40 Years of WISE: an Interview with our Founder
With four out of ten UK businesses failing to survive beyond five years of trading, and the average company lifespan in the UK being a mere 15 years, what does it take to found a company that is still going strong after four decades?
2017 marks the 40th anniversary of WISE Worksafe, and we thought it was an appropriate time to dust off some old files and take a trip down memory lane. We recently grabbed the opportunity to sit down with the founder of WISE Worksafe, Chris Shedden, to recall some fascinating history about the early days of the company.
Read on to discover:
- The inspiration behind our “WISE” moniker
- How WISE became known as an early promoter of safety products that were ground-breaking for their time
- How one customer put our products to the test using gunfire!
Could you tell us about the inspiration for WISE Worksafe? What led you to choose this sector to start your first business?
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was the first major piece of legislation in Britain covering occupational health and safety. This prompted a significant increase in requirements for personal protective equipment and clothing, as the awareness and obligations of employers increased.
The first ever disposable foam earplug (imaginatively branded E.A.R.!) was developed by Cabot Safety in the USA. At the time, a friend of mine was working for a company called Amplivox, providing hearing protection equipment to the military. Amplivox, the sole UK importer of the new E.A.R. earplug, was looking for distributors, and this became one of my first products.
In February 1977, still in the early days of this new and fast-growing market, I founded Wembley Industrial Safety Equipment Co. The company name was inspired while looking at a box of PPE labelled “INDUSTRIAL SAFETY EQUIPMENT”. I realised that by preceding this with my hometown Wembley, the initials would aptly spell the acronym "WISE".
Where did you operate from when you began?
My first office was my garden shed at 2a Carlton Avenue East, Wembley, with stock held in my father’s summerhouse, a mile down the road at 42 Kingsway.
We were only a stone’s throw from Wembley Stadium; not the stadium as we know it now, but the original building built in 1923 with its iconic Twin Towers, host to England’s 1966 World Cup victory.
What were the first products WISE sold?
Personal protective equipment and safety clothing was still in its infancy, and many new and innovative products were being developed and brought to the market. There are so many items of PPE we now take for granted that hadn’t even been thought of until the late ‘70s.
We became a key distributor of the Racal Airstream Helmet, a product developed by Amplivox after they had been purchased by Racal Electronics. We purchased 100 units at a time – a substantial quantity even in those days!
Other examples of early products, some of which were the first of their kind, included:
- E.A.R. Disposable Earplugs (I remember when WISE received a plaque to commemorate the sale of our first 1 Million earplugs)
- The Martindale Half-Mask with its valved pneumatic seal, that created a snug seal onto the face
- 3M Disposable Respirators (prior to this invention, dust masks were little more than a gauze strip over the nose and mouth)
- Bollé Anti-Mist Goggles (customers were amazed by the new lens coating which didn’t fog!)
- Pulsafe eye and face protection
- Protector Safety Helmets
- Totectors Steel Toecap Safety Boots
- Brontoguard Leather Gloves
- Asbestos Mitts
How did you find customers in the early days?
As the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was still relatively new, people were eager to hear about products which could improve the safety of their workforce, and help them comply with the legislation.
I travelled around visiting customers with a suitcase of samples. People would readily welcome me in to discuss safety and demonstrate products; it wasn’t hard to sell! Many of our early customers were manufacturers, and I found it fascinating visiting factories and seeing how things were made.
Through proactively educating clients and presenting what was available, we soon had a collection of household names among our customers, such as:
- Food giants H. J. Heinz and McVities
- Media companies News Group and the BBC
- Kodak, whose local Harrow factory was the town’s largest employer
- Oil companies Phillips Petroleum and British Petroleum (BP)
- General Electric Company
- Johnson Matthey
- Boosey & Hawkes, music publisher and instrument manufacturer
- Wembley Stadium
- Gun makers James Purdey and Holland & Holland
I recall one memorable visit to Holland & Holland, demonstrating hearing and eye protection. One of the Holland & Holland staff tested a pair of safety spectacles with a gun; the lenses were dented by the bullets, but remained intact!
What are some of the key events in the history of our company?
Here are a few of the dates I recall. Some events seem insignificant now, but they all played a part in how the company grew to where it is today!
- Wembley Industrial Safety Equipment Co was founded from my garden shed, supplying personal protective equipment.
- Launched the slogan “Be Safe, Buy W.I.S.E.”
- Employed our first member of staff - Janet Rawlinson.
- Purchased our first van, a white Renault 4 with magnetic sign writing on the side.
- Began selling workwear, such as overalls and high visibility clothing.
- Trading name “WISE Workwear” was established under the Wembley Industrial Safety Equipment banner, focusing on industrial work clothing as this part of the business grew.
- Rented our first premises at 38 Napier Road, Wembley, which was a converted coach-house, and rented lockup garages opposite for additional storage.
First premises in Napier Road, Wembley, 1980
- My sister Sue joined; our second employee.
- This was shortly followed by the employment of our first salesman, Phil Remmington, an ex-civil servant who had worked extensively on the design of highways. He worked at WISE for 12 years, finally leaving in 1994.
- Purchased and moved to new premises at Unit 25A, Abbey Manufacturing Estate, Wembley.
- Bought Unit 28A on the same estate as a warehouse for bulk storage.
- Knocked down Unit 28A and rebuilt it, storing stock in a temporary warehouse across the road while it was being built.
- Launched a new slogan: “Buy W.I.S.E. Don’t Compromise”
- Started developing own-brand products.
- Moved to the current premises in 3 Parr Road, Stanmore, a few miles away from our Wembley roots.
- Launched a new trading name ‘WISE Worksafe’.
- Began selling workplace hygiene and janitorial products, such as washroom consumables, paper wiping products, cleaning chemicals, hand cleaners, and cleaning hardware.
- The company name was officially changed from Wembley Industrial Safety Equipment Co to WISE Worksafe.
- Launched a new trade counter, which operated as a shop and replaced the previous collection point.
- Under new ownership! WISE Worksafe was sold to the Mallinson family.
We hope you found this post enjoyable. If you haven’t yet experienced WISE Worksafe's unique ability to deliver well thought-out corporate clothing and PPE solutions, why not get in touch with us today?