The highs and the lows of business in Suffolk and North Essex in 2018
PUBLISHED: 11:41 24 December 2018
We look back over the year and finds that despite the High Street woes, there was plenty for local companies to celebrate in 2018.
The year started on a great footing, as Ipswich was named among the UK’s fastest-growing city economies in the latest UK Powerhouse study. The report covering the third quarter of 2017, ranked Ipswich in fifth place nationally in terms of year-on-year growth in Gross Value Added (GVA) − a measure of the value of goods and services produced.
This was also the month that the US-based multinational brewing group Molson Coors announced it had acquired historic Suffolk cider and vinegar maker Aspall, in a £40m deal that brings to an end almost 300 years of family ownership of the business. Brothers Henry and Barry Chevallier Guild, the eighth generation of the family to run the firm, continue to be involved in the business.
And the chemist John McGregor, who founded specialist plastic manufacturing firm Contamac from his garden shed in Stansted, more than 30 years ago, was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. Today the business is based in Saffron Walden and employs 95 people.
Two of the region’s oldest businesses joined forces in a move to make matters easier for families going through bereavement. Law firm Birketts agreed a partnership with the East of England Co-op to provide probate services to clients of its funeral services division.
Telecoms giant BT revealed falling third-quarter revenues and earnings,seeing adjusted earnings drop 2% to £1.8 billion in its third quarter to December 31, putting it down to increased investment in mobile devices and “customer experience”, along with higher business rates charged on its network assets as well as pension costs. In May, BT went on to announce 13,000 job losses over the next three years.
Workers at East Anglian boat-builder Oyster Yachts were sent home with redundancy notices after being told that their employer had “run out of cash”. The company, which has sites at Ipswich and Wroxham, told staff that all operations had been stopped to prevent further losses, and that it was on the brink of insolvency.
Electrical chain Hughes took a leading position in the commercial laundry market after making the biggest acquisition in its history. The East Anglian company completed an undisclosed-fee deal for Armstrong Commercial Laundry Systems, based in Newbury in Berkshire. The company employs 45 people, and last year turned over £6.5m.
It was a tough month for the high street as well-known brands announced they would be closing stores amid tough trading conditions. Toys R Us announced it was shutting its Ipswich outlet, while Italian restaurant chain Prezzo said it planned to close its sites in Sudbury and Halstead. Electronics retailer Maplin called in the administrators and said it was looking for a buyer for all its 217 Uk stores including branches in Norwich, Colchester, King’s Lynn, Lowestoft and Ipswich.
East Anglian facilities giant Servest said it is expected to pass the £1bn turnover mark following an acquisition.
The group bought manufacturing support services company Aktrion Group for an undisclosed sum, in a move which it claims will take it past the revenue milestone.
France-based insurance multinational AXA, whose UK arm includes a major presence in Ipswich, agreed an £11bn deal to acquire property and casualty claims specialist XL Group.
An East Anglian manufacturer, which has worked on equipment for Robbie Williams and Disney, said it had chopped its waste in half by retraining staff. Warren Services, which has previously built a 60ft robot for band Take That, brought in external expertise to cut the level of waste produced at its Thetford factory, where it specialises in machining, welding and fabrication. The company worked with the manufacturing Growth Programme (MGP) to examine its quality control procedures and was able to make an initial saving of £50,000 by providing new guidance to its 94-strong workforce.
Greene King’s Vintage Heritage Fine Ale brewed with barley, which was long thought to have been extinct, was shortlisted for a major industry award - Prize of the Jury 2018 at the Monde 2018 World Quality Selections. The ale is brewed using East Anglian Chevallier malted barley, Five preserved Chevallier seeds were discovered, re-sown and crops harvested to create the volume required to replicate a traditional Greene King real ale from the 1800s.
