Jewson, one of the UK’s biggest and oldest established builders’ merchant chains, has changed hands for only the fifth time in its 186-year history.
The business, founded in Huntingdonshire by George Jewson in 1836, is being bought by Copenhagen-based Stark Group, which employs around 12,500 employees in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway.
The Stark Group has doubled in size during the last few years and claims to be one of Europe’s fastest-growing retailers and distributors of building materials.
Jewson is being sold for £740m by its owner since 2000, the French building materials giant Saint Gobain, as the latter offloads its UK building distribution arm. Included in the sale are JP Corry, a Northern Ireland-based business and Gibbs & Dandy, another builders’ merchant business almost as old as Jewson itself and which was once listed on the UK stock market.
Interestingly, Stark itself also has British origins.
It was once the Nordic arm of Ferguson, previously known as Wolseley, a storied old business whose activities spanned from agricultural equipment to heating oil and which very briefly owned the British carmaker of the same name.
Ferguson offloaded its Nordic business, which traded under the Stark Group name, in 2018 for £885m to funds controlled by the US private equity firm Lone Star.
The business was bulked up via acquisitions, including Saint-Gobain’s German business, before being sold to another private equity firm, CVC, in early 2021. No figure for the deal – one of just a few to go through at a time when the much of the world was still subject to COVID-19 lockdowns – was ever made public but a price tag of around $3bn (£2.4bn) was speculated at the time.
Since then, Stark has done further acquisitions, including another in Germany.
Stark’s chief executive, Søren Olesen, said today: “We have a strategy that successfully focuses on professional craftsmen and the renovation and maintenance market, which this acquisition fits very well into.
“In 2019, we bought Saint-Gobain’s German distribution business, and there are many similarities in this acquisition. We will do our utmost to develop, grow and invest behind the company making it the professional craftsmen’s preferred choice in the UK. We have acquired a business with whom we can continue our growth journey.
“Despite the current tough macro-economic environment, the fundamental drivers for the renovation and maintenance market in the UK with its large need for energy renovation in the coming decades are attractive.”
So Jewson, Gibbs & Dandy and JP Corry, which together employ more than 8,900 people and which trade from 600 outlets, now find themselves as part of a business more focussed on retail and distribution than they did as part of a company whose main activity was manufacturing building materials.
This may come as a comfort to employees. Sky’s city editor Mark Kleinman reported in September this year that Saint-Gobain had hired bankers from JP Morgan to explore a sale and, subsequently, there was speculation that a number of outlets might have to close should no buyer be identified.
It is all a far cry from Jewson’s East Anglian origins and its existence, for more than a century, as a family company.
The business was bought in 1968 by Horsley-Smith, a timber importer originally founded in Hull, which itself was acquired two years later by East London-based Gliksten & Son.
That deal created the UK’s biggest importer of timber, distributor of wood and manufacturer of wooden products and so, understandably, Gliksten promptly decided to rename itself International Timber.
The business was then bought in 1984 by Meyer International, under whose ownership it grew rapidly, again via acquisitions.
It was during this period that Jewson became a household name.
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Meyer invested heavily in the brand and its humorous TV adverts, which carried the tagline “We’ve Got The Jewson Lot”, remain fondly remembered by viewers of a certain age.
They starred the actor Peter Martin, who later found fame as Joe Carroll, Jim and Barbara Royle’s taciturn neighbour in the BBC sitcom The Royle Family.
For most of that period, members of the founding family remained involved with the business, with the Jewson name surviving the various mergers.
The high water mark came when, in September 1991, Sir Richard Jewson – a descendent of the founder – stepped up from being managing director of Meyer to its chairman and chief executive.
Sir Richard, whose father and grandfather were both Lord Mayors of Norwich, recalled to the Eastern Daily Press in 2019: “We decided we were going to be the go-to place for the jobbing builder. A lot of small businesses were selling up, businesses consolidated, and the winner was Jewson.
“We went from eight branches to 1,000 branches. We became part of an international group, keeping the Jewson name and by the end of my involvement I was running Meyer International, with 12,000 people and branches in Europe, Australia and America.”
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Just two years later, though, he was on his way, after 28 years with the business, when Meyer decided to split the roles of chairman and chief executive in line with what was, at the time, fast becoming good corporate governance.
He later succeeded Sir Timothy Colman, another scion of an old East Anglian business dynasty, as Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk – the Queen’s official representative in the county – and was eventually knighted.
In August 1999, Meyer bought Glasgow-based rival Graham Group for £280m, but less than a year later the enlarged business agreed to a £1bn takeover by Saint Gobain.
More deals followed, including the acquisition of the quaintly-named Cakebread Robey in 2001, but it is fair to say it has had a lower profile since then. It lost its leadership of the UK builder’s merchants market to rival Travis Perkins – a business in which Meyer had once been a shareholder – as long ago as 2003.
So it will be interesting to see how the business fares under Stark’s ownership. Who knows, even the “We’ve Got the Jewson Lot” tagline might be brought back.
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