Inside the Alfreton factory of the UK’s only shoe polish manufacturer

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom - Credit: Archant

Sally Mosley puts her best foot forward to visit Grangers International Ltd in Alfreton – the home of Cherry Blossom, the country’s only UK-made shoe polish

On the production line

On the production line - Credit: Archant

Living in landlocked Derbyshire — where our high peaks are known to drag in moist air and regular weather conditions such as dampness, mist, fog and precipitation prevail — it is important to protect and proof outdoor clothing and footwear if we want to repel watery elements and make items last.

So, continuing my quest to discover notable Derbyshire businesses, I headed for Alfreton to visit the factory of Grangers International Ltd. This is a truly British company, still privately owned, that manufactures a range of well-known products including Cherry Blossom shoe polish and Fabsil waterproofing preparations.

Cherry Blossom was the first, and is now the only UK-made shoe polish. It originated in Chiswick, London, when brothers Dan and Charles Mason recognised a need for developing a protective boot polish. With the help of a chemist, who formulated the paraffin and wax-based recipe, their first ‘one penny tin’ with an iconic butterfly twist opener was introduced in 1907. During the following 100 years, the butterfly opener that many will remember so well was replaced by a ‘press to open’ style lid, and the brand changed ownership — eventually being purchased by Grangers from Sara Lee in 1994.

Surprisingly, while the onset of the recession in 2008 created a downward slide in many businesses, Cherry Blossom sales have continued to rise — possibly due to a ‘polish it up and make it last’ trend championed by the general public. With over 150 stockists nationwide, tins of Cherry Blossom polish can be purchased from many supermarkets, as well as independent retailers and grocery, convenience and discount stores. In recent years Grangers International has won four awards for best shoe care brand from 2011-2016. They let their crown slip in 2014, by allowing their competitors to have a year of glory, but came back to shine again in 2015.

On the production line

On the production line - Credit: Archant

‘Although Cherry Blossom is well known, the Grangers International story is far bigger,’ advised Karolina Jones, Managing Director.

Fabsil is the other brand for which Grangers International is famed, and is no doubt recognised by all camping enthusiasts since the 1960s and 70s. Paul Lister, Sales Director explained that ‘the Grangers parent company was founded in 1937, working mainly in the construction industry to proof masonry, before diversifying into waterproofing fabrics. We went on to be the first company to produce environmentally friendly water-based waterproofing.’

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Grangers International is proud to have helped waterproof the first Everest expedition, British Second World War tents and the canvas of Landrover soft-tops. ‘We like to be known as the protectors – guarding, protecting, proofing, repelling and preparing.

‘Our products have even been used in the film industry – our waterproofing products played a part in the unforgettable Alien chestburster special effects of 1979, and in the famous big lobster tank scene in Mission Impossible, the 1996 American spy film starring Tom Cruise. This summer we will be involved with making a Brad Pitt movie, too.’

On the production line

On the production line - Credit: Archant

My tour of the factory with John White, Production and Standards Manager, began in the blending room for Cherry Blossom shoe polish. Here, steam jacketed mixing pots contained a colourful concoction of solvents and wax, formulated to an exact recipe by Grangers International’s on-site laboratory technicians. Beeswax for the polish is generally sourced from a UK supplier while other waxes and solvents are imported from Europe, although the Carnauba wax used in some products can only be found in a remote part of Brazil. Also known as the ‘queen of waxes’, Carnauba is derived from the leaves of a palm plant.

After cooking for about an hour — and being heated to the optimum consistency — a test sample of the polish is taken before the coloured gloop is sent along pipes by a diaphragm pump to the production line. It is then cooled down before being poured by machine into traditional tins supplied by a Nottinghamshire firm. More modern containers used include plastic tubes, some with sponge applicators, each of which is filled from the bottom before being mechanically crimped, bonded and trimmed to look neat and tidy.

Black and tan are the most popular shoe polish colours, but I was fortunate to see a navy blue batch being prepared. Twenty-five different shades of polish are made here, including ox blood — which was introduced when rival company Kiwi from Indonesia discontinued it from their line. In the packaging section I saw labels for Loake, Charles Tyrwhitt, Hunter, Hotter, Ecco and M&S.

There is also a cold filling production line for liquid shoe polish, cleaners and proofing products. Grangers International is striving to go water-based as much as possible too, as it is far better for the environment and cheaper to manufacture. As a result, the company has been accredited with bluesign® approval for several of their products. Although some products may not appear to have altered in the last 25 years, Grangers International occasionally has to make changes in line with legislation, demands by customers and market trends.

