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Following Professor Harold Maxwell-Lefroy’s death in 1925, his assistant Bessie Eades bought the rights to his timber treatment fluid for £90 from Kathleen Maxwell-Lefroy, Harold’s wife, and continued running the business. She recruited Elsie May Lanstein as General Manager, Sales Manager and Organiser in 1928 and set up a new company, Rentokil (Sales) Ltd — the first company to bear the name.
The new company started selling the timber treatment fluid to the general public, instead of just to businesses, and developed a beetle powder for “kitchen and bakehouse pests”.
Rentokil (Sales) Ltd moved to new offices in Bermondsey St, London in 1933 but sales did not grow well and there was even a loss of £64 that year. During the Second World War the offices were destroyed by a bomb during the London Blitz, but business was carried on in the ruins!
Business boomed during the war, however, and profits leapt to £18,000 (£700,000 at 2015 value). The company set up the position of Entomologist, recruiting wood boring beetle expert Dr Norman Hickin in 1944. The range of products sold at this time included an oil-based insecticide, timber treatment fluids, moth treatment, furniture cream, insect powders, a damp extractor for pianos and a germicide for telephones.
Dr Hickin developed an applicator with a fine nozzle to inject fluid into beetle holes in timber. This was patented in 1948 and sold as the Fetcham Injector and a smaller Junior Injector. Sales boomed to such an extent that by the end of the 1950s over one million had been sold.
In the period after the war, Rentokil added DDT to its portfolio following the pesticide’s extensive use for mosquito and parasite control during the Second World War. It also added rodent control to its services for the first time, using the rat poison ANTU (alpha-naphthylthiourea) that had recently been discovered in the US.
The company opened a Woodworm and Dry Rot Centre in Bedford Square, London in 1951 as a showroom for the public and building trade and created a new company called Woodworm and Dry Rot Control Ltd (WDRC) to focus on treating buildings.
Rentokil grew to over 100 employees and Rentokil branded products were sold in around 20,000 retail stores in the UK. The reputation of the company and Bessie Eades grew to such an extent that she was featured in the 13 June 1953 edition of The Cabinet Maker, being called “A woman pioneer”. WRDC grew turnover to £100,000 (£2.3m) and had 40 staff by 1957.
In 1956 Rentokil received an offer from rival British Ratin Company to take it over.
British Ratin traces its origins to 1902 when Danish pharmacist George Neumann discovered a Salmonella bacterium that was fatal to rodents. He called his product Ratin, but was unable to get financial backing so gave the rights to another scientist, Dr Louis Bahr, who persuaded the Danish corporation Sophus Berendsen A/S to back the product.
Sophus Berendsen was granted the rights to market Ratin in several European countries, including the UK and set up a sales office in London in 1906. This was unsuccessful, however, and it was not until 1927 when The British Ratin Company Ltd was formed that business was successful. This was driven by Karl Anker-Petersen, who had been Head of Sales for Ratin in Copenhagen.
As Ratin had a short shelf life Karl Anker-Petersen developed a service model with trained technicians carrying out the pest control treatment. This strategy, along with direct marketing to businesses using mass mailshots, grew turnover to £5,460 (£310,000 in 2015 value) within two years. By 1937 the company turnover had grown ten times to £62,000 (£3.8m) and by the time of the outbreak of war in 1939 production of Ratin had been moved to the UK.
Business trebled during the war years as pest control was deemed to be vital to the war effort for protecting crops and food supplies. The company broadened its product range by acquiring Chelsea Insecticides in 1941, renamed to Disinfestation Ltd in 1953.
In 1949 British Ratin bought a country house, Felcourt Manor, near East Grinstead for its headquarters. The extra space also allowed the building of a new research laboratory in 1952 for research and development of new products.
The laboratory at Felcourt (1952)
Growing resistance to Ratin by rats led to the introduction of the recently discovered rodenticide warfarin in 1954 as an alternative. In the same year the company signed a deal with Cuprinol to use its timber treatment fluid and for Cuprinol to direct enquiries to British Ratin.
A contract for rodent control across urban centres in Bahrain that was filmed on a home cine camera showed the power of film in promoting business. This led to the shooting of another film on the company’s research work at Felcourt and later to the creation of a Film Unit in 1959.
The Film Unit went on to produce a large number of educational films and award-winning documentaries using pioneering filming techniques.
At this time the company was considering growing its timber treatment business and approached Rentokil. Karl Anker-Petersen who had led the company for 30 years died before takeover was completed, aged 58. A new board was created, however, and on 1 March 1957 the takeover was completed at a cost of £100,000 (£2.2m). Rentokil Ltd and Woodworm and Dry Rot Control Ltd were transferred to British Ratin and Bessie Eades had no further role in the company.
Several acquisitions in the 1950s including Fumigation Services Ltd, Insecta Laboratories Ltd and Scientex Ltd brought in expertise in fumigation for the food sector, maritime pest control and bird repellents. British Ratin added damp proofing to its services with the licensing of unique technology from Hungary that used electroosmosis to prevent damp in buildings.
