From scrap metal to compostable wiping cloths: 125 years of history at Harrison Wipes In 2016, the Harrison Wipes family business celebrated its 125th anniversary. What started in Great Yarmouth in 1891 as a textile rag and scrap metal business is now one of the world’s leading suppliers of high-performance non-woven wipes. “Even a hundred years ago, we were an international business,” says Stephen Harrison, the current MD and great-grandson of the founder. “You only have to look at my great grandfather’s passport in 1925 to see that we were trading in countries as far away as Japan at that time.”
Since then, the business has evolved as technology has improved, and customers’ needs have changed. “For example, we used to weave our own rags, now we are the UK partners for two of the world’s largest nonwoven producers, Chicopee ® and Sontara®, providing advanced wiping solutions to our customers including compostable cloths and pre-impregnated solvent wipes to help tackle the environmental issue of VOC emissions. Our real expertise is in developing specialist wipes for very specific uses which are used by companies such as Bentley and Jaguar. We’ve come a long way from the heavy-duty cloths we used to supply to factories in the first half of the last century.”
The structure of the firm has changed as well. By the late 1990’s, the business had 13 family shareholders who were not directly involved in the business; not the ideal share structure for a forward thinking business planning a growth strategy as a non woven converter.
By 2002 a deal was eventually put together to enable a full share buyback. “It was important for me to consolidate ownership with working directors so as to be in control of the business’s destiny,” says Stephen. There is now the prospect of a new generation coming through.
“I’m getting to a point where I probably need to have a five to ten year plan in place, as the youngest of my 3 boys will graduate from university in 2021. I feel it is really important that all of the boys get the chance to work somewhere else before they decide if Harrison Wipes is the right place for them to have a career . This is in the best interest both for the boys and the business. They should only work here if they feel passionate about it, not because it is expected of them. So, the long-term plan needs to be flexible enough to cope with lots of different scenarios.”
It’s not just about a new generation of the family: “We’ve also made the transition to a new era of employees. We used to have a big group of staff who had been here for more than 30 years, with the final employee retiring in 2016 after 47 years of service. Almost everyone who’s here now has joined since 2002. So, it is now about maintaining and passing on the values of the business to the new team to help ensure continuity in the next generations.”
Those same principles apply in relation to the Board. “If you’re a long-established family business it’s really valuable to bring in outsiders to keep you challenged. It’s so easy to get consumed by the day-to-day issues, and lose sight of the bigger picture. Especially if, like me, you’re mainly focused on the sales and marketing and spend most of your time on the front line. My non-exec ensures we tick all the boxes on governance, and have a long-term strategic vision as well as a short-term operational plan. He is also great at asking difficult questions – and challenging the status quo from an impassioned perspective which is exactly what we need. Geoff Brady once told me that he was introduced to Harrison Wipes by a colleague as “the most boring business in the world”. If by ‘boring’ he meant stable, resilient and efficient…that’s just fine by me.”