Wilkinson Sword Ltd., formerly known as Schick-Wilkinson Sword in the United States, is the world's second-largest maker of razor blades and shaving accessories and other personal care products, a market that has dominated the brand's focus since the company's invention of the stainless steel blade in the 1950s. However, the company is one of the world's most distinguished names in sword-making history, and that operation continues to manufacture ceremonial and commemorative swords in its United Kingdom workshop. Wilkinson Sword was also long associated with high-quality gardening shears and scissors, which are manufactured under license by Finland's Fiskars. The Wilkinson Sword brand has undergone a number of ownership changes, including its purchase by battery maker Energizer Holdings in 2003. With new owner, Wilkinson Sword has prepared a new thrust at its arch rival, Gillette, which also owns rival battery maker Duracell. In May 2003, Wilkinson Sword debuted its newest razor innovation, the four-bladed Quattro.
From Guns to Swords in the 19th Century
Wilkinson Sword's origins lay in the late 18th century, when Henry Nock founded a gun manufacturing company in London, in 1772. Having learned the gun maker's trade in Birmingham, Nock quickly established himself as a noted innovator of the day. Among Nock's achievements were the "screwless" lock, and a number of so-called volley weapons capable of firing several rounds at the same time. One of these featured a seven-barrel charge and won Nock an order for 600 rifles from the British navy.
Nock was joined by his son-in-law, James Wilkinson, in the 1890s and by the turn of the century the company had begun producing its own rifle bayonets as well. Nock, in the meantime, worked closely with the British military to develop new gun and rifle designs. A turning point in the company's fortunes came before the end of the century, when Nock was commissioned to produce an order of 10,000 flintlocks for the British army. The order, at the time the largest ever placed by the British government, allowed Nock to adopt the slogan as "the Supreme Gun Maker of the Age."
In 1804, Nock's company received a new honor when it was appointed as the official gum maker to King George III. Although Nock himself died that year, James Wilkinson took over the business and the royal appointment. Over the next decades, the company remained a chief supplier to the British military, as well as the exclusive gun maker for Great Britain's noble classes.
James Wilkinson passed along the company to his son, Henry Wilkinson, in 1824. The younger Wilkinson appeared to have inherited his grandfather's spirit of innovation, as well as a strong business sense. One of Henry Wilkinson's most important moves was to relocate the business to Pall Mall--next door to its major customer, the Board of Ordnance. Wilkinson also continued Nock's policy of working closely with that board's Master General to develop new weapons designs.
Yet Henry Wilkinson also turned his inventive interest to sword-making. Because swords of the period had become prone to breaking, Wilkinson began investigating methods not only for strengthening the blades but also for making them more resilient. By the 1840s, Wilkinson had succeeded in improving the company's sword and bayonet designs.
Aiming for the assurance of high quality, Wilkinson then invented a testing machine, called the Eprouvette, in 1844. Using this machine, Wilkinson, by then joined by general manager and son-in-law John Latham, was able to test each of the company's swords against conditions surpassing even those found on the field of battle. Blades that passed the Eprouvette were then marked, certified, and numbered.
Wilkinson's commitment to quality was recognized when the company was named the official Sword and Gun Maker to Queen Victoria. The company began picking up a number of other illustrious customers, including the Prince of Wales, the King of Naples, and other members of the British and European noble classes.
Sword-making was to provide the company's lifeline after the middle of the century, when, in 1857, the British government took over the entirety of its firearm production needs. The following year, after Wilkinson retired, Latham--who was not only a sword maker, but also a fencing enthusiast--led the company to focus exclusively on sword-making.
Growth and Diversification in the 20th Century
Wilkinson's production remained relatively modest until the 1880s. The high bending and breakage rates of the British Army's bayonets during fighting in the Sudan in 1885 were blamed for a large number of deaths there, leading to public outcry. In order to replace the blades, the Ordnance Board turned toward Wilkinson, contracting for an order of 150,000 bayonets. The order encouraged the company to expand its production facilities, and by 1899, Wilkinson had opened a second production plant, in Chelsea.