By 1960 the rodenticide Ratin was becoming increasingly ineffective and so it was phased out, making the company name redundant. So on 1 December 1960 the company was renamed Rentokil Group Ltd.
In 1961 the purchase of Thomas Harley Ltd in Perth brought on board a multinational business that sold products in 47 countries, including its flagship rodenticides Rodine and Rodine warfarin. Its General Manager Angus Fraser McIntosh subsequently worked at Rentokil until his retirement in 1974. He became founding President of the British Pest Control Association and founding President of the Confederation of European Pest Control Associations (CEPA). He was also awarded an OBE for services to pest control.
A fire at Rentokil’s Fetcham factory in 1964 led to consolidation of production in the UK at the newly opened Rentokil Laboratories factory in Kirkby and the closure of the factories at Fetcham and at the old Thomas Harley site in Perth.
The late 1960s saw further expansion in Australia, the Bahamas, Europe and the Far East, so that by 1969 there were 3,100 employees in 53 operating companies in 27 countries. Group turnover reached £8.8m after achieving a continuous 20% annual growth over 10 years.
This expansion attracted an attempted takeover by US company Rollins, owner of pest control company Orkin. Rentokil took defensive action by launching on the London Stock Exchange on 7 March 1969. The share offering was four times oversubscribed and demand resulted in a rapid rise in share price, providing funds for further expansion.
Around the same time, Rentokil expanded its R&D facilities with the opening of a new laboratory block at Felcourt to improve the facilities for its team of biologists, entomologists and chemists. This also emphasised the importance it placed on using science and technology for developing and improving products.
The lab had specially designed heating and ventilation systems, a large open area for entomology and rodenticide studies, test rooms for evaluating pesticides and timber treatments, four culture rooms for cockroaches, stored product insects, termites and wood beetles, and a library for scientific and technical publications.Timber treatment testing room in the new laboratory at Felcourt
Continued expansion saw an increase in franchising and acquisitions around the world. Franchises were established in Thailand, Argentina, Ghana, Senegal, Zaire, Iran, Kuwait, Namibia, Seychelles and Netherlands Antilles. New businesses were established in Finland, Norway, Belgium, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Israel and Malaysia. In the US, pest control company Josephsons and wood preserving company TaCo were taken over, growing the existing business there.
There was also a move into the hygiene sector with the acquisition of Rashbrooke Chemicals and other hygiene services companies, followed by the launch of Rentokil’s Catercleanse service.
At the end of the decade, however, the UK was still the dominant force in the business, producing the majority of the revenue, which passed £50m in 1977:
During the 1970s Rentokil’s experts were also hard at work putting their extensive knowledge into print. The company even had its own printing department at Felcourt to cater for all the printed material required by the company. The Rentokil scientists produced a series of technical books, called the Rentokil Library on the biology and control of pests. Titles included:
The Rentokil Library publications
In 1982 Clive Thompson was appointed as a director and CEO the following year. He set the company a target of 20% annual growth in profits, which led to a sustained period of expansion. Over the next 20 years he oversaw over 400 acquisitions.
During the 80s and 90s Rentokil diversified greatly, providing services in tropical plants, office machine maintenance, healthcare, medical services and security. In 1994, Management Today magazine named Rentokil Britain's most admired company, ahead of Glaxo and Marks and Spencer. The following year turnover reached £860m with pre-tax profits of £214m.
The hostile takeover of BET Group, which was three times the size of Rentokil, resulted in one of the largest takeovers in British corporate history. Starting life as British Electric Traction in the late 1800s, BET had grown into a conglomerate of over 50 companies providing a diverse range of business services including cleaning, personnel services, catering, textile services, electronic security and plant services. The takeover was completed on 26 April 1996 at a cost of £2.2bn.
This created the world's leading business services company with annual turnover over £3bn and 150,000 employees. The most significant subsidiary of BET was Initial, which had started trading in 1903 as a towel rental service for businesses in London and later diversified into washroom and hygiene services. Clive Thompson saw Initial as providing “exciting opportunities to develop two brands, Rentokil and Initial internationally.” The company was subsequently renamed Rentokil Initial.
Clive Thompson was knighted for services to industry and in 1998 became President of the CBI.
Early in the new millennium there was a consolidation of businesses added under BET Group, with the sell-off of one third, by turnover. The company restructured into seven businesses, Hygiene Services, Pest Control and Property Care, Facilities Management, Parcels Delivery, Conferencing and Tropical Plants, and Security Services. The slimmed-down company still employed 93,000 people.
The long years of Danish ownership came to an end in 2003 following the gradual buy-back of shares from Sophus Berendsen, costing almost £1.9 billion. The 20% growth target was kept, however, but the size of the company made it more difficult to maintain. In 2004, on the back of a profits warning, the two decades’ leadership of Clive Thompson also came to an end following a boardroom coup.
The new CEO, Doug Flynn, further consolidated the company in 2006, selling off more businesses gained from the takeover of BET — guarding, electronic security and conferencing — for over £700m. He also signalled the end of an era with the sale of the Felcourt Manor headquarters and the move to new premises in London.