Category Archives: The Datesand Story

The Datesand Story – Part 1

As we celebrate Datesand’s 40th birthday, we thought it important to take a step back and delve into our incredible journey to date to see just how far we have come and how on earth we got here.

 

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The early days

It’s fair to say that Datesand started from very humble beginnings. Barry Wood, a chemist by training, had been working for Honeywell Medical Supplies London looking after sales of medical equipment here in the UK and internationally. With his family firmly based up in the north, Barry grew tired of the weekly commute and had a desire to start up his own business here in Manchester.

In 1980 he moved back home with his family in Sale and began the process of getting his business up and running. Datesand started in a small upstairs box room office in the family home with one telephone, one double drawer filing cabinet and a typewriter.

As a trained chemist, Barry had access to some innovative chemical formulae that would prove very useful in his business venture. These included the formulae for Datesand’s very first products; Betadet 99 and Betadet 101 which are effective glassware detergents aimed at the hospital and laboratory markets.

Barry’s next move was to hire a tiny lock-up garage just down the road in Stretford, Manchester. This became essentially the company’s ‘chemical mixing plant’ of sorts. The simple but effective equipment consisted of a couple of large blue vats and a wooden oar that was used to stir the concoction. Barry’s two sons Nick and Jonathon Wood were there getting involved in the action as children and teenagers, helping to dispense and mix the powdered chemicals and liquids, carefully testing and packing finished products. After lots of trials and tribulations, eventually the Wood Family team produced their first official batch of Betadet 99, a product which has seriously stood the test of time.

The first of many customers to come on board with the infant company was the prestigious Paterson Institute Cancer Research Laboratory where the staff took to Barry straight away and saw that his disinfectants and detergents were just the kind of simple, effective and, above all, safe products they’d been looking for. Now as well as actually mixing the product in the Stretford ‘facility’, Barry would also suit up, deliver the products and use his undoubted salesman skills to try to gain increased business. Datesand was pretty much a one-man band in those days, with a little family help on the production side.

Building a product range

As he met more and more clients, Barry would always try actively to discover what other products the scientists and technicians needed in order to run their operations effectively and safely. Armed with this information, he started to build up the product range with new products like disposable gloves, masks and famously, aprons (Barry came up with the unbeatable strapline ‘No more wet socks’ for the latter). Between 1980 and 1983 Barry was able to add a whole raft of laboratory consumables to Datesand’s catalogue.

The business started off very locally with all of the original clientele based in and around Manchester. By 1983, after meeting with technicians and scientists in a number of hospital and research laboratories, one much-needed product that did become apparent was high-quality laboratory animal bedding. At this time, to Barry’s surprise, labs were using fairly basic and often rather rough sawdust residues from local sawmills. To meet the demand for something much better and more appropriate, Barry set up a partnership with a local wood processing company, Wood Treatment Ltd based just South of Manchester, with the aim of developing and manufacturing bespoke bedding grades from quality raw material. Working with this enthusiastic new partner was to become a key pillar of Datesand’s progress. This new partnership and the quality, refined bedding products the teams were able to develop, really helped the business to start to make strong progress (and some actual profit).

A basecamp is established

In 1986, the company moved into its first official (but still rather small) premises in Openshaw. Though Nick and Jonathon were still in school at this point, the boys would spend their summer holidays working at the family business doing ‘warehouse’ work like helping to pack up the products for delivery. At this point, Barry’s wife Janet Wood also started to get more involved and so the company became more and more family based.

Now that a little money was starting to come in, it became possible to invest in some essential new (pre-loved!) machinery. This included a guillotine for cutting absorbent paper products, a laminating machine and a slitting machine for cutting down the master reels from which the trayliners were cut (Back in the 1980s, under-cage metal trays with absorbent paper liners were just as or even more commonly used than wood bedding) This pretty ambitious investment helped Barry and the team to run a much more efficient service and provide clients with the consumable supplies they needed, when they needed them.

After studying at South Trafford college, Jonathon then came to work full time for the family business. He found a real love for the thrill of a sale and was excited to follow in his father’s footsteps. Nick meanwhile went to pursue a career selling advertising for the Manchester Evening News.

 

The next chapter will be published here 3rd April 2020

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The Datesand Story – Part 2

The growing team
From the late eighties to the early nineties, Barry, Jonathon, Janet and a few new important faces helped to further develop and grow the business. One of those faces was Simon Thorp. Simon was first introduced to Datesand in 2002. He became a vital asset to the team helping the company to expand into wider markets. The company was now gaining traction in international markets thanks to the language skills (and charm of course) of Simon and another linguist colleague Brian Hooley. In 1990, Datesand had their first bulk orders from large, prestigious clients in Europe, exporting initially to France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

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The company continued, completely self-financed and by 1994, things were looking great. There were even more products being added to the catalogue and the team had grown to around 13. The late Mike Slater came on board to expand the new horticultural range, RainGel granules, Rainmats and Holiday Watering Mats which used some of the same basic absorbency materials as the absorbent products sold into the research sector. Rapid progress in this and the core research markets continued until there came the very sad and unexpected news in 1995 when Barry was diagnosed with multiple melanoma, a form of leukaemia, at just 48 years old.