By then, Latham had added a new partner, introducing the Randolph family as a major force in the company's future growth. In 1889, the company formally incorporated, becoming Wilkinson Sword. Soon after, the company began diversifying its business. In 1890, Wilkinson Sword started to produce cut-throat, or straight-edge, razors. The company also began to develop other cutting edges, and particularly, one of the first safety razor designs. By 1896, the company had hit upon a new design featuring a hollow, rounded singe-edged blade. That razor became known as the Pall Mall, launched in 1898. Its success enabled the company to expand its production again, with the opening of a plant in Acton.
While cutting edges seemed a natural outgrowth of the company's long experience in sword-making, Wilkinson Sword's diversified interests ranged widely in the decades leading to World War II. In the early years of the 20th century, Wilkinson Sword added a number of new products, including bicycles, typewriters, motorcycles, and automobiles. By the 1930s, the company had parlayed this production expertise into a new product category, that of fire and safety systems for aircraft, under a licensing agreement made in 1934 with Graviner Manufacturing Company. In support of that activity, the company built a new manufacturing plant in Coinbrook in 1939.
Cutting edges remained a company staple, however. During World War I, the company's production became vital to the British war effort, with a contract for two million bayonets. Following the war, the company turned its production of cutting edges to a new area, that of pruning sheers and gardening equipment. Wilkinson Sword soon grew into the United Kingdom's leading manufacturer in this market.
Meanwhile, sword production had become a fading sector. By the outbreak of World War II, the bayonet had become more and more outmoded, and Wilkinson Sword's orders for that conflict amounted to just 10,000 bayonets. Steel shortages throughout the conflict also limited the company's razor blade production. Yet Wilkinson Sword remained a highly respected name in sword-making. The company crafted, among others, the sword presented to Josef Stalin by Winston Churchill after Russia's defeat of the German army at Stalingrad in 1943.
Postwar Stainless Steel Pioneer
Carbon steel shortages continued to slow Wilkinson Sword's production in the years immediately following World War II. In the 1950s, however, the company began developing a new generation of shaving blades using stainless steel. For this effort, the company formed a joint-venture with Germany's Osberghaus KG, based in Solingen. By 1955, the partners had begun full-scale manufacturing of the world's first stainless steel blade, which was launched onto the consumer market the following year.
Wilkinson Sword, which until then had largely limited itself to the United Kingdom, now began to attract attention from the international market as well. This trend picked up strongly in the early 1960s, with the launch of a new and revolutionary Wilkinson Sword blade in 1961. This blade featured a thin Teflon coating that vastly improved its comfort and safety, and thrust Wilkinson into the top ranks of the world's shaving accessories makers.
By the middle of the 1960s, Wilkinson Sword blades were being sold in more than 50 countries, and exports had risen to a more than 40 percent share of the company's sales. Razor blades had by then come to represent the largest share of the group's revenues, and Wilkinson Sword now began the process of redefining itself as a personal care accessories manufacturer.
In order to meet the rising demand for its blades, Wilkinson Sword acquired a factory outside of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The company, which had remained under the control of the Latham and Randolph families, also prepared a public offering, made in June 1964. By the following year, the company's exports had already swelled to some 60 percent of its annual sales, supported by subsidiaries in Germany, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. By then, shaving products alone represented 75 percent of the company's revenues. This growth also enabled Wilkinson Sword to merge its aircraft fire and safety systems division, which had continued to produce under the Graviner name, with Graviner Manufacturing in July 1964.
Despite being the first in the coated blade category, Wilkinson was soon overtaken by its far-larger U.S. competitors, which then included Schick, Persona, and Gillette. The company found itself dwarfed in the race for market leadership; indeed, Gillette's advertising budget alone was larger than Wilkinson Sword's total revenues.
New Owners in the 1970s and 1980s
Wilkinson Sword attempted to fight back in two different directions. On the one hand, the company continued its research and development effort, which resulted in the launch of the first bonded blades--razor blades encased in a plastic housing--in 1970. This development briefly gave Wilkinson a new boost in the international shaving market. Yet once again the company was caught by its rivals, which released similar products.
On the other hand, the company attempted to diversify. At the beginning of 1973, Wilkinson Sword took over the U.S. manufacturer Scripto, which had been a leading name in disposable pens. Wilkinson Sword began planning to release its own line of disposable lighters, under the Scripto brand name.
