Since its humble beginnings, ReAgent has been passed through 3 generations, had a name change and grown substantially in both factory size and customer base. But getting here hasn’t been an easy journey.
This is the inspiring story of one couple’s struggle to start a successful company during an era when all the odds were against them.
In this post:
“Do you fancy retirement?”
Derek: “Norma and I were together in this from the beginning, and it took about two and a half years. It began in 1976. It was a terrible time; inflation was at 10, 12, 15% and was even rising up to 20% at one stage. There was terrible unrest and strikes.”
Derek worked for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which was the largest chemical manufacturer in the British Empire at the time. Everyone at Derek’s age was constantly scared of going into work in case the boss called you in and asked, “Do you fancy retirement?”
If you were 55, it was a certainty that you would be offered retirement, but Derek couldn’t imagine retiring at that time. With his youngest son still at school, a job was really important to him and his family.
Everyone was constantly scared of going into work in case the boss called you in and asked, “Do you fancy retirement?”
One day Derek’s boss called him in to let him know he was to go and work in Northwich to work on a different team. Derek didn’t fancy the extra miles on his trip to work, but says “that was the way of it”. On top of this, there was no mention of extra money or travel expenses.
Coffee in Liverpool
Derek and Norma Millard were living in Liverpool when they came up with the idea. Derek worked as a physicist for ICI at Runcorn Research Department, and Norma was a housewife and part-time teacher.
Every Saturday morning, Derek and Norma would have coffee and go shopping in Liverpool. Over coffee, Derek would often complain about bad standards he came across from suppliers that ICI were using. The complaining drove Norma mad! Derek made the decision that he would set up a chemical manufacturing business that would supply ICI with chemical solutions.
Norma admits she knew nothing about chemicals, but they joined together and went ahead with the idea.
ReAgent was born in 1977, under the name RCS (ReAgent Chemical Services).
Derek and Norma bought a van and painted and lettered it, but it kept breaking down!
They didn’t have premises, so Norma used to sit at a typewriter at their home and send letters to various suppliers to see if they would supply RCS. She would include her private address on the letterheads.
One day when Norma was at her typewriter, there was a knock at the door. When she answered it, she found a man looking confused. He asked if he was at the RCS premises and couldn’t understand that RCS didn’t have a factory. The man asked to speak to the company’s Managing Director, but Norma explained that Derek was currently in hospital – he was suffering from a prolapsed disk.
The man left and Norma feared she had lost a customer. However, he actually came back some time later when RCS had a factory and ended up doing business.
RCS took on three men that had worked in the ICI Standards Lab – Bert, Bill and Fred. Fred is the father of Graham Bayliss – our current Systems Manager.
In those days, if you wanted a phone or even any office furniture (which they did) you had to go on a waiting list.
There was a phone line in the premises, so RCS was all ready to go, apart from the fact that they had no phone. Derek had a connection with someone who worked in BT and he managed to get a phone, which Norma describes as “a black old instrument”. With the phone and phone number all set up, they just needed some furniture.
Norma would sit at a small table with the phone and a bell. She struggled to hear the phone conversations because of the noise from workers around the factory; joiners and electricians. Whenever the phone rang, Norma would ring the bell so the workers would stop and she could hear the person on the other end of the phone. She describes it as “chaos”.
Product no. 240
Back in February 1977, Derek wanted to approach ICI to ask for a contract to supply products. In order to make a creditable approach, Derek and Norma began the process of forming a Ltd. Co. using Express Company Registration Ltd.
RCS Ltd. was established in April 1977 at a cost of £150.
In September 1977, Norma received a call from ICI to ask for details of their proposal. Derek and Norma met with ICI to discuss the details. If the proposal was to be agreed upon by ICI, a contract would be entered into for a five-year term at fixed prices. ICI sent a letter to Derek and Norma in November 1977 to confirm the agreement.
RCS had a product list of 239 items which Derek had worked out with the purchasing department of ICI. When a chemist claiming to be from ICI called Norma and asked if RCS would make a new product (Chloride Neutralising Solution), Norma confidently replied that they could.
The chemist gave Norma the formulation which she wrote down, and he asked if it should be called “Product no. 240”. So it was.
Norma took the formulation to Derek and the men in the lab and, according to Norma, Derek “nearly took off!” He said it couldn’t be done that simply, as RCS would have to approach ICI to get their permission and agree upon a price. Regardless of Derek’s initial concerns, RCS made the product and supplied it to ICI, and they’ve ordered it from us ever since.
The Winter of Discontent
People advised Derek and Norma that it was a bad time to start a business, and they were right.
1979 became known as “the winter of discontent”. There were strikes everywhere and rubbish piling up in the streets. Derek had to cross the picket lines and deliver to other dangerous locations when he was out delivering in the van.
Norma: “It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad we stuck at it. We’re more than pleased when we look at the company today. It is fantastic to have seen it grow like this.”
It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad we stuck at it.
18 Aston Fields Road
When it was time to sort out some financing, RCS approached numerous banks but were rejected every time on the grounds that Derek and Norma were too old and didn’t meet their “business model”.
Derek and Norma managed to set up a meeting with the Area Manager of Midland Bank and they agreed to provide an account under strict conditions. Conditions included the deeds of Derek and Norma’s house as security and a limit of £12,000 overdraft. Derek and Norma sold all their assets, life insurance and ICI shares for enough capital to put into RCS.
Searches for possible premises in Northwich, Winsford and Runcorn were carried out. Derek and Norma finally settled on 18 Aston Fields Road in Runcorn. They fitted out the factory with lighting, a water plant, shelving and everything else that was needed at the time.
By May 1979 the transfer of stock and apparatus from ICI was completed and deliveries began to other companies.
RCS was truly up and running.