The East of England Co-op beefed up its security services to launch a new arm of the business. Co-op Secure Response will offer services from CCTV to site guarding for businesses and local communities. It evolved from the firm’s in-house security team, which was established in 2011 to protect its food, funeral, travel and events services.
A 200-year-old printers which produced the Harry Potter series began a new chapter after being sold to a European group in a £20m deal. Bungay-based Clays was bought by Italian printing firm Elcograf Group from previous owners St Ives. The company, which employs 700 people, reassured staff that there would be no redundancies as a result.
The Orwell Bridge was described as a “major bottleneck” affecting road freight to Felixstowe, a government report on England’s port connectivity concluded. The Study of England’s Port Connectivity highlighted the increased tonnage handled by the Haven ports of Felixstowe, Ipswich and Harwich, which have seen a rise of 9% over the last five years, while container traffic has soared by 19% and dry bulk, mainly from Ipswich, by 26% over the same period.
Nearly 70 representatives from firms and councils took part in a strategy summit as they examined ways to put the economic strategy, published by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, into practice. The aim of event, held in Red Lodge near Mildenhall, was to agree the delivery plan for the document, which sets out ambitious targets of creating 88,000 new jobs and 30,000 businesses by 2036.
Direct Line Insurance, which employs more than 400 people in Ipswich, revealed a £50m hit from the Beast from the East and warned almost its entire annual weather claims budget had been used in the first three months of the year.
Ipswich construction firm SEH French reported a record year of trading for 2017 as turnover reached £22m with the delivery of two big projects. A contract to build a new headquarters for law firm Birketts at Princes Street, Ipswich, was worth £7.8m, and the firm netted a further £12.5m for a Snetterton project, which involved building a new factory for Natures Menu.
New business links were forged between the East of England and the east coast of America, as more than 20 life science businesses based in East Anglia embarked on a trade visit. The delegation, including representatives from businesses O2h Ventures, Global Regulatory Services and Invest Essex, headed off from Stansted to BIO 2018, the annual global Biotech and Pharma convention. The trade mission marked the launch of Primera Air’s flights between London Stansted and Boston, but four months later, Primera air collapsed and its Stansted-US routes were no more.
The East of England’s biggest water company, Anglian Water, reported strong revenue for the year ending March 31 2018, up 1.8% to £1.25bn. Its annual report celebrated efforts made to improve transparency and trust, such as becoming the first water company to offload its subsidiary in the Cayman Islands from its financial structure and changing its board structure to having a majority of independent non-executive directors. But the group also warned that regulatory changes could see customers’ bills increase in the coming years.
Airline Emirates launched a new daily service from Stansted to Dubai. The service marks the first time that direct flights to the United Arab Emirates have operated from the Eastern region of the UK.
Retailers in Colchester threw their support behind forming a five-year Business Improvement District (BID) to attract more people into town. 142 out of 168 businesses who voted (85%) supported the BID proposal, from a 36% turnout.
Ipswich-based Uni-Prop International Ltd launched a new building tool which it hopes will revolutionise the construction industry. The firm has spent three years developing an adjustable support which can be adapted to deliver hydraulic power. The new Uni-Prop Acrow Plus device, which is the first upgrade on steel temporary building supports in more than 80 years, has been described by a building professional as “a truly great British invention”.
Suffolk craft coffee maker Paddy & Scott’s announced it had won a long-term deal with the Marriott Hotels chain to provide ‘fuelling stations’ for guests. The company, based at Earl Soham, near Framlingham, rolled them out across much of the hotel group’s UK portfolio, with more than 40 hosting them.
The cream of the Suffolk and north Essex business community came together to celebrate the Suffolk Business Awards at Milsoms, Kesgrave Hall. Representatives from 80 businesses were among the 300 guests at the black-tie ceremony, organised by the East Anglian Daily Times. Winners were recognised in 12 categories including Business of the Year, which was Needham Market-based Breheny Civil Engineering.
