How Vanish left a mark on its creator

How Vanish left a mark on its creator

John Jones discovered a sticky substance in an Ayrshire stockroom and turned into a global brand. But he tells BQ how the forced sale of his firm was a watershed in his life.

Once upon a time there was a miserable Welshman with millions tucked away in the bank. John T Jones was a middle-ranking sales and marketing man who stumbled on a sticky substance that became Vanish, the global cleaning phenomenon.

It was invented and developed by Jones in Scotland but he was forced to sell the expanding business that he loved.

By 1986 he was living a life of sybaritic pleasure in a beautiful villa in rural Costa Blanca with a bijoux apartment near Mandelieu, outside Cannes. As he lounged on Bernardo, his 55-foot motor yacht, moored at La Napoule, on the Cote D’Azur, he could see his Aston Martin DBS being washed and valeted on the quayside.

Next to him on the deck was his bikini-clad wife, Liz, a former model. He says: “I can clearly remember sitting on my boat, looking out across the marina thinking to myself, ‘Why am I so unhappy?’ I have money – lots of money – luxury cars, houses, freedom.

In fact, everything I had ever dreamed about having… and yet I felt completely and utterly depressed.” Even today, 25 years later, John Jones – now at 69, infinitely happier and at peace with his past – still shakes his head with disbelief about the cleaning brand that he discovered and nurtured. For all that the textbooks say about business “not being personal” and that you should never get emotionally attached, in John Jones’s case, they are talking baloney. “I don’t expect you to understand this,” he says. “I didn’t understand it myself – and still don’t.

What I did with Vanish was perhaps the great achievement in my business life – and I missed it profoundly after I was forced to sell.” He now lives much more modestly in a comfortable detached home on the banks of the Firth of Forth, with his partner Jane and his loyal eight-year-old dogs, Sirius and Theos. He works as an occasional business mentor, happy to pass on nuggets of advice to emerging entrepreneurs, including Katarzyna and Ewa, the founders of the Polish recruitment business Pol-UK.

And a recent talking spot at the PLC – Power Lunch Club – resulted in a minibus tour of interested business people wanting to hear more from “The Incredible Mr Jones”. Let’s put Vanish in some sort of context. It is a massive global brand worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year. It sells in the United Kingdom, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia, Poland and Turkey. It is also sold under the brand name Spray ‘n’ Wash and Resolve in the United States. It’s a Super Brand now owned by Reckitt Benckiser, (RB) based in Slough, one of the world’s leading manufacturers and marketers of branded products for the household cleaning market.

Vanish sits alongside another 18 “power brands” that include household names such as Dettol, Harpic, Strepsils, Clearasil, Durex, Nurofen, Gaviscon, Finish and Cherry Blossom. RB’s annual report for 2010 says that the fabric care market, including the water softeners and laundry detergents, brings in £1.57bn a year – a large chunk of this is for Vanish and all its variants. It is little wonder John Jones can’t quite believe it all. The Vanish story is a classic tale.

“I had just completed an assignment for a Lancashire soap manufacturer,” he says. “It was very boring but it paid the bills and I was thinking about my next move, without a particular plan, when the phone rang.” It was the early 1980s and a Clydesdale Bank manager who had been working with Jones, then in his early 40s, on business restructuring, called him up.

“John, I know you normally do sales and marketing assignments, but I have an unusual close-down project in a place called Skelmorlie,” he said. The company chairman had suffered a heart attack and the business needed help right away.

Jones says: “I found a wonderful little office on the waterfront at Skelmorlie, near Largs in North Ayrshire, with fabulous view across the Clyde to Bute and Arran.” The Projectina company, named after a Swiss microscope, had been set up 23 years earlier, the previous 17 years as the main agent for Nikon, selling and servicing optical microscopes in the UK and Europe.

It had a turnover of £1m, staff morale was high and everything was in good shape. “Normally, as a consultant, you arrive at client company with all sorts of disasters happening or about to happen, but not here, this was a refreshing change,” he recalls. The Japanese directors of Nikon had visited owner and chairman Roy MacFarlane, thanked him for his work, then broke the news that they had now formed Nikon (UK) Ltd. His contract was not being renewed and they wanted to negotiate a compensation package. The shock was too much, McFarlane collapsed and was rushed into hospital.

