Wedged between a police station and recycling centre on a light industrial estate in north London’s Kentish Town for more than 20 years, JML has pursued an ambition to become Britain’s “home of great ideas”.
From early beginnings in the basement of its founder John Mills, the company has grown into a household goods distributor and retailer of products ranging from mini-sewing machines to so-called “super-mops”. It employs 300 people and achieved sales of £65m ($94m) in 2008, a 38 per cent increase on the previous year.
But the company, like other small consumer goods suppliers, is having to cope with a deepening recession. In particular, the recent demise of Woolworths has removed an important route to market for JML products, including the heat-reflecting ironing board covers that sell in their millions.
Mr Mills is in little doubt where the historic blame lies in Woolworths’ demise. “We always had a pretty high regard for Woolworths’ management,” he says. “It is a shame so much money was taken out of the business a couple of decades ago when many of their freehold and long leasehold sites were sold and leased back. Woolworths never really recovered.”
With Woolies gone, JML is scrambling to increase its presence in other retail outlets while extending its TV home-shopping activities, which finally made a profit in 2008.
Ken Daly, JML’s managing director, concedes that sales prompted by its promotional in-store video could fall from £36m to £30m this year because of Woolworths’ demise.
Fortunately, JML escaped significant exposure to the retailer’s failure after it stopped supplying the chain, at the behest of its banks, when credit insurance was withdrawn last autumn.
“If Woolies was still alive today, it would be about 18 per cent of our retail business,” says Mr Daly. “But since Woolies disappeared, our total portfolio of retailers has expanded and there has been a big uplift in retail sites and like-for-like sales in all the other retail accounts.”
Mr Daly, an engineering student turned salesman who joined JML as its fourth employee 15 years ago, is confident the company can grow through the downturn.
We “did well in the last recession”, he says. And its evolving range of goods remains relatively recession-proof as low-ticket items whose appeal lies in “making life easier”, he says.
Profit margins are under pressure because of the consumer slowdown and sterling’s weakness. But JML has managed its finances prudently and remains relatively immune from the stresses facing many British businesses in dealing with their banks.
Mr Mills, who remains the company’s majority owner and chairman, has decades of bruising experience of dealing with finances in both the public and private sector.
At the same time as building JML, he was also a leading councillor and elected finance boss at London’s Camden council.
A trenchant critic of British industrial policy in his own right, he is married to Dame Barbara Mills, a former director of public prosecutions.
As a well-connected but self-made businessman he has no hesitation in attacking the treatment in recent years by the banks of successful privately owned businesses such as his own.
“We had an excellent relationship with the old NatWest Bank, but during the last few years, since RBS took over NatWest, we have found it much more difficult to achieve a stable and trusting relationship with any bank despite the consistent profit record we have achieved.
“We are okay at the moment financially but only because of past prudence, not because of any great help which we have received from any bank, especially over the last 12 months.”
In spite of that, JML wants to expand. It is extending its TV presence from seven shopping channels on the Sky satellite platform to take time on Freeview.
“Home shopping has relatively high fixed costs,” says Mr Daly. “But once you are over break-even point you romp away.
“In 2008, we got past break-even point. In 2009, it will be a much more important part of the business.”
Mr Daly is dismissive of accusations of “tackiness” when applied to some of JML’s products and packaging.
The packing and marketing ranges from subtle to “in your face”, he concedes. But he defends the kitsch marketing and fluorescent packaging of many JML goods such as Doktor Power, a cleaning product.
It is branding that mimics – or is mimicked by – the tongue-in-cheek marketing of Reckitt Benckiser’s Cillit Bang range. As a marketing strategy, Mr Daly insists that it works.
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