Worth its salt: a history of Cerebos

Cerebos owned Bisto, Sharwood’s, Saxa salt, Paxo stuffing, Scott’s Porage Oats and Atora suet by the end of the 1960s.

George Weddell introduces an improved salt and establishes the Cerebos company
George Weddell (1855 – 1916) was a well-respected Scottish chemist from Kelso. He was managing director of the pharmacy arm of Mawson & Swan, manufacturing chemists of Newcastle upon Tyne. The firm was controlled by Joseph Swan, who had invented the incandescent light bulb in 1880.

Weddell developed a new table salt in the late nineteenth century. By increasing the phosphate content, the salt was less prone to absorb atmospheric moisture, thereby reducing caking. To manufacture the salt a new partnership, Mawson, Swan & Weddell, was formed. Branded “Cerebos”, the salt was marketed for its healthful properties and quickly gained sales, particularly at the premium end of the market.

Weddell had raised sufficient capital to launch Cerebos Ltd by 1894. The company had a share capital of £250,000 (£24 million in 2014) by 1903.

Cerebos acquired the Greatham Salt and Brine Works near Hartlepool for £33,500 (£3.2m in 2014) in 1904. Company headquarters were relocated from Newcastle to the newly-acquired site.

Cerebos registered the Bisto trademark for a gravy preparation product in 1895. Bisto gravy powder was launched in 1910, and was the company’s second highest selling product after Cerebos salt by 1912.

Saxa was launched as a more affordable sister brand to Cerebos salt from 1908.

The Middlewich Salt Company was acquired for £30,000 in 1920.

The Greatham factory was one of the best-equipped food factories in the world by 1930. By this time Bisto outsold Cerebos salt, but both brands were household names, and Saxa continued to grow in popularity.

The Greatham factory canteen in 1924
The Greatham factory canteen in 1924

Post-war diversification into branded foods
John Crampton of Wythenshawe, Manchester was acquired in 1939. Established in 1849, it originally specialised in pepper and spices, but by this time also produced Paxo, the leading brand of stuffing in Britain. Cerebos was able to immediately increase the distribution of Crampton products.

Cerebos had £750,000 (£23.7 million in 2014) in fixed tangible assets by 1949. With the Second World War over, the company was free to continue to expand through acquisition.

A&R Scott of Fife was acquired in 1951. It was the largest producer of porridge in Britain, and best known for its Porage Oats brand.

Cerebos had £4.1 million (£88.3 million in 2014) in fixed assets by 1957.

Cerebos acquired Brand & Co, the Vauxhall-based producer of A1 sauce, for £4 million (£83.1 million in 2014) in 1959.

Cerebos was valued at £40 million by 1961. By this time the company controlled the majority of Britain’s salt processing firms, although salt comprised of less than half of overall sales. Greatham was the largest domestic salt producing works in Britain.

Brand’s Chicken Essence was a high seller in Asia by 1961.

Hugon & Co of Manchester was acquired in an exchange of shares which valued the company at £8.5 million (£159 million in 2014) in 1963. Hugon produced Atora, the leading suet brand in Britain.

Sharwood of Sittingbourne in Kent, best known for Green Label chutney, was also acquired in 1963 for £1 million (£18.7 million in 2014).

Diversification away from the core lines of salt, Bisto and Paxo negatively impacted profit margins, and as a result, economies were found by rationalising production.

All salt production was centralised at Middlewich in Cheshire. The Sittingbourne factory was closed in 1966, and the Vauxhall factory was closed a year later, with all production relocated to Greatham. Cerebos recouped £900,000 from the sale of the Vauxhall site.

Overseas operations contributed 15 percent of profits by 1968.

Acquisition by Rank Hovis McDougall
Rank Hovis McDougall (RHM), one of the largest food producers in Britain, acquired Cerebos for £61 million (£944.8 million in 2014) in 1968. The merger created a group with a market capitalization of over £180 million (£2.8 billion in 2014). It was a gentlemanly merger, completed after two months of negotiations.

An article in The Sunday Times speculated that RHM had paid “£10 million too much” for “brand leaders in virtually stagnant or declining markets; plus a lot of also-rans”. Scott’s had lost its market leadership in porridge to Quaker Oats and Ready Brek. Brand’s meat and fish paste sales were dwarfed by Shippam’s and Sutherland, and Crosse & Blackwell, Epicure and Marela led Sharwood in pickle sales.

Saxa displaced Cerebos as the highest-selling salt in Britain from the 1970s onwards.

Bisto instant gravy granules, the first of its kind in the world, were launched in 1976.

RHM sold A&R Scott to Quaker Oats in 1982.

Brand & Co faded away in Britain, but had significant success in Asia with its Chicken Essence. 84 percent of RHM’s Asian sales came from Chicken Essence by 1984. RHM’s Cerebos Pacific subsidiary, which covered Asia and Australasia, contributed 20 percent of group profits.

RHM sold its 70 percent stake in Cerebos Pacific to Suntory of Japan for £186 million in 1990.

460 people were employed at the Middlewich site, which produced Bisto, as well as salt, in 1991.

The Greatham factory was closed with the loss of 180 jobs in 2001. The 18 acre site had latterly concentrated on the production of Sharwood’s sauces and chutneys and Atora suet.

RHM was acquired by Premier Foods for £1.2 billion in 2007.

Premier regards Bisto and Sharwood’s among its “power brands” as of 2014, and Saxa, Paxo and Atora among its “support brands”. Saxa, Bisto, Sharwood, Paxo and Atora all lead their respective categories in Britain.

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