 

Dark and difficult days
The family and of course the business to which Barry was so central were now plunged into very difficult and dangerous times. As the face of the business that clients had got to know and trust, Barry’s illness and subsequent need to withdraw himself from the business took a heavy toll. Nick left his job at the Manchester Evening News to come back and help and Jonathon took the reins of the business. Jonathon put a strong focus on continuing to drive sales, Nick managed production, ensuring quality and quantity were still as they needed to be while Janet managed company accounts and looked after a lot of the customer support and day to day communications.

 

Barry very sadly passed away in 1998. Datesand had not long since been close to making its first million-pound turnover before his death but the loss of the company’s founder and main driving force proved to be Datesand’s biggest challenge to date. Understandably, business and of course profits took a huge knock. The family fought hard in the face of this struggle. The very day that Barry passed away, a huge order had come in for Super Absorbent Tray Liners that had to be shipped in 24 hours. Jonathon and Nick went straight from the hospital and, with the help of a few friends, worked 12 hours straight, overnight in the tiny production room. The team managed to produce and pack the order just in the nick of time (a large pizza order delivered also in the nick of time almost certainly ensured this triumph). The significant order, worth around £100,000, went out on time. The next chapter in Datesand’s history had begun with a terrible tragedy and then an amazing triumph over adversity.

 

The family continued to work together as a tight unit for another six or seven years. Still navigating pretty difficult times, they were faced with continuing challenges, some in particular being terribly hard to handle for the young and fairly inexperienced team. A number of genuine, good people had to be let go to keep the company’s head above water. As hard as this was, the decision had to be made to ensure the survival of the family business. While Jonathon continued to lead the company as Managing Director and Sales Director, Janet managed the accounts and customer relationships and meanwhile Nick left to pursue his dream of a career in sailing. From this point onwards, Jonathon began to master the business, controlling costs, redefining business goals, increasing sales and expanding markets.

 

The project gains pace

The Datesand team moved to new, larger premises in 1999 on Crabtree Lane in Openshaw, Manchester, where the Company took on its first mortgage. Here, a strong team of 5 were working to grow the business even further, taking risks, utilising low business rates and other financial support to help purchase essentials like company cars to improve sales and a van to cut out the costs of hiring vehicles. It was great to finally have office and warehouse space that not only improved logistics but offered a stable home for the business – somewhere the team could be proud to invite customers and begin personalising the Datesand brand. Crabtree Lane was a proper headquarters and the friendly, helpful team were delighted to have their base at last.

 

At this point, Datesand were only about 5th in the market, still relatively small and still definitely struggling to get to the next level of success. Throughout this time, the constant driving factor for Jonathon was that he could not let all Barry’s hard work be for nothing. He could not let his father’s death be in vain. He would often work up to 80 hours a week during these years, other members of the team also going the extra mile on many occasions. The next 10 years were full of challenges and hard work, ups and downs of every kind, but all the endeavour and determination would turn out to be well worth it in the end.

The Datesand Story – Part 3

The power of innovation

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2001 offered an opportunity for Datesand to gain a real advantage over its competitors – a completely unique and highly innovative product to add to its growing range. Pete Willan of Leicester University had designed the remarkable NestPak. This was a nesting and enrichment device for laboratory animals with precise, measured amounts of bedding encased in a food grade paper sachet which the laboratory animal would open itself. Pete came to us with the heart and belief that Datesand could make this a success and offered us the first opportunity to manufacture and market the ground-breaking product. Jonathon jumped at the chance to add this unique item to our catalogue and took decisive action to have the product patented. This development turned out to be a real spark, a definite catalyst which set the tone for the future and put Datesand on the road to becoming one of the leading innovators in the sector.

Jonathon had also started travelling to AALAS conventions in the USA from 1999 to meet new people, scope out new products and look for potential new partnerships. This became a fantastic opportunity to expand Datesand and its products into a whole new market. W F Fisher, based in New Jersey, became Datesand’s first official US distributor. Like us, they are a family business and after setting up a close partnership with the company, they received a license agreement from Datesand to manufacture and distribute Nestpaks in the US.

In March 2004, Simon became officially a full-time Datesand team member. International sales really began to kick off from this point onwards and a key focus was shifted onto animal enrichment – something that wasn’t viewed as important in our sector before the noughties but which was increasingly seen as vital to the animals’ well-being.  It could be exported more easily than bedding and certainly lent itself more closely to Datesand’s innovative instinct.

 

New happiness, new responsibilities

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Jonathon married the love of his life, Claire, around this time. Despite not officially working for the company Claire had supported Jonathon and his family in keeping the business alive back in the early 2000s. To add to the family’s happiness, Claire gave birth to their two beautiful daughters, Amber in 2005 and Sophie in 2008.  Jonathon now had even more to work for of course and unfortunately found himself seeing his family only on weekends after travelling around the country throughout the week.

