A pioneer in packaging...
A pioneer in packaging, Stephen Clarke has devoted much of his working life making what was once “a strange new plastic material” a highly relied upon solution for the seafood industry.
With his innovative polypropyline CoolSeal products, he has built up a strong position in a market, where the growth rate delights him.
He spends several weeks of the year abroad promoting the design that solved a dilemma for those in the fish supply chain and his energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit has been recognised by his local peers.
But talking to him, it is clear he gets as much of a buzz from providing a hospitable welcome at his delightful 18th-century Hatcliffe home as he does championing his products around the globe with Tri-Pack.
So, is he up at dawn preparing breakfast for those eager to explore the Wolds or crack a business deal in Grimsby?
“Not very often, but sometimes. We’ve been doing the B&B since 2001. At first, it was to keep the house going in the bad times, but we still do it now. We love it. I’m front of house, I want people to feel welcome. Nicola, my wife, and I, are chatty people and it is a really nice thing to do.”
With an internationally sought-after product, he regularly uses the three en suite rooms for entertaining his clients in a business that was very nearly sunk by foreign competition.
His packaging career started with corporate giant Bowater’s, having been introduced during the “grad drag” parade to find employment having completed his economics studies in Leeds.
Having learned the ropes on a management training programme, he recalled how his path to packaging was forged.
“I was given the choice of a company car and being a salesman in London in the packaging side or taking a slide rule and being an engineer in Glasgow.”
London was a clear winner and he spent four happy years in the capital in the late 1960s.
But an elderly father’s needs back home in Binbrook led to him asking for a transfer and, grateful to receive one, he saw the opportunities to sell into the fishing and horticultural industries in his beloved Grimsby and the rural hinterland.
Such was his success he was soon headhunted by a company working with a new product, and Mr Clarke was first introduced to polypropylene. Within three years, he decided he could do better if he went alone on the sales and application front.
“The company agreed and helped me. It gave me credit, lent me machinery and was very supportive. “ I became its biggest customer and the first order was for the dog fish traders on Grimsby Docks. That was 1974 and the start of it.”
They were used to replace wooden boxes for transportation of wet fish, but the arrival of cheap, quick-fix polystyrene hit sales hard.
“We were suddenly out of it. The environment didn’t matter back then, so we had to find other markets. We became jack of all trades, forestry, automotive, horticulture, point of sale displays, a whole variety.”
The company was quite successful, sufficiently profitable to move to South Humberside Industrial Estate from Roberts Street, where it had been from 1976 to 1990.
“Knowledge developed well in that time. We had very demanding customers, who always wanted us to push the envelope, and part of that in the 1990s was the sealed edge we are now famous for and is our point of difference.“We didn’t develop it for fish at all. It was used as a hygiene measure in the drinks industry.”
As with many innovations, a new use was found and, with the help of outside designers, table mats and coasters made of polypropylene took off.
“They proved to be fantastically successful, selling in 50 countries. They were in Binns in Grimsby, all sorts of places. We went through a worldwide distributor and sold out. We extended the building to meet demand, building a dedicated print shop, then orders stopped over night.”
Copied by the Chinese, new products flooded the market and killed the category, with consumers being turned off by the cheaper alternative.
“It sent us into very serious decline in the year 2000. Our survival was put in doubt. It was a disaster.“ We had been up to 80 staff and, at my expense, we managed to retain our loyal staff. Quite frankly, if we were run by an accountant we wouldn’t have survived. I’m not an accountant, I’m a salesman. I financed it, I put my pension fund back in. It was a back to square one moment.”
Fortunately, the polystyrene bubble was about to burst.
“Friends in the fishing industry contacted me. It turned out that recycling was a big issue and polystyrene was a big problem, especially in Grimsby and for the British supermarkets.“ So, in 2001, we revisited the fishing industry and Coolseal was born. We sold our first boxes that year and sales doubled every year until 2007. We got our first export orders as well.”
Faced with no market, suddenly there was a glut, which brought its own challenges.
“It was accelerating like mad, but so too were production costs because we didn’t have the right machinery, so we were still losing money.”
So, in 2004, Icelandic partners came on board as shareholders.
“We wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t recognised the merits of the product. “I was flattered. They could see the future and wanted a part of it. It took me sometime to get round to sharing my baby with someone else, but I got them in, thinking half of something was half of something good, rather than half of something bad. “That allowed the required investment. We were back into profit by 2008 and it has grown ever since.”
With two sons from his first marriage, Mr Clarke works with James at Tri-Pack and Henry is involved in another venture the family are progressing.
“The Chinese experience taught me if you can’t beat them, join them.
“I went to China, found a partner to work with and started Sino-Pack in Zhuhai. That is a sourcing business, mainly for ‘close to needle’ garment packaging. “The reason I formed that is, come the day I find a product we can develop and sell on the open market suitable for Chinese production, we will make it in China. I’d rather have 70 per cent of something than 100 per cent of nothing.”
That product may well have come along, too, with a stick-on polypropylene wall tile soon to be heavily marketed.
“I consider myself a very fortunate person to be working with both of my sons in different areas on a regular basis and we all enjoy this part of the world. I never ever wanted to live anywhere else. This is a great place to live. You can live very well here on a lot less money than anywhere else.”
This allows him to indulge a passion.
“Aside from the day job, my other passion, my other woman, has always been my Morgans. I’m on my 16th! I bought my first in the summer of my first year as a ‘stu-pi-dent’ from a local farmer for £100.” And with his sports bag beside him, he knows where to head. “Tennis is a big part of my spare time and I’m delighted with the new centre in Louth. I try to play twice a week, it is my way of keeping fit. I live in the mistaken belief that even at 64 I will still get better.”
A golfer at Kenwick, he is also a Grimsby Town fan, stating it was the only thing he had in common with his sons when they were teenagers.
Looking ahead, he said:
“I think about retirement. I’d like to go to visit our customers on the Atlantic seaboard, spend two or three days with them and a week on holiday. It would be like an ambassadorial role, but not yet though. We are still learning. It is very much a young industry. It is still evolving and we still have plenty to do.”