Claire Burnett, deputy editor of theBusinessDesk.com (Yorkshire), talks soap, strategy and what it takes to run a successful fifth-generation family-business, in the latest Business Desk ‘Monday Interview’ with our CEO Jamie Bentley.
HAVING been associated with blockbuster Hollywood films Fight Club and Die Hard 2, you could be forgiven for thinking the Stephenson Group was a high-flying US firm.
It may be high flying, but the fifth-generation family business has stayed true to its Yorkshire roots.
Chief executive Jamie Bentley is the latest in a line of owners which have been with the Horsforth-based business for 150 years.
The soap base manufacturers have clients including The Body Shop in the personal care market, with Hollywood credits (testing out the real life viability Brad Pitt’s character’s liposuction soap, and providing the soap-snow in Die Hard 2) just for fun.
Stephenson Group’s products were even used by US President Barack Obama as part of a presidential campaign stunt. They have built an entire bathroom out of soap for a conceptual art student at Central St Martins school of design.
Despite this legacy, chief executive Jamie Bentley said; “Though I felt the pressure early on from myself, I was never encouraged to go into the business by my father. He always encouraged me to go and do my own thing.”
He ended up working in a complimentary industry, and when he joined Stephenson Group, he brought fresh ideas to the business, which had largely supplied the industrial sector before.
Mr Bentley wanted to expand into personal care, and developed an entrepreneurial business inside a more established company.
“It was a good opportunity to prove myself, and one of the privileges of working in a family owned private business mean that we could so something different,” he said.
This was a big move for the company, which was officially founded in 1856. “It evolved every 20 years or so,” said Mr Bentley, and his expansion led to the latest reincarnation of the firm.
“If you don’t change and evolve, and are stuck in a market that moves, such as when the textiles industry in the 1960s moved overseas, you’re in trouble,” he said.
50 years ago, Mr Bentley’s grandfather was selling soap from a canal boat on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.
Now the Stephenson Group (named due to a buy-out in the mid 20th century before the Bentley family bought the business back) is supplying blue chip cosmetics businesses.
“We had to evolve every generation. If you stand still and stop looking ahead eventually you stagnate.”
Mr Bentley’s father drove the company’s expansion abroad, heading to Germany for the paper industry, before moving to China.
Now 80% of the Stephenson Group’s business is done overseas, and it sells to 47 different countries, winning the Queen’s Award for export twice, earning a trip to Buckingham Palace alongside brands like Lotus and Sunseeker Yachts.
"The only way you can survive as a manufacturer in Britain is by developing world class products and pushing boundaries of chemistry and innovation. It's not a cheap place to make things, so they have to be value-added products."
“I am most proud of the transition my father and I made - he gradually let me take over the running of the business and we navigated that without conflict which is not always the case with family businesses,” Mr Bentley said.
Mr Bentley Sr is still involved in the business in an advisory capacity.
“Looking at it now,” his son said, “along with my chief operating officer John Story, we have worked together in the personal care business from a standing start. We’re trading all over the world, have a fantastic team of PhD chemists and a close bunch of people. There’s a real family feeling in the business.”
It employs 85 people at its Horsforth site, and Mr Bentley and his team are investing £1m over an 18 month period in their complex chemistry and manufacturing facilities, which will enable them to employ more people in the coming months.
Mr Bentley said: “The only way you can survive as a manufacturer in Britain is by developing world class products and pushing boundaries of chemistry and innovation. It’s not a cheap place to make things, so they have to be value-added products.”