Founded by Tom Wilcox in 1962, Kerax Ltd has been producing wax blends and lubricants for over sixty years. In that time, it has been associated with a number of renowned businesses in lubricants, waxes and fuels, including Duckhams, Burmah Castrol and BP.
Prior to starting up the Kerax company, Tom Willcox worked as a northern sales representative for the Campbell Company, selling wax from their Southport office. When problems arose with the wax blends he was selling, Tom would experiment in the small laboratory at his office to try and find solutions of his own. However, when the Dussek Bros. bought the Campbell Co. in 1960, they put a stop to this independent experimentation and Tom found himself selling new types waxes that he was not familiar with. Dissatisfied with the new working environment, Tom made the brave decision to set out on his own. Having recruited a Dussek foreman who was unwilling to move south, Tom sold almost everything he owned in order to set up business in a disused air raid shelter, located within ten miles of the current site at Chorley. On 1st May 1962, Kerax Ltd. began trading.
The company’s name is derived from the Latin word for wax-‘cera’, pronounced with a hard ‘c’. Despite being so fittingly named, however, Kerax initially struggled. The new company had been promised business from the wax coated paper industry, upon which Tom had been relying to get started, but it was abruptly withdrawn and Kerax found itself a company without customers. It was a shrewd observation of Tom’s that saved the day; at the time, local Lancashire cheeses were all coated in imported Danish wax. Recognizing an opportunity, Kerax developed their own blend of cheese wax, Tom loaded it into the company’s small van, and began selling it from dairy to dairy.
Soon after, the firm Arthur Brown offered to buy a 51% share in the business in order to accelerate growth. Having accepted the offer, Arthur Brown invested in the business by renting the shed next to the air raid shelter as a way of expanding production and storage. In spite of this, the company lost money for the first six years and Arthur Brown began to lose patience with Kerax. Eventually they insisted that Tom put in some more of his own money, something that was impossible at the time. However, Arthur Brown were themselves bought by an American company with its own manufacturing plant and no interest in British based Kerax. This provided the opportunity Tom needed and he promptly bought back the rest of the business.
Over the following months and years, more profit was re-invested into the business and Kerax began to grow. A new tanker was bought that was the pride of the company. In 1974, Kerax had expanded sufficiently to move to a new location in Chorley, Lancashire which remains the site used by Kerax to this day. Where there had once been a terrace of Victorian houses, Kerax built an office block and Phase One of the warehouse buildings where the wax was blended and stored. However, the year after the move, disaster struck when a fire broke out in the new buildings in the middle of the firemen’s strike. Fortunately nobody was hurt, though the fire did cause considerable damage. Finding themselves in need of some assistance, Kerax asked some of their competitors in the industry if they would help them get back on their feet, to which they agreed, a display of industrial compassion and solidarity which is difficult to imagine happening today. With the help of some of their competitors, including Astor, Kerax managed to recover from the fire in a matter of months-although this did allow the helpful competitors to get a good look at Kerax’s wax-blending processes!
In 1979, a 49% stake in Kerax was bought by the successful lubricants company Duckhams. Founded in 1899 by Alexander Duckham, the company had produced a number of revolutionary oils including New Process Oils in 1922, which promised control of carbon deposits. Europe’s first multigrade oil ‘Q’ in 1951 and their famous Q20-50 in 1956, which would drive them forward into involvement with Formula One racing. Although Duckhams had been acquired by BP in 1969, BP had announced their intention not to constrain the brand and so Duckhams remained largely autonomous. In the 1970s Duckhams made the decision to expand into wax blending and approached Kerax due to their commitment to development work, leading to increased understanding of the role waxes played in their applications and the advancement of finished products. Having bought a large stake in the company, Duckhams closed their own wax plant and moved their operation to the Chorley site. Kerax then operated as part of Duckhams, which led to an exchange of knowledge and investment in the Chorley site and it was during this time, in 1982, when Duckhams introduced their iconic ‘Hypergrade’ brand. In 1983 BP took over responsibility for Duckhams’ production and the decision was made separate the operations of the two businesses.
In 1984, expanding sales of wax from the Chorley site led to an increased need for production, and as a result building work moved into Phase Three and Four with the construction of new warehouses containing a brand new laboratory. Kerax forged ahead once more as an independent business unit, sponsoring a race at Haydock in 1987 to commemorate their 25th anniversary and moving into Phase Six of construction when another new warehouse was built in 1990.
