Pillow talk that has ensured 100 years of success for Cotton

John Cotton Group has stood out as a beacon for the region's textiles industry. It is now celebrating its centenary. Ismail Mulla spoke to the group's chairman.

John Cotton, chairman of bedding specialist John Cotton Group Ltd, Mirfield. 16 June 2016. Picture Bruce Rollinson

This year marks a major milestone at the John Cotton Group. For the West Yorkshire-based bedding firm was founded 100 years ago in 1916.

The company has seen many changes in the century. Other businesses have come and gone, the industry has changed and the company has grown to employing over 1000 staff.

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However, resting on laurels is the last thing on the mind of John Cotton MBE, son of the original founder of the business, Jack Cotton.

John Cotton, chairman of bedding specialist John Cotton Group Ltd, Mirfield. 16 June 2016. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Mr Cotton said: “I left school and joined the company in 1958, when we had a turnover of about £4m. The products at that time were fiberised jute, which went into the underlays and into the soundproofing of cars.”

Today the company has a turnover circa £175m, a factory in Poland and near Wigan and it now makes pillows and duvets along with producing filling for mattress manufacturers.

Change is the key to the longevity of the business, according to Mr Cotton.

“As markets change you’ve got to change with them,” he says.

John Cotton, chairman of bedding specialist John Cotton Group Ltd, Mirfield. 16 June 2016. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“In our case we never used to make pillows, we never used make duvets, but we went into making pillows and duvets and basically that is the major part of our business now.”

It’s not just John Cotton Group that has changed over time. In the 100 years the firm has seen many businesses come and go in the Mirfield area.

Mr Cotton said: “When I was young there were a lot of big companies in this area. Amazingly, these have very nearly all disappeared. Normally the life cycle of a company is 15 years.”

He added that his late father Jack would be proud to see where John Cotton Group is today.

“If one was looking down on it one would be thrilled that the company has been successful,” he said.

“We’ve got wonderful employees, families of employees come and work for us. It is still in a way paternalistic. People are happy and it’s great,” he added.

Having proven to be a success in the UK, John Cotton Group is now looking to expand in Europe.

Mr Cotton says sales of pillows and duvets in the UK account for £110-£120m of the company’s turnover and that the size of the European market provides a lot more opportunities for growth.

He said: “We still want to grow the business substantially. We’re looking at other opportunities for growth and in a number of years I would hope that the business could at least be 50 per cent larger than it is today.

“We’re still very, very small in Europe and there are a lot of opportunities. Europe is far larger than the UK.

“I wouldn’t be happy if over the next, say, five years we can’t achieve the same sales in Europe as we’re doing in the UK in pillows and duvets.”

Mr Cotton says that the prospect of Britain voting to leave the EU is causing great uncertainty and that a Brexit could mean additional costs of £5m-£10m for the firm.

“Last year was a good year for ourselves and our customers,” says the chairman.

“This Brexit nonsense has caused a great deal of uncertainty and I think that this year it’s a lot more difficult and dependent on what happens with the result we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.”

He added: “People and companies don’t like uncertainty. You want to know what you’re doing.” The firm, which supplies duvets and pillows to the likes of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Argos, would be impacted by fluctuations in exchange rates following a Brexit.

Mr Cotton says it won’t affect the company’s Poland factory, as that sells into the eurozone. But the rest of the business he is “very nervous about” as majority of their raw materials come from countries such as China, Pakistan and South Korea and they are bought using US dollars.

Mr Cotton said: “We want to avoid a Brexit preferably. All it’s going to do is complicate things for who knows how long. No one can tell us honestly if we decide on Brexit what’s going to happen.”

If a Brexit is avoided Mr Cotton says the business will continue to develop as it is and will look to push its brands as super-brands.

John Cotton Group forms a part of a vibrant bedding industry in West Yorkshire.

Mr Cotton said: “I’d say probably 40 per cent of all the mattresses made in the UK are made in the Dewsbury, Batley area. It’s something that has developed over the last 10 or 20 years.

“I suppose that most of the companies here are run by Asians and their families. They have got a very good work ethic. They have been very successful at what they’re doing. It’s great to see.”

Just as John became involved with the company, his own son Mark is also involved in the running of the family business.

Although when it comes to succession planning, John says the company is of such a size that “no one individual will be responsible” for running it.

“It will be a team of people and the shareholders of the company,” he added.

Mr Cotton says that the company has a good team of directors.

“I’m now more interested in getting the strategy right for the company,” he added.

To mark the centenary year John Cotton Group has set itself a target of raising £100,000 for a range of charities chosen by their staff. Mr Cotton says that they are on course to smash that target.

Mr Cotton personally has been keen on making charitable contributions over the years.

“In life if you’ve been successful and been very lucky and done well it is right to put something back into the community,” he declares.

In 2014 Mr Cotton was honoured with an MBE.

“I was really thrilled because it was for services to business in West Yorkshire,” he says.

The business may be turning 100 but if Mr Cotton has his way it will be toasting another 100 successful years.

John Cotton factfile

Title: Chairman

Date of birth: 25/07/1940

Lives: Harrogate

Favourite holiday destination: Sicily

Last book read: The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

Favourite film: The Italian Job

Favourite song: Non, je ne regrette rien – Edith Piaf

Car driven: Rolls Royce

Most proud of: The success of our family company

Education: Charterhouse in Godalming, Surrey