“I took on the assignment and set about selling off assets and liaising with Nikon to employ the field sales engineers, helping to find the administrative staff alternative employment,” he says. He was rummaging through a stockroom with Patricia MacFarlane, the chairman’s wife, when he came across a large tin of a toffee-like substance on a shelf that smelled like Vick’s Vapour rub. When Jones pointed it out, Patricia explained: “Roy brought that back from Australia. It cleans the microscope slides. It’s very powerful, it’s bio-degradable, germicidal and sometimes I use it in my washing machine to remove stubborn stains.” Jones took a sample home to try it out.

His hobby was boating and his clothing was regularly covered in all sorts of dirt and grime. His wife Liz tried it out on the baby clothes. They found it worked on just about everything. This was powerful stuff. It was a Eureka moment as Jones thought that this substance that might make a unique Fast Moving Consumer Goods product, so he began investigating its potential.

Nielsen’s market research said the stain-removing market was worth a meagre £3m and supermarkets were not particularly interested. The available products, Dabitoff and Thawpit, contained carbon tetrachloride, which was a highly flammable substance. Jones went to see Stuart Harvey, a senior lecturer and chemical scientist at Paisley College of Technology (now University of the West of Scotland), and Dr Nichol, one of his chemical engineering colleagues.

(Harvey taught from 1960 to 1994 and died in 2010, aged 75.) They identified the chemical compound and whether it would be safe as a consumer product. It was too raw and needed to be homogenised for general use, so John contacted his previous soap-making friends to see if it could be incorporated into a bar of soap.

Back at Paisley, the chemists tested the product and found the results were outstanding. Roy MacFarlane was convalescing at home when John Jones told him of the discovery.

“At first, he seemed a bit concerned that, as an expensive consultant, I had been spending time on something that was outside my remit,” he says. “When I explained the results and progress so far, I got him interested and he asked about our chances of success.” They were very slim.

“Well, how much would it cost?” he asked. Jones suggested about £30,000 risk capital then, if it was a proven winner, considerably more. He gave a sample bar to Patricia MacFarlane and her friends and less than a week later she called saying everyone thought the bar was remarkable. Instead of remaining a consultant, Roy McFarlane made Jones an employee, giving him a major stake in the business. He became obsessed by the product. Bob Gillies, an accountant with business advisers Nelson Gilmour Smith, was taken on by Jones as part-time managing director, working in the firm’s 95 Bothwell Street office in Glasgow. Formal agreements with the Paisley scientists were completed and they put together the blend concentrate.

Dr Nichol designed and built a small manufacturing laboratory alongside the office and a Lancashire soap manufacturer was appointed under the expert control of Len Richardson. All that was needed was a name and a sound business and marketing plan.

Sam Gaunt, a Glasgow packaging and artwork designer, came up with the name so it became Vanish, with the strapline: “Put a little magic in your home!” “For the first time in my business life, I had the opportunity of putting together something of real quality that I had absolute confidence in,” says Jones.

“I ensured that only the best natural ingredients were used and the finest quality packaging possible were placed into this consumer product.” Jones had to crack the major retailers and the supermarkets, but head office buyers were reluctant to meet with a Welshman punting a stain remover. He was told it would take three to six months to achieve a “listing” and only if they approved the product in the first place. He says sheer enthusiasm and dogged determination eventually wore them down. Advertising support was a vital part of this. He went to see Scottish Television about a start-up campaign. But the optimum number of TVRs (television rating points) to create a major impact was estimated at around £110,000. Jones doorstepped STV’s managing director Bill Brown and convinced him that he had the greatest invention to hit the household since the wheel.

“Amazing, I got my campaign for just £12,000 with a promise that on the back of the success of Vanish I would give lots of PR support for television advertising with STV,” he says. He did a deal for last-minute, full-colour inserts with IPC for space in magazines such as Woman’s Weekly, and Mother and Baby, and recruited a team of “in store” promotion girls with special outfits to wear.