After a thirty-year career owning and managing Kerax, Tom Willcox made the decision to retire in 1993 and sold the company to Dussek Campbell, but only after securing the jobs of the Kerax employees who wished to stay on.
The Dussek Bros. company was founded in 1850 and the Campbell company, which would later become Claud Campbell Ltd., in 1870. In 1960 the Dussek Bros. acquired Claud Campbell Ltd. before being bought soon after in 1962 by the Burmah Oil Company, one of the oldest major British companies. Then in 1966, the Burmah Oil Company also acquired Castrol and became Burmah Castrol, while 1979 saw Dussek Bros. and the Claud Campbell Co. amalgamated into Dussek Campbell. Dussek Campbell’s wax blending was based at Bury, but in 1994 the company carried out an evaluation and judged Chorley to be the better site. The Bury site was closed and 20% of their employees relocated and brought their knowledge and expertise over to Chorley.
Dussek Campbell invested significantly in the site, but in 2000 Burmah Castrol was bought by BP. As a result, Dussek Campbell (Chorley) was amalgamated with a number of other companies within the multi-national into BP Global Special Products (GSP), which marketed base oils, process oils and waxes. BP GSP was also the primary user of finished wax products produced by the BP/Mobil joint venture, which was discontinued in 2000. For a couple of years the site functioned as part of BP GSP, but in 2003 BP undertook a strategy review and, not considering it part of the core business, decided to divest BP GSP to Hansen & Rosenthal (Wasag). The Chorley site was included in a group sale to H&R and from then operated under the name H&R European Special Products (ESP) Ltd.
Following the acquisition of the Kerax business, H&R then undertook their own review of the ESP companies, which resulted in a number being put up for divestment or closure. Among them was the Chorley site, as H&R had decided that it did not form part of their future production plans. Ian Appleton was at that time an employee of BP on secondment to H&R, responsible for Europe and US businesses. Ian was chosen to lead negotiations with Paramelt who expressed an interest in buying the Chorley wax manufacturing business in 2005. The Chorley site was consequently sold to Paramelt, but due to having existing production capacity in Europe, Paramelt decided to shut the Chorley site down. It was at this point that Ian spotted an opportunity to build his own business.
The Chorley wax manufacturing and blending facility was acquired by Ian as a management buy-out in 2006. As the original company name of Kerax had not been taken up by another organization, Ian decided to return the Chorley business to its original name and set about rebuilding it. A non-compete clause which formed part of his deal with Paramelt meant that it was necessary to find alternative ways for the company to operate in new product areas. The requirement to develop brand new products was a challenge to the new business, but one which ultimately led to a much wider product portfolio.
In 2008 Ian went into negotiations with Claymore Lubricants, an oil blending company that was struggling in the climate of austerity and the growing banking crisis. Having suffered a serious fire in 2003, Claymore had lost a lot of customers during the interruption of the rebuilding process and in 2005 they had a new facility, but few customers. In 2009 they went into receivership and Ian bought the assets, deciding to make a return to his previous career in selling lubricants. In February of that year Claymore was re-branded as Euro-Oils and began trading separately from Kerax, supplying distributors with own labels brands. By 2011 the new Euro-Oils had shown sufficient potential to justify major capital investment in the laboratory and filling lines, as well as increased storage space. The following year saw a ‘small pack’ strategy introduced, as well as heavy involvement in export to the Middle East, and by the year after that Euro-Oils had doubled its workforce and was producing over a hundred brands for sale through a variety of distribution channels.
For the wax side of the business, 2011 saw the expiry of the non-competitive clause with Paramelt. The expansion in available business opportunities meant that it was necessary for Kerax to regain knowledge of market segments and product requirements as expectations had changed during the intervening five years. Intensive effort in sales and research and development resulted in rapid expansion into historic areas such as food packaging requiring the reformulation of a large swath of products for the expanded portfolio. The company also took the opportunity to grow into new markets such as health and personal care. Recognizing the benefits of supply chain sustainability and the increasing levels of environmental sensitivity amongst industrial customers and consumers wanting more eco-friendly products, Kerax decided to build on the experience of petroleum industry based materials to include more vegetable derived waxes in new and existing formulations. This led to considerable investment in research and development into using the natural waxes instead of paraffin wax.
Kerax as a whole has continued to grow, increasing from a £4-4.5 million GBP turnover and 20 employees in 2004 to a £40 million GBP turnover and 80 employees.