As the Sixties ended, many of the old certainties left with them. Soon Britain had to embrace a new currency and a new place within Europe. As customers and staff demanded more – and supermarkets found their muscles – firms like Trebor had to rethink how they did business. Trebor responded by reducing its number of lines to contain production costs.
More importantly, it worked harder to brand and market its products, particularly mints. Forging more direct relations with customers, through brand loyalty, seemed the best way for a manufacturer like Trebor to gain bargaining power with the retail chains.
Keen to grow – and needing to stay ahead – the firm embarked on its largest ever investment strategy.
In October 1976 Working Together announced plans to invest £15 million over the next three years in developing the group. 80% of this was earmarked for the UK, improving buildings, offices and equipment; the remaining £3 million would support overseas operations. To put this in perspective, the group now planned to spend, each year for three years, a sum one and a half times greater than its most recent annual profits.
It was a bold move, but a necessary one. None of the existing factories at Chesterfield, Maidstone, Woodford and Forest Gate could be seen as entirely modern facilities. Trebor needed to grow fast, just to stay ahead of its competitors in the second tier of UK sweet manufacture – Bassett and Barker & Dobson – let alone keep close to the chocolate giants of Cadbury, Rowntree and Mars. As a privately-held company, Trebor had always faced limited access to capital. Now it was determined to invest for growth.
The timing was good. By 1977 the price of raw cocoa had risen nearly 400% in a year, putting huge pressure on chocolate firms. Sugar confectionery remained a different market. It was fragmented, with few clear brand leaders and – compared to chocolate – was surprisingly underpromoted, with an advertising-to-sales ratio of less than 1.5%. Hence there was a good opportunity for bold investment.
One of the firm’s most famous anecdotes is told by Bill Deighan, system works engineer at Forest Gate.
‘We had this wonderful man called Oggy Avey working at Forest Gate. He’d been horribly injured in the desert fighting during the Second World War and he did various things at the factory such as manning the telephone exchange, receiving goods as doorkeeper. One day I was passing his little office and he calls me back. The look on his face told me something was up. He said Bill, I’m getting a bit concerned because the lollipop lady hasn’t turned up. We had Shaftesbury Road School next door and a lot of the kids used to go home for lunch. This meant going across a very busy crossing between Shaftesbury Road and Katherine Road. What’s more, we had lots of vehicles going over the forecourt delivering suppliers and one thing and another. Anyway, he said, I’m a bit worried because the lady hasn’t turned up. What are we going to do about it? So I’m thinking, I’ll have to volunteer one of the engineers or something and I’m also thinking about the legality of providing somebody who’s not trained. When lo and behold, up the road on his bicycle comes the cavalry in the shape of a local bobby who cycles over to us.
Now a few minutes beforehand, a glucose tanker had pulled onto the forecourt and was connecting a pipe to our delivery point. We’d just walked away from the bobby when suddenly there’s this horrendous explosion. We turned round and there’s the policeman standing with at least a ton of hot sticky glucose dripping off him. It’s running down his face and he’s closed every orifice in his head, his eyes, his ears. His helmet’s gone and his uniform is ruined. The road is two inches deep in glucose. Now, as you are probably aware, glucose has to be delivered warm, but once it hits a cold surface, it hardens. Meanwhile, as usual, somebody came to the rescue. And this somebody rushed over to the copper, who was trying to get this hardening glucose off his face. They grabbed him by the arm and took him into the lift up to the shower room. Somebody had to phone the local police station and tell them, we’ve got one of your policemen in our showers!’
In the February 1978 edition of the company magazine, Roger Benton told an unusual Christmas story. As area sales manager for Liverpool, he was stuck just before Christmas with a huge array of unsold festive product. His method for clearing it fast says something about life in Britain back then.
‘With some 300 Christmas outers still to sell on December 20 we had a problem – who on earth were we going to sell them to? It so happens that on our trading estate we have three large factories. Most days street traders set up stalls outside the entrances to sell goods to the wealthy workers. So we thought, let’s become street traders! But we may be contravening some trading law, says I. To be on the safe side, Larry Kenny went over to Huyton police station to explain our plan. He was told there was no objection, so long as we took our stock to the police station first to let them have a chance of purchasing some of the ‘bargains’.
We promised that our estate car would be laden with goodies. In return we were promised that as many policemen as possible would be waiting for us. To achieve this end, notice of the ‘sale’ would be put out over their mobile radios.
This must have happened straightaway for ten minutes later police cars started arriving on our own forecourt. The result was that we sold a considerable amount of stock before we had even started to load the car. Eventually, armed with Christmas stock, a price list and a small cash float, we set off for the police station proper.
Imagine the scene – an estate car parked in the middle of a police station compound with the back door open. Christmas stock bulging out. Myself in a borrowed anorak, two sizes too big for me; Larry in a camel haired overcoat, frantically selling sweets to a growing queue of policemen. Fivers, tenners, one pound notes changed hands. Then the canteen ladies arrived, not only armed with purses and shopping bags, but also carrying two cups of tea for us.