Suffolk-based Vertas Group completed the acquisition of Churchill Catering in a deal which will see it branch out into providing contract catering services in new sectors, rather than only the education sector. The merger with Churchill Catering sees Vertas moving into the commercial and leisure market across 50 UK sites, including Forestry Commission sites such as the Go Ape attraction in Thetford Forest.
The Dutch electronics giant Philips warned that it could move its production out of Britain in case of a “hard Brexit”, putting 500 jobs at risk at the Philips Avent baby factory in Glemsford. Executive director Frans van Houten said that any changes in current free trade agreements, the single customs union and current EU product certifications “is a serious threat to the competitiveness of this factory.”
Surya Hotels announced a £1m upgrade for its budget portfolio of properties in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Some 241 bedrooms across the operators Dragonfly chain will be refurbished during the work at its King’s Lynn, Colchester, Peterborough and Bury St Edmunds premises.
One of the UK’s largest local authority-owner solar farms, based in Suffolk, generated more than £1.3m in its second year. Forest Heath District Council paid nearly £14.5m to acquire the 12.4MW solar farm at Toggam Farm in Lakenheath in 2016.
Suffolk holiday group Hoseasons announced it was on the verge of another record summer, buoyed by the recent heatwave. The Lowestoft-based company said it could see its eighth record-breaking season in a row as it had seen its highest ever levels of website traffic and has increased peak season capacity by 10% to facilitate last-minute demand for staycations.
Suffolk chartered insurance brokers and financial advisers Woodward Markwell announced the successful completion of a management buy-out. The opportunity was given to all 48 employees last year to participate in the buy-out by purchasing shares in the 36 year-old business, which is based on Falcon Street in Ipswich. The previous owners, Andrew Johnson and Beverley Monk, were keen to protect the business and its staff and give them the opportunity to purchase the company, which has a turnover of £2.6m, rather than selling it to a third party.
A Suffolk biotech start-up PBD Biotech secured £400,000 in funding to launch tests to help combat the spread of TB in cattle. The animal disease testing firm, based at Thurston, near Bury St Edmunds, has formulated a rapid test for live mycobacteria, which causes bovine TB.
A key 4,200-tonne part of the East Anglia One wind farm was installed 59km off the coast of Lowestoft. The substation houses the electrical equipment needed to distribute the power from the 102 wind turbines back to shore in Suffolk.
In the same week that the Met office confirmed the summer of 2018 had eclipsed 1976 as England’s ‘hottest ever’, Suffolk’s largest holiday lettings agencies also announced that the summer holiday season has also been the busiest ever. Suffolk Secrets, the county’s largest holiday lettings agency, along with sister companies Suffolk Cottage Holidays and So Southwold released figures to reveal that total visitor numbers had increased by just over 10% year on year for July and August.
The University of Essex and business leaders backed calls for a new visa to allow qualified international students to work in skilled jobs for a period after graduation. According to Universities UK, the move would allow the UK to compete with other popular destinations such as Australia and Canada who have more welcoming student visa policies. The latest HEPI economic impact study suggests the economic impact of international students in the East of England is £1.3 billion.
New research showed Suffolk is now home to more than 35,000 companies for the first time. At the end of July 2018, 35,027 businesses were registered in the county according to Ipswich-based company secretarial software specialists Inform Direct. Leading the way is the borough of Ipswich which has 6,133 active companies - a record high for the town, which has seen growth of 11% over the last two and a half years.
Essex based housebuilder Weston Homes announced it was launching a recruitment drive for 350 new jobs, the majority of them based at its headquarters in Takeley near Stansted Airport. Chairman and chief executive Bob Weston said the building industry already has a skill shortage and Brexit is only likely to make it worse.
All 30 staff at Ipswich-based taxi, bus and minicab hire services business JR Travel Ltd lost their jobs as the company went into administration. The firm’s collapse was caused by “significant” cash-flow difficulties, and also resulted in 17 sub-contractors losing their jobs there, administrators said.
