of the little devils, and people will eat them all. They will suck them in Abu Dhabi. They will gasp over them in Sierra Leone. Tears will fall in Trinidad, and in 54 other countries worldwide besides. The resultant huffing and puffing should generate a turnover somewhere in excess of £14 million, all of it manufactured on the Lofthouses' single Fleetwood site. What percentage of this is paid as profits no one will say but Lofthouse of Fleetwood funds most of its capital investment from them and has only three directors: to wit, Tony and Doreen Lofthouse and Doreen's son, Duncan, also company secretary.
Those nosey enough to scour Companies' House will discover how sanguine a state this is. In the year ended June 1991, bank loans and overdrafts stood at a resoundingly happy nil; only three of the firm's employees were paid more than £30,000, and total staff costs were a snitch over £4 million. The three directors, contrariwise, were each paid £425,000 while post-tax profits of £1.8 million were added to retained profits of £6.7 million. As consumers of Fisherman's Friends might say: phew.
Empires have been built on many things, but phlegm must surely be among the most inelegant. Nonetheless, it is to phlegm that the Lofthouses owe their good fortune. "We have a saying in this part of the world," says Tony Lofthouse. "If you can see the hills of the Lake District from Fleetwood, then it's about to rain. If you can't, then it already is raining." In 1865, his grandfather, James, the port's pharmacist, began to manufacture pastilles aimed at clearing the chests of Fleetwood's rain-soaked fishermen. A century later, little had changed: fishermen still fished, and the Lofthouses still catered exclusively for them. Then came two phenomena. The first was the Cod War, which quickly wiped out Fleetwood's fishing industry. The second was Doreen Lofthouse. The new Mrs Lofthouse looked at her husband's familial lozenge and saw that it was good. Within a year, it was being peddled all over Lancashire: "We still thought of Yorkshire as an export market in those days," she giggles. Not for long.
By 1971, the company had expanded out of the chemist's shop into a 20,000 sq ft site on Maritime Street. It now occupies the same site, but expanded to 100,000 sq ft. Among testimonials to the efficacy of the Fleetwood lozenge are ones from Mrs Thatcher - a great Lofthouse heroine - and, implausibly, from George Bush ("Fine cough drops - drop in - George"). But a menthol-scented wind of changes is blowing through the blindingly white, viciously minty shopfloor at Lofthouse of Fleetwood Limited. In 1983, a new variety of Fisherman's Friend, the volcanic Super Strong Mint flavour sampled above, was added to the firm's original mustard-and-camphor number. It may have been the firm's biggest re-invention since 1865. By aiming themselves at the extra-strong mint market, Lofthouse is effectively redefining itself.
No longer are its products simply to be seen as catarrh-related: now the lozenges are to be munched (improbable though it may sound) for the sheer pleasure of the munching, as a species of sweetie. The rationale is obvious. While having a 6.8% slice of the UK medicated confectionery market (Nielson's latest stab) is jolly nice, having a 1% slice of the enormous mint market - the portion that would make Mrs Lofthouse "very, very happy" - would be nicer still. Accordingly, Fisherman's Friend's distinctive red-and-black packaging (the two colours on the typewriter ribbon originally used to produce it) will cease to carry details of the firm's pharmaceutical licence, an omission that will save Lofthouse £5,500 a year.
The logic behind the strategy is as follows: "In every other country in the rest of the world, Fisherman's Friends are perceived in the same way," says Doreen Lofthouse. "In Italy or Norway or wherever, they're eaten as confectionery. It's only in the UK that they're perceived as a pharmaceutical product." This means that the lozenge's domestic market profile is notably different from its export equivalent. "In every one of our new countries, our age profile is 15-40," notes Mrs Lofthouse. "Here, it's what, Tony? - 40-plus, mostly working men, B's and C's. Young people say, 'Fisherman's Friends? I remember my granny taking those.' They don't, but they think they do. We've got to change that." It is not simply that this prejudice limits the Lofthouses' UK market in terms of numbers: the lozenge's appeal to rheumy old men in cloth caps means that the product's sales pattern is strongly seasonal, split 60/40 between winter and summer trade. This, think the Lofthouses, need not be. "Norway is our number one customer, but Singapore is our number two," confides Doreen Lofthouse. "As my husband says, 'People cough in the same language all over the world.'"
If the logic of this seems a touch back-to-front - extrapolating backwards from an 84% export market to a 16% domestic one does look perverse - Mrs Lofthouse is ready to agree ("That's us. That's us"). The brand, she reasons, is strong enough to penetrate new markets without threatening old ones. The original Fisherman's Friend now accounts for only 38% of the company's turnover, though its sales are still growing: the rest comes from the new-fangled mint and its companion aniseed flavours, and 40% of sales are of the new, youth-and-health conscious, Sorbitol-based sugar-free lines. The Lofthouses insist that the progression from medicated to mainstream confectionery was natural and inevitable, and that all they have done is to give it "a nudge". Nonetheless, the aforesaid nudge has obviously been carefully thought through. Lofthouse of Fleetwood has recently given over its entire UK distribution and marketing to Food Brokers, and a £1 million-a-year TV ad campaign, with the catchline "Never underestimate the power of a Fisherman's Friend," will appear on British sets from January. Its intention, says Doreen Lofthouse, is to "move us away from the sentimental, maritime image: but slowly, slowly."
At the same time, the firm's foreign sales partner, Impex, has its eyes on a joint venture in what is potentially the world's biggest sucker-market, the mainland Chinese. "There are," Mrs Lofthouse points out, "lots of them," while her husband suggests a blessed equity in the deal: all his menthol imports come from China, and prices have risen by 500% in the last couple of years. "Being a natural crop, prices do fluctuate," he humphs, "but the Chinese always seem to fluctuate upwards, don't know why. If they weren't good Communists, I might think that they hung on until prices were high and then released their stuff."
Happily for the Lofthouses, "Fisherman's Friend" apparently means "floating snow" in Cantonese, so the auguries seem good. The couple are also keeping a weather eye on the Soviet Union, though a previous deal - the Soviets offered dried cod in exchange for the Lofthouses' potent pastilles - was tactfully allowed to drop. ("We told them that we dealt in Fisherman's Friends," says Mrs Lofthouse, sweetly, "not fish".) If there is any cloud on the horizon, it is that their product is too popular. Fake Friends abound, and, say Doreen Lofthouse, "we have to spend a lot of money every year protecting our name and logo." Recently, a neighbouring Fleetwood firm had the temerity to produce a rival lozenge called "Bosun's mate". Mrs Lofthouse was scandalised. Where might this escalation of titular intimacy not end? Stoker's Sweetheart? Captain's Companion? Mrs Lofthouse put down her well-shod size five and the ersatz Friend was withdrawn. "The Germans are the worst," she sniffs, adding, "but at least the courts there stamp on fakes straight away."
As to any suggestion that a flotation might one day make sense or that a board of three seems small ("We have executives, but no other directors," Doreen Lofthouse explains, "because it's our job to infect employees with enthusiasm"), the firm's eponymous First Couple recoil in horror. "We don't believe in sitting still because you end up going backwards," notes the firm's MD. "But as to the running of the company, we'll go on as we are while ever we can. Tony and I got on well even though we're remarried. I'm the sort that dives into a swimming pool. Tony checks to make sure there's water in it first."