Crosse & Blackwell grew to become one of the largest food manufacturers in the world. It remains best known for tinned soup in Britain, English-style condiments in America and mayonnaise in South Africa.
This post tells the story of a large merger and subsequent disaster.
Despite suffering from heavy import duties, Crosse & Blackwell had developed a leading reputation and taken a significant share of the United States jam market by 1913.
Crosse & Blackwell employed 2,171 people by 1914. The London vinegar brewery held 91 vats, one of which was capable of holding 115,000 gallons. The company boasted an annual production of one million gallons of pure malt vinegar.
Edmund Meredith Crosse died in 1918 with a net estate valued at £310,633.
A small fish canning factory in Peterhead, Aberdeen, was acquired in 1919.
Crosse & Blackwell acquired James Keiller of Dundee, manufacturer of jam and marmalade, and E Lazenby of London, sauce and pickle manufacturers, in 1920. The combine had a capital of £10 million (£390 million in 2013) and fixed assets of £1.6 million. The takeover likely made Crosse & Blackwell the largest packaged food producer in the world, with over 7,000 employees and twelve factories.
Exports were growing and additional capacity was needed. A factory was acquired at Branston, Staffordshire, at a cost of £1 million (£39 million in 2013) in 1920. Situated on a 150 acre site, it was the largest and best equipped packaged food factory in the British Empire. The factory employed about 1,500 workers, mostly women and girls, although this was expected to expand to a staff of 5,000. Branston Pickle was first produced there in 1922.
As a result of the Branston purchase, the one acre Charing Cross Road factory, which lacked space for expansion, was sold off in 1921.
Unfortunately production costs at Branston proved higher than in London, as the capital was home to the bulk of British customers, and provided good access to export markets, which constituted the majority of sales. The Branston factory was shuttered in 1925 and lay unused until it was sold in 1927 at a large loss.
The debacle saw 5,500 tons of machinery, furniture and stock transferred back to London. Production at Branston was relocated to the Lazenby factory on Crimscott Street, Bermondsey (which was expanded), and Keiller’s Silvertown factory.
Meanwhile, the merger proved disastrous and the company began to lose money (over £1 million in 1922). An independent review commissioned by the company cited “serious duplication and overlapping in management” and “an embarrassing surplus of expensively equipped factory accommodation”. Furthermore, the company had presumed that the post-war boom would last forever, and had overpaid for raw materials.
This colossal failure left Crosse & Blackwell unable to pay its shareholders a dividend between 1921 and 1927.
Meanwhile, a small marmalade and jam factory was established outside Paris in 1925. Small factories were also established in Belgium and Altona, Germany.