Quake-buster gel seals sales success for Diss-based Preservation Equipment Ltd

The accidental smashing of the priceless Chinese vase at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge six years ago illustrates the need for the type of products that have earned the Diss company Preservation Equipment a worldwide reputation.

A specialist porcelain restorer glued together the 113 pieces so that the vase looked perfect to the untrained eye – but it might well not have been necessary if the museum had been using the putty gel nicknamed 'quake hold' now being marketed by Preservation Equipment Ltd (PEL).

The gel is today one of 9,000 products that the family business sells for conserving and preserving archives and works of art. And, with the frequency of earthquakes in different parts of the world, it seems there is increasing interest in – and need for – these materials.

'You might call them disaster preparedness products,' said managing director Cliff Gothorp, who founded the business 26 years ago with his wife Marilyn in a spare room at their home in Shelfanger.

When he launched their first product, a polyester sealing machine, he would have had little idea of the scope of the market that he was tapping into. Until then, he had been in a sales role with Heatrae Sadia in Norwich for a number of years.

It was the connection with the US company University Products that enabled the business to greatly broaden its product range and expand its sales territory to much of the world.

Each month, PEL imports a 40-foot container from its US associate, keeping the cost of replenishing stocks to a minimum.

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From Shelfanger, the company moved to rented farm buildings and then, in 2000, to the present purpose-built warehouse and distribution centre on the Vinces Road industrial estate at Diss, since extended to provide 12,000sq ft of space.

The thousands of products – from coarse eraser for removing ink marks from books to high-strength, foam protected corrugated containers for shipping framed paintings – are displayed in a 210-page mail order catalogue and on the company's website.

There are plans to redevelop their second website, called 'arcare', introducing smaller quantities of acid-free archival materials to the public as well as serious collector.

In some years, up to 40pc of sales have been to overseas buyers. 'It helps that English is such a global business language and so, too, is the association with the British Empire and all that entailed in terms of history,' said Mr Gothorp.

They used government support for stands at international exhibitions and for trade missions to help build their contacts and reputation – and urge other businesses to take up this help.

The family put the company's continued success down to its reputation for an extensive and unique product range, stock availability and customer service.

Typical of many family businesses, profits have been kept in the business to fuel growth and avoid the need for bank finance.

The retained reserves have been used to invest in increased stockholding, enabling the company to keep pushing prices down and improve the speed of supply to customers – setting it aside from its competitors.

Four years ago they were joined in the business by their son Sam, now 31, who gained a degree in computer science at Edinburgh University, then spent several years abroad before working in events management in the UK.

He had gained some experience of the business through working there during student holidays, and joined in a very 'hands on' role helping in all aspects as required. Today he is project manager, with his computer skills a big asset in developing the online activities.

His father now spends around three and a half days a week in the business, continually searching out products to add to their range. Daughter Sally also has a part-time role in the business now that she has a young family.

Total workforce is 14, with Cliff commenting: 'We have a super team with all our staff with us for a long time.'

Looking to the future, as part of the succession planning process, PEL has developed a family charter. 'This prompts us to think more deeply about things and about the future,' said Sam.