In these days of globalisation with all manufacturing seeming to gallop off to China the idea that there could still be a medium sized manufacturer based entirely in West Yorkshire that is taking on the big boys and sometimes winning might seem far fetched.
Yet such a David and Goliath story would not be too inaccurate a description of cleaning products firm Astonish, now based in Bradford but originally based in Leeds.
The company may only have a turnover of £15m – pretty slim pickings when compared with the likes of Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser. But it still manages to export, mostly through a distributor network, to over 40 different countries overseas. And not just the most obvious candidates either.
Astonish’s biggest export market, partly thanks to a highly active distributor, is South Korea, and given that it exports to Mongolia too, it is perfectly possible that even the descendants of Genghis Khan out herding their flock on the great Steppes may be familiar with the Astonish name, and particularly its Union Jack logo.
Partly on the back of its export success, the company invested £5.5m in moving to its new home – its first purpose built facility, on the outskirts of Bradford – three years ago.
“We are currently running with an additional 50% capacity to fulfil,” says current managing director Howard Moss, “so we have more than enough to grow into, which was always the aim.”
The successful 12% annual growth rate means the company is also bucking the trend in taking on new staff.
“We see this calendar year as being one of our biggest leaps,” says Moss. “We have taken on three senior people and six more operators, which means we are up to about 62 people.”
And as part of this big year, the company has just launched a new sub brand – Astonish Pro – which will go on sale in Waitrose, and, later this year, in Tesco. It is also about to celebrate its 40th birthday. Given its age, you might think the company has taken a while to get into retail.
But this may be partly down to the unusual way – at least when you look back today – that the company developed under the leadership of Alan Moss, Howard’s father.
And in particular the story book way it started. The oven cleaning paste with which the company initially made its name was originally made by the Leeds Soap Company.
Alan, who in the early 1970s was a toy salesman looking around for a more stable product to market, had been recommended it by a man who promised him that if he bought a consignment and took it up to a trade show that was about to take place in Glasgow, the man would be happy to demonstrate the product to a crowd of what he assured Alan would be willing buyers.
Alan duly bought the consignment, and caught the train, but when he arrived at the exhibition halls in Glasgow his new acquaintance was nowhere to be seen – in fact, Alan never heard from him again. At this point, most people would probably have given up and gone back home.
But Alan pressed on, and found he soon got the hang of demonstrating, even if it was an entirely new product sector for him. What the mystery man said about there being willing buyers wasn’t entirely untrue. And so Astonish Products was born. The company became a manufacturer of the product too.
The Leeds Soap Company soon stopped producing it, and although Alan subsequently found a manufacturer who could make it in the Midlands, Howard says that relationship didn’t last long either.
“He was starting to require more of the product through the demonstrations he and his team were doing,” he says. “The Midlands operation was only a very small outlet.
“He got to the stage where he thought: ‘How hard can it be to make this?’” So in-house production began, first at a small shed in Meanwood, and then in a larger facility in Pudsey. The company still owns both premises, even if it has moved out now to Bradford. Alan showed his determination in wanting to expand the sales process too – while still sticking to live demonstrations.
“When my father was demonstrating in the UK,” says Howard, “while it was building him a satisfactory income, there were big periods when there were no shows. So he thought: ‘If I can demonstrate the product in the UK, I wonder why I can’t take this product to America?”
Despite what you might think about consumerist America, Howard says the country at the time was still unused to watching live demonstrations. Americans were familiar with them on TV, but not in the flesh. Or so Alan thought.
“My father went out to America,” says Howard, “shipped products to a warehouse, mapped out a series of locations where he could go.” Unfortunately initially he “caught a cold”, Howard, says, although that might have been down to the region of the USA he chose to sell in: the Deep South.
“At the places he went to it was almost like he had been chased out of town,” says Howard. “He had to come home and explain to my mum that not only did he not earn any money, but all the stock he had shipped out there he had to ship back. As you can imagine she wasn’t best pleased.
“But due to the type of individual that he is, 12 months later he decided to go back out to the USA, much to my mum’s annoyance, and decided this time to cover the West Coast.”
That proved to be a huge success. “Over the next 10 years he did an incredible amount of business there by demonstrations.”
