I trained as a programmer after I left school. I’d tried my hand at furniture making and boat building (amongst other things) but by the early Eighties I’d gone back into programming and I was working for a far sighted guy, Brian Linton, trying to sell his software.
Brian had done well selling sandwich packs - folded pieces of card with film that wrapped around them - and these were being used by some large UK companies including British Rail. The software was a new side to his business and had been written for him in the States. The idea was to put Escoffier (recipe and menu costing software for the foodservice industry) onto an IBM PC. The software needed extensive rewriting, which we did, and while we ended up with a working product, it was too expensive to sell in any numbers (a computer and a printer in the early 1980s cost over £2,000) and the project eventually failed.
While trying to sell the software I did sales calls with Phillip who was selling Brian’s packaging through ACS distribution. Phillip had got a bit fed up with his job and was thinking about doing something else. Another division of ACS was selling office coffee by loaning the machine on condition that the coffee was bought from them. We thought this was a possible business model and could be adapted for labelling so that you give caterers the software - the expensive part - and just charged them for the labels they use, making the whole system much more affordable.
So in 1984 we set up our own company - Computer Catering Systems - from our respective homes, with Phillip and his wife Cathy running half of the business in Crawley while I was running the other half in St. Albans. Brian kindly gave us part of his stand at Hotelympia and we launched from there. The most significant slice of good fortune happened a month prior to the show too when Amstrad brought out a £250 word processor with printer. This reduced the start-up cost significantly from the previous £1,500 and was only £100 more than a labelling gun which has very restricted text options.
Computer Catering Systems at Hotelympia, 1984
We soon realised we needed to lose the ‘Computer’ part of the name as it was putting people off. It sounds odd now but at the time a lot of people were genuinely terrified of computers - frightened to even touch the keyboard in case they accidentally deleted everything or blew the thing up. So in 1986 we rebranded and registered the business as Planglow as we thought it was memorable and stood out – and it didn't mention computers!
We set up an office and a warehouse in a converted milking shed in Albury in Surrey which was in the middle of the countryside. One day a guy from an adjoining office came to Phillip because there was a strange sound coming from his computer and he wanted Phillip’s advice. Phillip took a look at the PC and noticed that an adder was curled up at the back of the machine. Not wanting to alarm his staff we kept quiet for the rest of the day. When everyone was gone Phillip managed to coax the adder round the end of this long pole we had for opening the windows and very swiftly reintroduced it to the countryside!
I moved to Bristol in 1987 with Beth Darby and, as the city is so well connected to the rest of the country, Phillip focused on the East while I covered the rest. Beth began working for the business too - initially helping out with some admin, her role grew and grew. Beth remains with the company today as a director. Back then we were still running the Bristol office out of our home while Phillip was overseeing the warehouse and offices at the milking shed. By the early Nineties we needed to take on someone to deal with all the technical enquiries. We had grown so much that we were not able to manage the calls and still visit customers so we took on Bob then Rich a few years later. Both Rich and Bob are still with us today - Bob is our systems engineer and Rich manages the entire technical support team.
In 2000 Phillip and Cathy retired and emigrated to New Zealand. While Beth and I moved the office out of our home into premises in central Bristol just over the road from The Quorum - Planglow's HQ since 2005. Meanwhile the warehouse went to Kidderminster next to one of our main suppliers at that time. We continued to expand and many of the staff we employed then are still working with us more than a decade later, in fact more than half of our staff have been with us for ten years or more. We also took on regional account managers to provide local support for our customers all across the UK.
Around this time some of our customers started asking us about plastic-free packaging. The labelling side of the business was going really well and we were in a strong position to introduce packaging as it was an add on product for our existing customers as opposed to a whole new market. So in 2005 we launched a card wedge and cup. The packaging had a better reception than we could ever had imagined, so we expanded into other products and entire branded ranges, introducing a fully laminated compostable material to our products in 2008 with our factory in Scandinavia.
We found that the Far East offered some of the best manufacturing of laminated products so in 2009 we employed procurement manager Nancy to oversee our additional operations in China and Taiwan. The next major growth was into America. We were already doing some business there and in 2012 established Planglow USA - a new division dedicated to serving the rapidly growing markets across North, Central and South America, Planglow USA is doing immensely well and is doubling sales year on year.
I think much of our success can be attributed to our ability to identify and serve new markets helping the business to grow. What’s more, because we value our customers they (like our staff) tend to stick with us and we’ve watched their businesses grow alongside ours. For all these reasons I anticipate that Planglow will still be going strong in another thirty years and it’ll be interesting to see where the business - as well as the wider industry - goes in this time.