Ipswich based container transport business RPS Transport Limited, which operates out of the Port of Felixstowe and London Gateway was bought out by managers for an undisclosed sum. Managers of more than 14 years, Jason Duff and Simon Cuthbert, took the step after the owner - Jason’s father, Robert Duff - agreed to the buy-out.
Bury St Edmunds-based racing pigeon products supplier Harkers won an award in the new products category at the recent PATS International pet show held in Telford. Harkers has a unique niche in the animal care market – supplying products for pigeon racing which remains an popular pastime that attracts over 40,000 regular participants across the UK.
Bury St Edmunds environmental consultancy SaveMoneyCutCarbon signed a five-year contract with US retailer Just Energy Group. The deal sees the Suffolk firm, which offers a one-stop online marketplace for homes and organisations wanting to reduce energy and water bills, licensing its digital platform to Just Energy’s UK subsidiaries – Hudson Energy and Green Star Energy.
The former Wyevale Garden Centre on Newton Road in Sudbury was bought by the directors of Perrywood Garden Centre and Nurseries, from Tiptree. All jobs have been retained on the site and five additional full-time jobs have been created at the centre.
Greene King chief executive Rooney Anand announced he is to step down next year after 14 years at the helm of the Bury St Edmunds-based brewer. Mr Rooney is set to take up a role as chair of the board at WorldSkills UK, the education and skills charity, which focuses on boosting the profile of apprenticeships and technical education.
Woodbridge-based garden centre chain Notcutts announced that its profits were halved last year after it was hit by unfavourable exchange rates and increased costs. The company recorded a healthy rise in sales, up 4.8% to £74.7m, after adopting a strategy to increase footfall, but it also saw a 51.5% drop in operating profits to £1m, while its gross profit margin was shaved by 1% to 46.9%.
Expansion plans to increase passenger numbers at Stansted Airport by eight million passengers a year were backed by district councillors in Essex. Councillors at Uttlesford District Council were split over their support for the plans with the chairman casting the deciding vote following a tense, seven-hour meeting to consider Manchester Airport Group’s bid to increase the airport’s annual passenger cap from 35 to 43 million.
The green light was given to the first new development on the former sugar beet factory site next to the borough boundary at Sproughton. Food company LDH Ladoria want to build a distribution centre on the location to supply brands such as Cook Italia, Glenryck tinned fish and Summer Pride canned fruit. The new development is expected to create 120 jobs when it starts operating and could eventually expand further.
The first two units on a new 114-acre business park in Bury St Edmunds were officially opened. Leader of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, John Griffiths cut the ribbon on the warehouse units at Suffolk Park constructed by Readie Construction on a £13m contract.
The University of Essex’s was named University of the Year at the The Times Higher Education (THE) Awards 2018.
Essex welcomed record number of students this academic year, attracted record levels of research funding and is the leading university in London and the south east for Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.
Owner of family-run business The Hearing Care Centre, Karen Finch, was presented with a lifetime achievement award for her work in the audiology profession, at the British Health Trades Association (BHTA) Excellence Awards. This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Hearing Care Centre, which now employs almost 30 employees and operates a network of 26 centres across Suffolk.
A Haverhill-based company, the Radford Group, a specialist construction and fit-out company, went into liquidation with debts of around £10m - £5.17m to trade creditors and £4.3m in inter-company loans. A year ago, the company had been declared best in the Eastern region in the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table and employed around 84 people in Haverhill.
Drones wreaked havoc on travel plans, and dozens of flights were diverted to Stansted from Gatwick Airport, highlighting the danger that the new technology poses to the aviation industry. Back in June, when new legislation was announced to reduce the risks drones pose for aircraft when flown near airport, a spokesman for Stansted said: “While the potential of innovative drone technologies is unquestioned, if drones pass into airspace around our airports they can cause issues which may result in delays for our airlines and passengers.”