Worth their salt: a history of Cerebos

Cerebos became the largest producer of salt in the world, and introduced the successful Bisto gravy brand to Britain. Cerebos salt remains a leading brand in France, South Africa and Australia.

Cerebos acquired a number of consumer food brands in Britain, including Sharwood’s, Saxa salt, Paxo stuffing, Scott’s Porage Oats and Atora suet.

George Weddell introduces Cerebos
George Weddell (1855 – 1916) was born at Kelso in the Scottish borders. He relocated to Newcastle upon Tyne from 1879 and established a reputation as a well-respected chemist.

Weddell was appointed managing director of the pharmacy subsidiary of Mawson & Swan. The firm was controlled by Joseph Swan (1828 – 1914), who had invented the incandescent light bulb in 1880.

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

Cerebos helped to popularise the idea of a refined packaged salt, at a time when the product was normally sold in blocks which contained impurities.

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The business was registered as a company, Cerebos Ltd, in 1894. The company had a share capital of £250,000 (£24 million in 2014).

A factory was established in France in order to supply the Continental market in 1901.

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

Saxa was launched as a lower-cost sister brand to Cerebos salt from 1909.

Bisto gravy powder, a mixture of salt, corn flour and caramel colouring, was introduced in 1910. It quickly became the second highest-selling product after Cerebos salt.

500 to 600 workers were employed at Greatham by 1916.

William Henry Collins grows the business
William Henry Collins (1873 – 1947) had entered the company as a salt loader in 1893. He worked his way up to sales manager of the London business. He was appointed chairman and managing director of Cerebos in 1918. Much of the subsequent growth of the business was credited to Collins.

The Middlewich Salt Company was acquired for £30,000 in 1919 in order to reduce the company’s dependence on a single manufacturing site.

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

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.

Millions of packets of salt were sold every month by 1937.

The French subsidiary was sold in 1938-9.

John Crampton of Wythenshawe in 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 improved the distribution of Crampton products.

The Greatham factory employed nearly 1,000 people, mostly women, by 1944.

A subsidiary was established in South Africa in 1945.

William Henry Collins died in 1947 with an estate valued at £955,758. Throughout his life he had made charitable donations to the value of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Cerebos expands at home and overseas
Cerebos was the largest producer of domestic salt in the world by 1953.

A large new factory was established in Melbourne, Australia to produce Bisto and salt from 1953. Klembro, the manufacturer of Gravox gravy powder, was also acquired.

A&R Scott of Fife was acquired in a deal which valued the company at £600,000 in 1953. Best known for the Porage Oats brand, it was the largest producer of porridge in Britain, and employed 500 people.

Cerebos acquired Brand & Co, the Vauxhall-based producer of A1 sauce, for over £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 the British salt-processing industry, and was the largest salt producer in the world. Greatham was the largest domestic saltworks in Britain. The company operated twelve factories in Britain, as well as plants in Ireland, Australia, France and Africa.

Canada Vinegars of Toronto was acquired in 1961 to provide a Canadian manufacturing and distribution base for Cerebos products.

Brand’s Chicken Essence had established strong sales in Asia by the early 1960s.

A factory for producing Cerebos and Saxa salt was established in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1962.

Sharwood of Sittingbourne in Kent, best known for Green Label chutney, was acquired for £1 million (£18.7 million in 2014) in 1962.

Hugon & Co of Manchester was acquired for £8.5 million (£159 million in 2014) in 1963. Hugon produced Atora, the leading suet brand in Britain.

A G Linfield, best known for Chesswood canned mushrooms, was acquired in 1963. Production was relocated to Vauxhall.

Diversification away from the core lines of salt, Bisto and Paxo had a negative impact on profit margins. Economies were found by rationalising production. The Sittingbourne factory was closed in 1966, and the Vauxhall factory was closed in 1967, with all production relocated to Greatham. Cerebos realised £900,000 from the sale of the Vauxhall site.

Overseas operations contributed to 15 percent of profits by 1968.

Cerebos enjoyed a strong reputation with retailers, and employed an efficient computer-controlled distribution network, with 16 depots. However its profits were stagnating. Salt suffered from low growth, and many of its other product lines, such as porridge, were declining.

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 argued 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.

Salt manufacturing was centralised at Middlewich in Cheshire from 1970. RHM invested heavily at the Greatham plant, and it was their largest food factory. Its principal products were, in order, canned soups, Brand’s Essence of Chicken and Beef, Brand’s pastes and spreads and Sharwood’s. 30 million cans of soup were produced every year.

Production of Atora suet and Chesswood mushrooms were transferred to Greatham in 1974. The increase in production saw 1,000 people employed at the site.

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 the Canadian subsidiary to Campbell’s Soup in 1979.

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

RHM established a separate subsidiary, Cerebos Pacific, to handle its growing Asian sales in 1982. Brand’s Chicken Essence contributed to 84 percent of Asian sales.

RHM sold a 30 percent stake in Cerebos Pacific in 1984.

RMH divested Cerebos South Africa in the 1980s.

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 in 1991.

The 18-acre Greatham site was closed with the loss of 180 jobs in 2001.

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

Saxa, Bisto, Sharwood, Paxo and Atora all lead their respective categories in Britain. Cerebos salt remains popular in France, Australia and South Africa, and is still sold in Britain.

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