Cork company punches above its weight as family members follow ancestor's footsteps


From a small retail shop on Cork's South Main Street, Punch Industries has grown to become the second-largest shoe-care company in the world. Four generations on, it is still family owned.

Only the instantly recognisable brand name, Kiwi, is bigger than the Punch logo on shoe-care products, and the research-driven company has consistently led the market, with innovative answers to shoe-care and, more recently, fabric-care problems. Punch products are exported to 50 countries. Turnover last year was £40 million (€51 million), with annual growth projected at up to 20 per cent into the future.

In a city that likes to boast of its merchant princes, the Punch story has gone largely unnoticed, not because it shuns publicity, says chief executive Mr Gerry Lawlor, but because the focus of its operations is outside the Republic, in continental Europe, Scandinavia and Britain, although Cork remains the centre for research and development.

Plans are afoot for a major assault on the US market with the company's flagship product, Colour Catcher, a unique system of preventing colour runs in the washing machine.

The Punch story began in 1851 when Abigail Punch - an extraordinary woman, according to contemporary accounts - entered the predominantly male world of retail business, trading in tea and coffee. Although population numbers in rural Ireland were still in decline following the Great Famine, consumerism in the cities was nevertheless on the rise, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

The humble shop flourished, and was soon relocated to Patrick's Street in the centre of the thriving city, by now a major tea importer. Abigail Punch became known for her insistence on excellence and ran a well-managed outlet, which quickly gained a reputation for quality. Punch & Co later moved to larger premises at Academy Street and became involved solely in the wholesale trade.

Another family member, Mr John F. Punch, became the driving force in the expanding tea importation business, buying directly from the London market. In 1941, he was appointed by Minister for Supplies, Sean Lemass, as one of four directors of the newly formed Tea Importers (Eire) Ltd, a company established to maintain tea supplies to the Republic through the difficult war years.

The Punch company continued to be one of the leading tea importers, known for its own blends as well as Indian, Assam and Ceylon teas, until the 1980s when its tea business was wound up. Last year, it also sold off the wholesale side of the business to concentrate on the highly profitable shoe and fabric-care sector. Abigail Punch's great grandson, John (financial controller), and her grand nephew, Martin (company secretary), are current board members of the company, now known as Punch Industries.

Although attention has focused on the company's latter-day success in shoe and fabric care, another pioneering family member and nephew of Abigail, Mr George Punch, had been manufacturing shoe polish on a small scale since 1912, based on a formula he developed in his garden shed at Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork.

By 1919, a five-floor mill at Glanmire, close to the family home, was producing the company's boot polish and leather creams. In the 1920s, Science Polish, offering "the shine that is so much more", had become a household name. Through the 1930s and 1950s, business flourished as an indigenous footwear industry began to take hold in the Republic, but when the economy was opened to outside competition in the 1960s, Punch & Co had to respond or fail, as its market share dropped to 20 per cent.

It began to diversify and to concentrate on acquisitions and strategic alliances. In 1979, it purchased Edward Ryan & Co, the Kinsale-based manufacturer of soaps, detergents and candles. Kinsale Candles is now the leading brand in the Republic. The same year, Punch acquired ERCO, the plastic packaging producer, and in 1985 moved to a purpose-built plant at the Little Island Industrial Estate in Cork, which is the headquarters for all product development.

Punch now manufactures and distributes a huge variety of shoe and fabric-care products in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium. The Scandinavian countries as well as the Baltic states, Poland and Czechoslovakia, are serviced through its subsidiary, Boston Scandinavia, and Britain is regarded as the company's major commercial base. In 1990, as well as moving into Scandinavia, Punch acquired William Paton of Scotland, manufacturers of laces and insoles.

In the US, it has also formed a strategic alliance with Timberland, one of the world leaders in the manufacture of boots for the outdoors.

Colour Catcher is the most exciting new development in the company and will give it a truly global presence, according to Mr Lawlor. It has been a massive success in existing markets and is soon to be launched in the US, Asia and other European markets.

It was developed by the Punch in-house scientific team, as were all own-brand products.

"What 150 years of our company history will show is that we have never shied away from innovation or diversification in order to ensure our survival," Mr Lawlor added.