By the end of that year, however, Wilkinson Sword had instead found new owners itself. In May 1973, following several months of negotiations, Wilkinson Sword announced that it had agreed to be purchased by British Match for £19.4 million. That company traced its origins back to 1843 and the founding of Bryant & May, which had begun importing matches in the 1850s. Bryant & May formed a partnership with Masters, owned by Swedish Match, in 1927, forming British Match Corporation. Then, in 1953, British Match acquired Bryant & May, as well as Swedish Match's U.K. holdings, a move which gave the Swedish concern a 33 percent stake in British Match. Following the Wilkinson Sword acquisition, the enlarged company renamed itself as Wilkinson Match.
Wilkinson Match proved no match for its U.S. competitors, however, and by the middle of the 1970s, the company had decided to pull out of the U.S. market and focus instead on its stronger position in the European market. Wilkinson Sword as a brand began to dwindle, and its market share, once nearly 8 percent in the United States, slipped to below 1 percent by the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the company caught the eye of Pittsburgh-based Allegheny International, which had begun a diversification drive in the late 1970s. In 1978, Allegheny bought up Wilkinson Match, breaking it up into its component businesses, including the Scripto and Wilkinson Sword units.
Under Allegheny, however, Wilkinson initially fared little better. By 1980, the company had been stripped of its own sales force, and marketing was placed under Scripto instead. Lacking marketing support, Wilkinson Sword's market share continued to slip into the mid-1980s. By 1984, the company appeared to have hit rock bottom, after Scripto was sold off to Japan's Tokai. That move left Wilkinson Sword with no sales and marketing support at all.
A new era for the company began in 1986, however, when Allegheny sold Wilkinson Sword to Swedish Match. Two years later, that company was itself acquired by Stora Kopparberg, also based in Sweden, which, in 1989, sold off the Swedish Match consumer products division, including Wilkinson Sword, to the Netherlands-based consortium, Eemland Holdings. One of Eemland's main partners was Gillette, which had taken a 22 percent stake in Eemland in what was seen as an attempt to gain control--and bury--Wilkinson Sword.
Yet Wilkinson Sword's future was rescued in 1992 when a mergers and monopolies commission ordered Gillette to dispose of its stake in Eemland. The following year, Eemland sold Wilkinson Sword to Warner-Lambert, which had owned the Schick razor brand since the 1970s.
Ownership Changes for the New Century
Throughout its ownership upheavals, Wilkinson Sword had continued to develop new products, including its successful Ultra Glide line of shavers in the late 1980s. The company also launched a line of disposable lighters under the Cricket brand name, although that operation was sold off in 1990.
In the 1990s, Wilkinson Sword--which by then had shed its gardening tools business to Fiskars--began to focus its growth efforts on the personal care market, developing new razor lines, as well as other products, including manicure and pedicure sets. The company also continued to develop new razor technologies, resulting in 1999 with a new diamond coated blade, the FX Diamond. Under Warner-Lambert, Wilkinson Sword was combined with Schick, forming Schick-Wilkinson Sword.
In this arrangement, the company's products were marketed under the Schick name in North America and elsewhere, including Japan, where Schick maintained a strong market presence, while Wilkinson Sword became the group's brand name for its core European market. The new entity claimed the world's number two spot in the razor market, with an 18 percent share of the global market and sales of more than $620 million by 2001.
Wilkinson Sword's ownership changes had not ended. In 2000, Pfizer acquired Warner-Lambert in a hostile takeover. Although Pfizer continued to invest in Schick-Wilkinson Sword, its interests clearly lay elsewhere, and in June 2002, the company announced its interest in finding buyers for the division. In the meantime, Wilkinson Sword maintained its tradition as one of the world's pre-eminent sword makers, crafting the ceremonial sword for the Queen Mother's Jubilee celebration that year.
The search for new owners reached an end in March 2003, when Energizer Holdings, makers of the Eveready and Energizer brands, agreed to pay $930 million for Schick-Wilkinson Sword. For Energizer, formed in 2000 from a spinoff from Rahlston Purina, the moved marked its first diversification effort. For Wilkinson Sword, the new ownership promised a new era as one of the world's leading shaving and personal care products manufacturers. Still, Wilkinson Sword remained true to its heritage as a cutting-edge innovator. In May 2003, the company launched its latest development, the four-bladed Quatro safety razor system.
Principal Competitors: Gillette Company; Wella AG; BIC SA; Fiskars Oy; WKI Holding Company Inc.