Milestone for firm with truly colourful history

David McCombe, production director for Hull-based Crown Paints, who are celebrating 200 years of making paint in the city, in front of murals depicting the history of the company which were commissioned in 1961 to herald the acquisition of Permoglaze Ltd by Blundell Spence Ltd, as they were then known. PICTURE: TERRY CARROTT

David McCombe, production director for Hull-based Crown Paints, who are celebrating 200 years of making paint in the city, in front of murals depicting the history of the company which were commissioned in 1961 to herald the acquisition of Permoglaze Ltd by Blundell Spence Ltd, as they were then known. PICTURE: TERRY CARROTT

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It has painted itself into the history books.

Through two centuries and two world wars a Hull-based paint manufacturer has continuously produced paint - and still does, in quantities that measure out to just under a litre per year for every person in England.

Few people – even in its home city – will realise, however, that the number two top seller to Dulux is “Made in Hull”.

But Crown Paints, the firm founded in Hull in 1811 by Henry Blundell, who is commemorated with a marble statue in the city’s Guildhall, is celebrating its 200th anniversary.

It’s come a long way since the early days of production when a man with a stick stirred a vat full of chemicals including arsenic and lead, to the hi-tech, mainly automated operation today.

And tastes have similarly blossomed, from basic ranges of water-based distemper to a mind-boggling array of finishes as well as every colour under the rainbow and even textured “indulgence” paints, metallics and light-reflective paints.

The firm – whose brands include Crown, Sadolin and Sandtex – was bought out by management from Dutch owners AkzoNobel in 2008, with backing from the Leeds-based private equity firm Endless. Crown lost 300 jobs nationally after the takeover but has now returned to profit.

More change is afoot with the company now in what it describes as the “advanced stages of a disposal process” – which could mean anything from new owners to simply new investors coming on board.

Chief executive Brian Davidson said the company was “critically obese” when he took the helm and needed slimming down fast. In the past year the firm, which employs 600 people at its headquarters in Darwen, Lancashire and 200 on a 20-acre site in Hull, has increased its market share by two per cent – no mean feat given the flat market – and is now seeking new export opportunities in numerous countries including Sri Lanka, Kenya and Nigeria, and the Middle East.

He said: “We breathed a bit of energy into the business. The business was critically obese and it needed to be substantially shaved and professionalised. That has yielded a lot of benefits in terms of cost reduction and cash generation.

“We have grown profitability by £12m last year. Our investors are looking effectively at getting a return on their investment, seeking new investors.

“As long as we can retain a profitable business in Hull and if we can make it more profitable, it has got a very good future.”

At the Hull site the factory is spread over 20 acres. On one of the lines large tubs of paint are being filled. One worker places the tubs on the conveyor belt – the filling, lidding, stacking all done by machinery and robotics. Just 20 years ago five or six people might have been needed for the job.

Personnel manager Peter Mawer, who is based in Hull, said: “As a company we’ve always been innovative, we’ve always produced a high quality premium product at the top end of the market and always been prepared to invest.

“In the early days linseed oil was a constituent part of paint and linseed was imported into Hull where there was a significant seed crushing industry.

“Henry Blundell was one of the first to start using hydraulic presses and that’s just one example of him being at the forefront of technological change.”

The firm is about to recruit two school-leavers for a two-year apprenticeship in the production of coatings.

In 1951, celebrating its 150th anniversary, a special publication stated that the company was still a family affair.

Mr Mawer said the same held true today: “A lot of our success is down to a loyal and committed workforce. “

Even though it had moved away from being owned by a family and became part of a multi-national, then national owned by private equity, that sense of belonging still existed.

“It is true to say we have no labour turnover, we have people who leave for maternity or retirement – but people who come here generally stay.

“We have a lot of tradition of father to son and generations working here over the years and that still exists to some extent and I think people take enormous pride in working for a reputable business that has been around for 200 years.

“Over half the 200 people here have more than 15 years service and we have people with 40-plus years of service.”

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