In eight months Vanish had 70% distribution in the main supermarkets and department stores throughout Scotland and was estimated to be in one in every four homes. The brand achieved cult status. The television and magazine advertising was doing its job. The sales curve went through the roof, growing at 20% per month, month on month for three years.

“I sold the product for 49p,” says Jones. “No discounts or special deals, the demand was such that we had a tiger by the tail. We ran a free ‘stains help line’ for customers, which seemed to fuel demand even more. The unsolicited mail from our customers meant the local post office had to put on an extra delivery van.” They received thousands of letters from delighted customers. There were letters from men who got rid of lipstick on shirt collars before their partners saw it; from an Irish goat society for getting rid of the smell of goats; from those able to remove stains from their teeth; and even from a Metropolitan police officer who said Vanish removed traces of blood from his uniform – and his truncheon. They extended the range. First came Liquid Vanish, a carpet shampoo competing with Cusson’s 2001, then Vanish HS, a deep-cleaning hard surface cleaner for thekitchen and bathroom.

Expansion continued overseas too – it was called Vantina in France, Magic in Belgium, and Endit in Canada. “Although I registered the Vanish name in the UK, I was unaware that the brand name of Vanish was a toilet bowl cleaner in Canada,” says Jones. It was named Wipe-Out in the US. “Life was very good,” he says. “I was an adrenalin junkie working like a whirling dervish, finding it difficult to sleep or live any kind of life outside the business – and selfishly giving little or any thought to the wellbeing of my wife and daughter.” He now admits this obsession led to the break-up of his marriage. Soon Vanish’s reputation was attracting the industry major players such as Procter & Gamble, Reckitt and Coleman, Lever Brothers, Cussons and Johnson & Johnson.

The wolves were circling. Jones started receiving offers for well into seven figures. “After a meeting with Bob Gillies, we thought we had to meet with the principle shareholders, mainly the MacFarlane family, to decide on a course of action,” he says. “I tried hard to convince them not to sell. But Roy said, ‘I am sorry John, I know you wanted to carry on, but I would love to be a millionaire before I die.’” He got his wish.

Roy MacFarlane died eight months later, his wife a year after that, and then their son 18 months later. The company was sold for an estimated £30m to Certified Laboratories, the maker of Finish dishwashing powder. They were not the highest bidder, but they offered the best deal to the Projectina Team.

But the sale was a rude awakening for John Jones who believed Vanish’s new owners managed to the spoil business relationships he had built up over the years. “It is difficult to describe how I felt as a conspiratorial witness, under contract to complete the handover,” he says.

“I lost my control and instead of earning the respect of my new graduate marketing peers, found myself back in that company sewer of politics and competitive executive one-upmanship that I so despised in the corporate arena.” He was a very wealthy man charged with the job of handing over the business to the new owners over a six-month period. He was then given an exclusive consultancy in Europe to develop the products in France, Italy and Spain.

He worked with the company until 1990, but latterly he had very little to do. He moved to Spain and worked in France, Italy and Belgium; the new owners happy for him to visit the divisional directors who were very polite, but not that interested in new projects.

“I couldn’t help thinking that I had lost my touch in selling new ideas and concepts and was missing something or doing something wrong,” he remembers. Unknown to him, Vanish was being sold to Benckiser plc.

“I was told that my lucrative contract would be honoured and they would continue paying me, but they did not envisage using me at all. Already severely depressed, I didn’t have a job any more either... and what is even worse couldn’t get another one or I would contravene my contractual obligations.” He felt trapped in a situation that would take years for him to resolve. He spent time playing with property deals in Spain and getting his fingers burned. Then he went to Ireland and tried to set up a property business there. He ended up in Glasgow involved with property projects around the old Garden Festival site. John Jones took years to find some kind of satisfaction about his business life, something he talks about readily today.

“I think I work well with business owners because I understand how it feels,” he says. “I talk about the features and the benefits of any product and why it might be successful, to deal with objections and look at realistic solutions. It’s basically ‘human engineering’. “I’m also a believer in keeping things very simple in business. I hate complicated things.

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid – is still one of my mantras in business.” He’s also a very honest and approachable business figure keen to share his story – a salutary tale for all those fledgling entrepreneurs who love what they do. As Joni Mitchell put it: “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”