News to me: W H Smith

W H Smith had almost 1,300 branches, a turnover of over £1.1 billion and just under 15,000 employees in 2013.

Early history
Henry Walton Smith (1738 – 1792) established a news stand on The Strand, London, in 1792. Smith died just a few months later and was eventually succeeded by his son, William Henry Smith. The business became involved in distributing newspapers throughout the provinces.

W H Smith opened his first railway station bookstall at Euston in 1848. Railways were the booming industry of the period. W H Smith had bookstalls on all the major railway lines, and many secondary lines, by the 1860s. W H Smith and its main newsagent rival John Menzies, were the first large-scale retail chains to emerge in Britain.

The business became a partnership when William Henry Smith was joined by his son, William Henry Smith II.

The Smith’s bookstalls became a national symbol in Victorian England. Annual turnover had surpassed £1 million (c. £115 million in 2014) by 1888.

Inevitably, the railway companies became greedy and began to demand extortionate rents from the highly profitable news stands. Smith’s realised that its bookstalls received about half of their business from non-train users. Worried about its dependence on the railway companies, Smith’s began to open stores on high streets from 1905.

8,285 people were employed by 1911. In 1914-5 turnover topped £2 million (c.£200 million in 2014), and reached £4.2 million (c. £220 million) by 1924-5.

W H Smith opened their first branch overseas in Paris in 1903. Brussels followed in 1920 and in 1936 the Queen Mary liner got its own branch.

In 1929 the partnership was registered as a private limited company in order to pay the death duties of Freddy Smith.

By 1933 Smith’s had 48 wholesale branches, 311 bookshops and 1,400 bookstalls. The company employed around 13,500 people and was one of the single largest employers in the country.

Smith’s goes public
By 1947-8 turnover was £10.4 million (£355 million). In 1948, W H Smith was valued at £9.75 million. William Smith, 3rd Viscount Hambleden, died that year, and his stake in the company was valued at £8.2 million. Smith’s was forced to go public in 1949 in order to fund the 75 percent death duty owed to the government.

The Canadian market was entered in 1950, when the first shop opened in Toronto.

In 1955, 18,104 people were employed at the company.

In 1951 there were 944 railway stalls, but by 1971 this number had fallen to 319. This reflected a trend towards high street outlets, which were larger and more profitable. In the 1960s outlets of  a previously unprecedented size were opened in Bradford, Brighton, Stockport and Nottingham.

Smith’s ran a private library service until 1961. It was never particularly profitable, but the company reasoned that it attracted visitors to the stalls, who often bought other items. Lower book costs and the rise of the public library spelled the end for the venture. However, the loss of the library trade was more than made up for by Smith’s taking on gramophone records and cassette tape sales.

Smith’s employed capital of over £21 million in 1965 (around £365 million in 2014). By 1966 the company had 19,547 employees.

W H Smith was one of the fastest growing British companies during the 1970s.

In 1992 the W H Smith Group employed 29,320 people worldwide, including around 26,000 in the UK.

By 1996 the company had a turnover of £2.7 billion and 33,000 employees.

In 1996 the head office was mostly relocated from London to Swindon in order to reduce costs.

Today, around half of Smith’s units are in “travel” locations (railway stations, airports, motorway services) and half are located on high streets.

Smith’s had almost 1,300 branches, a turnover of over £1.1 billion and just under 15,000 employees in 2013. There were over 1,700 stores by 2020, mainly driven by international growth.

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