1928 Cherry Blossom Advert

1928 Cherry Blossom Advert - Credit: Archant

John has been working for the firm for two years and was brought in to improve efficiency and output in an effort to help Grangers International polish up their act! Having a background in the automotive industry, he is passionate about procedures, enthusiastic about cost effectiveness in line with productivity, and happily waxed lyrical about his Key Performance Indicator (KPI) reviews to measure business. He also told me about the benefits of his Kaizen Event Format – a short duration improvement project which helped him revolutionise the factory floor.

‘I asked the staff to describe existing issues in the factory layout and problems with procedures. As a team we had a brainstorming meeting and created an action plan. We then implemented improvements based on their ideas. This was all their own work.’ He added, ‘I had the factory repainted in nice bright colours and made our window cleaner happy by paying him to wash off all the ceiling panels. We also replaced the bulbs in 68 lights to create a bright and cheerful workplace, then provided the staff with a smart black uniform each. We now have pride in our overall appearance with the added bonus that it looks good to visitors.’

Automation was introduced by John in 2015 in the form of Italian-made machines and a rotary table. This was one of the company’s biggest investments to date, but due to the increase in output and a saving on manpower, the investment will have paid for itself in less than two years.

As I was guided around the factory I still observed manual workers among the 80 employees. They were busy filling tins and tubes, screwing on lids, putting on caps and placing products into boxes and packaging. The factory currently produces 1.2 million pieces a month, or around 15 million units a year – to be sold in the UK or exported all over the world.

Next, I visited the chemistry laboratory where work tables were dotted with pots and potions, odd shoes, bits of canvas, walking boots and wellingtons. Here David Feeney, the Technical Manager, and his small team of research scientists work to improve and create new polishes, finishes and waterproofing products for clothing and footwear.

‘When I came for my job interview I hadn’t realised that Grangers International made shoe polish, I thought it was all about waterproofing. I’d ironed my shirt and had my suit cleaned but my shoes were scuffed so I spent much of the time trying to hide them!’ He added, ‘As well as being a fascinating job, we also get to perform experiments, too! A while back, we donated some running shoes to an athlete who was heading off to Lanzarote. We treated one shoe from each pair with one of our prototype protective coatings, and it was interesting to see how the other got covered in dust and dirt as the athlete ran around the island.’

It’s not all fun and games though, as the laboratory team is also responsible for paperwork regarding regulations and product labelling – a legislative nightmare of symbols, clear-to-read text and codes.

Grangers International is keen to promote the fact that they try to be as environmentally and ecologically advanced as possible. As an international company there are restrictions on exporting abroad, especially with regard to flammable or solvent-based substances. All aerosols have to be transported overland.

‘By using fewer solvents our products are safer and less of a hazard. We also handle quality control, customer queries and complaints in this department.’

I asked what I could do if my tin of polish has dried out. ‘Once used, always put the lid on properly to avoid it drying out in the first place,’ advised David. ‘You can try heating it up with a hairdryer if it’s just a bit cracked and dry on the surface but if it’s gone to the point of being a lump in the bottom of the tin nothing will work. Old fashioned polish might be inexpensive, but our shoe creams last a lot longer and the cream also acts as a conditioner.

‘The most amusing telephone query we have ever received was from a man who chose to cover himself with brown shoe polish for a fancy dress party. He woke up the next morning in a panic when he couldn’t wash it off!’

Dubbin, which Grangers International still makes, is popular as an old fashioned protector of leather, although it is not suitable for some modern hiking boots like mine that have a Gore-Tex membrane — the dubbin will actually keep moisture molecules in, so I’m now trying out Grangers’ G-Wax. This is their biggest seller and the perfect protection for my hill walking footwear. I also discovered that it’s not an old wives’ tale to let polish dry before you buff it up, as this gives the polish a chance to soak in — and will give you a better shine.

In the corner of the lab was an incubator where all new products are tested to 37 degrees. This is designed to check the general stability of products in hot conditions, as Grangers International exports to Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Middle East. However, for countries like Canada where the temperature might not rise above freezing for around seven months of the year, new products are tested by being left in a refrigerator for six months.

Grangers International is currently sponsoring Espen Holthe, a 34-year-old adventurer from Norway. Despite suffering a broken back twice while he was growing up, he climbed Kilimanjaro a few years ago and now hopes to climb every mountain in Norway. His eventual goal is to conquer Mt Everest. As part of his training he is living in remotest Norway for a year. He will be hiking from mountain to mountain during the day and at night sleeping at high altitude in a tent treated with a weatherproof finish.

Grangers International’s range of products also includes some footwear accessories. Nikki Jeffery, the web and media copywriter who kindly arranged my visit, told me the company heard recently about a gentleman going on a pilgrimage – ‘He will be walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain and we gave him the insoles to help him on his way!’

Once again, a Derbyshire business stands out as a shining example of excellence in the fascinating world of innovative invention, design, longevity and success, and with luck a few tips I learned from my visit will rub off!