With 2022 being a Platinum Jubilee year, we take a look at great British companies which have reigned supreme in their kingdoms during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (QEII).
Book and stationery retailer WHSmith was incorporated 230 years ago as a London news vendor. It is now a global retailer in high streets, malls, service stations, airports and train stations. Did you know in the 14th year of QEII’s reign WHSmith created the now universally adopted ISBN book identifier? WHSmith has diversified its business model over the years with acquisitions such as Funky Pigeon and Cult Pens. Another of Britain’s most loved companies is catalogue retailer Argos, launched in the 3rd decade of QEII’s reign. Based in Milton Keynes Argos has gone on to have several different owners, with the current being British supermarket J Sainsbury. Argos now owns household brands such as Cookworks, Alba, Bush, and Chad Valley. It’s said that British retailers change society. Kingfisher is one such company having been incorporated in the 30th year of QEII’s reign. Over four decades Kingfisher has been responsible for operating iconic high street brands. Their past and present portfolio includes Woolworths, B&Q, Comet, Superdrug, Screwfix, TradePoint and other local brands in mainland Europe. The Blackburn based EG Group is a company few will have heard of, but most have bought from. The name sits quietly behind the glitzy global branding of franchised petrol stations, convenience stores, and fast-food outlets. EG Group started off in the 49th year of QEII’s reign when two brothers bought a petrol station founding an empire that now turns over $26.5bn, and employs over 53,000 staff across ten countries.
The British Petroleum Company or as it is now called BP was incorporated under the reign of King Edward VII when a wealthy socialite investor born in Devon struck a deal to mine in Persia (modern-day Iran) following the discovery of oil by British geologists. In the second decade of QEII’s reign, BP was hauled through the tabloids and broadsheets for its safety record. Inherently risky to extract, the petroleum industry has never been safer. BP is now a truly global company with an eyewatering £157 billion turnover and £13 billion profit for year-end 2021. One of BP’s biggest competitors is Royal Dutch Shell also incorporated during the reign of King Edward VII, following a merger of Netherlands based Royal Dutch Petroleum and UK based Shell Transport & Trading. In 2022 Shell relocated their head office to London and dropped the Royal Dutch part of the name cementing the business as entirely British flagged.
Incorporated by a Londoner in New Zealand under the reign of Queen Victoria, what would eventually become the all-conquering GlaxoSmithKline started off as a subsidiary undertaking in the UK’s capital city. In the 3rd year of QEII’s reign, the company bought HW Carter, otherwise known as the creators of Ribena. Through mergers, takeovers and name changes, GSK has clung to its British roots. As of year-end 2021, GSK turned over £34.1 billion and employed over 90,000 people worldwide. In the 47th year of QEII’s reign, Swedish company Astra and ICI spin-off company Zeneca Group merged into what is now the Cambridge based AstraZeneca pharmaceutical behemoth. It may be a British company but the Swedish Astra history and influence going back to 1913 is hard to forget. As of year-end 2021, AstraZeneca turned over £37.4 billion and employed over 83,000 people worldwide.
Telecoms giant Vodafone was launched in the 33rd year of QEII’s reign at the advent of 1G communications. Through a series of strategic marketing, partnerships and acquisitions, the Berkshire based company now turns over circa. €38 billion and employs over 90,000 people worldwide. Another staple of the telecom industry is EE. The company started out British in the 41st year of QEII’s reign under the Mercury One2One brand. Six years later it became T-Mobile under German ownership before a merger with Orange and rebranding to EE. In 2016 it returned to British ownership following the sale to British Telecom.
Wanting to establish a bank for those with moderate financial means, Reverend Henry Duncan founded the world’s first Trustee Savings Bank in 1810 operating out of Dumfriesshire. Others quickly followed. From 1970 the network of community-based banks began to merge into what eventually became TSB. The bank gained a listing on the London Stock Exchange in the 34th year of QEII’s reign before a merger with Lloyds Bank. Rebranding in 2009 saw the TSB name disappear until a resurrection in 2013. Despite the current incarnation of TSB being headquartered in Edinburgh, the bank is now Spanish owned. The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, or HSBC as we now know it was started by a Scotsman in Hongkong. In the 40th year of QEII’s reign, HSBC bought and rebranded Birmingham based Midland Bank. A year later HSBC relocated its headquarters to London and embraced Britain as its home. The Aviva brand has only been around since the 48th year of QEII’s reign, but its parentage originates from Norwich Union incorporated in 1797 and Commercial Union with roots back to the late 1800s. With revenues exceeding £15 billion, Aviva has interests in the insurance, pensions and fund management sectors. Operating in the same financial arena is Legal & General dating back to the early 1800s. Originally set up as the New Law Life Assurance Society for the legal profession, Legal & General as we now know it became a household name in the second decade of QEII’s reign. Another great British financial institution is Prudential which was formed 78 years before the Queen’s birth and was first listed on the London stock exchange 26 years into her reign.
A Few from 1952
Household appliance manufacturer Russell Hobbs is as old as QEII’s reign. Incorporated in 1952 it also celebrates a platinum jubilee. Russell Hobbs has come a long way from the world’s first electronic coffee percolator and now produces almost every kind of domestic appliance you can think of. Despite being bought by American company Spectrum Brands in 2010, it is still very much British inspired and headquartered in Greater Manchester. Bowers Coaches traded from 1952 until being retired as a brand during QEII’s diamond jubilee year by the incumbent parent company. British sports car manufacturer Austin-Healey was also started in 1952. Although they only produced cars for 20 years, the classic design has a strong enthusiast following. The name is now owned by the Chinese state-controlled Nanjing Automobile. British derived television production company Fremantle is also celebrating a platinum jubilee, albeit currently residing under German ownership.
Red-white-blue and all the other colours too!
You don’t have to be British to be great or celebrate the 70th anniversary. 1952 wasn’t just about Britain’s new monarch. In that same year, America gave us GI Joe’s, Holiday Inn and Timberland. France gave us Givenchy, and Japan gave us All Nippon Airways. Regardless of what flag you wave, any individual, couple, business or association reaching their platinum jubilee is surely worth a moment to recognise. After all, greatness is determined by the people and aspired to by the Crown.