GWS Media’s 20th Anniversary Client Profile Feature
Nicholl Food Packaging was one of the most successful food packaging companies in Europe for almost 20 years, with factories in France, Germany and the UK. Specialising in aluminium foil containers, it had the advantage that its product was endlessly recyclable, and it provided a wide range of food packaging to supermarkets, food producers and the take-away / foodservice industry.
Nicholl pioneered innovations in aluminium food packaging design, and was well-known for its smoothwall containers - more rigid, smoother foil containers without wrinkled edges, and which are often used in premium or dessert food applications.
We worked with Nicholl through a period when it experienced extraordinary growth from £15m to £65m annual turnover and became dominant in the European foil container marketplace. During these years, it took over Ekco Packaging and its French and Belgian subsidiary Ecopla, and then later Bachmann in Germany. This growth culminated in a private equity / management buyout that valued the company at £75 million.
The international expansion was not without its challenges, such as an episode of industrial unrest in the French factory - at one point, the original owner and co-founder Wilson Nicholl himself found the workers on strike when he came to visit, and, mindful of their concerns, declined to cross the picket line.
The challenges and inefficiencies of managing manufacturing in multiple countries were ultimately resolved by moving to dedicated premises in Cannock, Staffordshire from the original location near Birmingham, and the closure of the satellite factories. The new premises were huge, and the sheer noise of the aluminium presses crushing containers out of sheet foil made the wearing of earplugs necessary for visitors offered a tour! The heat generated in the recycling area, where offcuts were crushed together, was something a visitor would never forget.
Back in 2000, soon after GWS was founded, our financial director Richard Graves met Wilson Nicholl in Shrewsbury, where we were originally based, and got talking about his plans for a new website. This led to an appointment with the Commercial Director Andrew Dent in Walsall, and an initial contract that Autumn to create a holding page
Andrew had a vision for the website that we were able to put into practice thanks to our appetite for innovation and new technologies, and the talents of an experienced animator who had once worked for Disney. We were a young business, and much of our early progress we owe to Andrew, who gave us the opportunity to work for Nicholl following that initial introduction from Wilson Nicholl.
This first contract was the forerunner of over thirty contracts to follow, including the initial development of the website with a hundred pages, developing a multilingual version of it in 2003, and the addition of separate sites for Ecopla and Bachmann. One of the most eye-catching features of the original site which Andrew requested was a flash animation showing foil containers flying out from the earth, which became a viral hit on the internet after it was mentioned in a ‘Best of the Web’ newsletter. Nicholl had around 140,000 visitors to their site in a single month after this was listed, and it continued to drive traffic for years afterwards.
High visibility in search engines was one of the key marketing benefits we provided to Nicholl, and it was the major driver of new enquiries through the website. We delivered quarterly reports showing how the site was performing in search, and analysing patterns of usage and user journeys, as well as making suggestions for improvements, using cutting-edge analytical tools in the days when the analysis of raw server logs was still par for the course, long before Google Analytics became standard.
Unlike many website reports, the ones we created were tailored carefully to the needs of Nicholl, and positions were checked by hand. Andrew found these so useful he used to take them into board meetings to give the directors a progress report. It is interesting to look back on these reports, and be reminded of just how many search engines with significant slices of market share there used to be, before the virtual duopoly of Google and Bing came to predominate.
The multilingual areas we added achieved high visibility for native searches in both Google’s French and German pages, and the site held top positions on Google UK for a range of important key-phrases (including ‘food packaging’), which helped with acquiring new clients.
After the private equity buyout, some staff who did not take shares in the buyout left to set up a competing operation, which was able to undercut Nicholl’s prices, forcing them down and leading to a reduction in profitability and tighter operating margins. The private equity investment was subsequently written off, and a turnaround specialist was brought in to give the company a new lease of life. In connection with this, a rebranding exercise was undertaken, and Nicholl traded as Advantapack from 2013.
There was exciting work done over this time, including a new print catalogue and efforts made to crack the Chinese market. We continued to support and maintain the website until the group’s acquisition in 2019 by a competitor (also a client) based in South Wales, called Coppice Alupack.
We miss the day trips up to Cannock for meetings with our oldest client, but we are delighted that many of the people we worked with at Nicholl (including Andrew and Paul Ogiliev) have gone on to hold key positions within the food packaging industry, and we wish the new owners every success for the future.