The product range was slowly expanded too – within kitchen cleaning, and then into laundry cleaning and car cleaning. Howard says the company’s big break came when Astonish was accepted into the Kleeneze catalogue, where it is still available today. But still, for the first 25 years, there was no retail presence. Howard says the rationale for this isn’t as old-fashioned as it might seem.
“Don’t forget that specialist areas like mail order can give you a much higher selling price, although in terms of growing your business you are restricted to how widely available you are,” he says.
Matters have changed quite considerably, however, since Howard himself came into the company, first working on the factory floor, and then in warehousing before moving into sales. He says it was his idea to make more of a virtue of the product range’s environmental qualities.
Unlike many other market leading household cleaners, the Astonish range does not feature any ingredients that would force the company to put the familiar yellow square warnings on the back – either with a black cross to indicate that the product is harmful, or with a burning hand to indicate that it is corrosive. “Our competitors tend to use corrosive products,” says Howard.
“They will produce oven cleaners with the black cross and what that means is that their product is virtually neat caustic soda. Yes, it will remove a stubborn stain, but we have proven that you don’t need to use products of that nature.
"Our oven paste is something that requires elbow grease, but you can rest assured that there are no powerful ingredients or toxic fumes in there. It just uses a mild abrasive, and the brilliance of the product is in the fact that aside from it not being harmful, it will literally remove any type of burned on stain.”
Howard also decided to bring to the fore the fact that the company was not involved in animal testing, and also does not use any animal products such as lanolin in its ingredients.
“We were a bit before our time in that we joined the British Union Against Vivisection (BUAV) 12 years ago,” he says.
“We are the only cleaning brand that is not a private label which is part of the BUAV and which has banned both animal testing and the use of ingredients that have been tested on animals. We are also members of the Vegetarian Society. Not only does this give us a niche in the market, but also our products, being vegetarian approved, are endorsed with Kosher certification. That’s good for exports.”
Nevertheless, in the past few years when his father has handed much of the control and the ownership of the business over to Howard, the company has moved much more into retail – with, Howard says, Alan’s full blessing.
Both men decided the time was right to make the move to build on an already well established brand, and to expand the manufacturing side in a commercially sustainable way.
The initial channels were discount stores likes Wilkinson and Home Bargains, who have taken on the more mainstream, everyday products within the Astonish range, which now covers 80 products.
“These stores want a point of differentiation from what supermarkets stock, and as a result Astonish has a loyal following,” says Alan. Increasing numbers of people using discount stores as a result of the recession has helped. Nevertheless, the launch of the Astonish Pro brand earlier this year marks a new move into mainstream retail as well – albeit with a completely separate range of more specialist products that will not jeopardise what’s on offer at the discount stores. “We realise that going to the likes of Sainsbury’s with a glass cleaner or a kitchen cleaner is a bit of a non-starter,” he says.
“We know our product will work better and offer better value for money than any other, but the supermarket will stock the brand leader because they have to, and then they will do their own label. The category is not big enough for someone to go in between that.” Instead the company has seen a gap for specialist cleaners – granite cleaners, for example, or ceramic hob cleaners.
“The brand leaders don’t play there because it is not big enough for them. They are not huge volume areas like washing up liquid, but it does allow the Astonish brand to be distributed and really stands for what we are all about, which is point of difference, solving a difficult solution, and offering value for money.
“I realise I am unable to go into Tesco and sit with the laundry buyer and say that Astonish is doing a TV campaign for £15m like the big companies do,” he says.
“I am wise enough to understand that if we want to get in a boxing match with P&G there is only going to be one winner. Yet at the same time they will be fully aware of what Astonish is and admire what we are doing from a base that they wouldn’t necessarily target.” And unlike the big names, he sees Astonish, which is self-financed, has other advantages.
“Unlike big organisations we do not have a lot of red tape and the City to answer to. We can make decisions within minutes. There are only two shareholders within the business.”
So the old ways of selling might have gone – there are no more demonstrations, and mail order only takes up a fraction of turnover – but Astonish still has plenty to play for. “We are doing a good job at giving people what they want and targeting a small percentage rather than trying to mass market something,” says Howard.
“We want to build brand reputation, and invest in brand awareness more, but we are not trying to take over the cleaning world.” Not yet, anyway.