With the strong desire to achieve more of a work-life balance and be able to spend more time with his beloved family, Jonathon began to expand the Datesand team, bringing in more sales staff and eventually introducing the Senior Management Team to share the load and to organise and run the business more efficiently. This also required a move to even larger premises in 2008 to allow the business to grow in roomier and more suitable surroundings.

Safetygel ‘bursts’ onto the scene

In the midst of an already pretty busy growth spurt, an amazing opportunity for Datesand to spread its wings and indeed its product range arrived in 2007. It came in the shape of an invitation to tender to supply superabsorbent sachets and granules to the NHS Supply Chain. The products would be used to absorb unwanted and dangerous liquids in hospital wards, operating theatres and a whole host of medical situations where infection might spread if liquids such as blood and urine were spilt. Feeling a little out of their depth, but never the kind to back away from a challenge, Jonathon and Simon set about designing a self-opening sachet, a granules shaker and even an absorbent tablet which would meet these very real clinical needs. To their amazement and great pleasure, they won the contract against a lot of very experienced competition. There then followed a race against time to finalise the sachet design (making sure it did actually burst open on contact with a liquid) and to find manufacturing partners for the packaging, presentation and logistics to ensure prompt delivery to NHS Supply Chain depots all across the country. With one or two ‘hiccoughs’ and a few tweaks along the way, Datesand were able proudly to join the ranks of key suppliers to the NHS Supply Chain and have been successfully supplying millions of units of Safetygel sachets, granules and absorbent pads ever since.

The Datesand Story – Part 4

Janet Wood

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Just as things were looking up for the company and its hard-working team, another tragedy struck both the family and the business. Janet Wood unfortunately passed away from Breast Cancer in 2010. This was a sudden and tragic loss not only for Jonathon and Nick, but for everyone, colleagues and clients alike, who had got to know and grown to love Janet throughout the years.

Losing another much loved and pivotal member of the family and a key pillar of the business, Jonathon was determined not to let the sadness and deep sense of loss detract from the progress being made. He worked even harder now to attain the level of success and security for which his parents had always worked.

 

The next level, the next challenge

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From 2000 to 2010, Datesand rocketed up from a fairly lowly position in the market to become market leaders in quality animal bedding, nesting and enrichment products and have remained so in the UK and Europe ever since. It’s a great testament to Jonathon’s determination to succeed on behalf of the family and especially his parents. There have always been huge challenges as well as amazing wins along the way for Datesand and this has not changed in more recent times.

As Datesand were already doing well in the American markets, the team decided to exhibit at the massive US meeting AALAS for the first time in 2013. Previously, simply attending the US meetings as delegates had already helped to boost sales and increase awareness of the business in North America as well as providing lots of ideas for new products.

Another of those major challenges came in 2014 after a terrible disaster struck. Part of the plant at Wood Treatment Limited, the sole, dedicated supplier of Datesand bedding, exploded in 2014. Tragically four workers’ lives were lost in the resulting fire. The plant’s Cheshire premises were used to store around 60% of the bedding produced for our customers and as pretty much all of this was lost as a result of the accident, Datesand had to find a new supplier and a lot more storage space…and do so very quickly. Many tonnes of product still had to be supplied every day and thanks to some very helpful colleague companies in Europe and an extremely robust major incident plan, the team were able to rally round together to meet this considerable challenge.

 

New suppliers were contacted, and product was efficiently sourced. The team were filling and hand-stitching sacks and even tote sacks of bedding for hours during this time and through good, strong communication with customers and an enormous effort on the part of the team, nobody was let down, all deliveries went out and all customers were retained!

 

New strings to our bow, new uncertainty, a new home for the team

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Another great win came to Datesand in 2015 when a contract was signed with Envigo to manage their diet logistics and deliveries. This was a great opportunity to grow the business in another new direction and to be able to offer yet more efficient services and great products to our customers.
Datesand has always taken pride in its innovative approach to product design. In 2016, Mark, our Corporate Brand Manager, Chief Designer and all round clever chap came up with a brilliant idea to harness the innovative work already being done by colleagues in our sector to enhance the lives of the precious animals in their care. The Janet Wood Innovation Award was born, named in honour of Jonathon and Nick’s Mum and former company director who was a great champion of animals in general and animal enrichment in particular. An invitation was sent out across the industry for animal care professionals to come up with their ideas for practical new enrichment devices.

 

Submissions had to be fairly detailed (drawings and clear descriptions and a mock-up where possible) and had to be as professional as possible. The basic idea was to take the best of the product designs, make them production and marketing friendly and provide them at reasonable prices for practical use throughout animal facilities here and all over the world. The submissions were judged by experienced professionals from the sector as well as members of the Datesand Marketing and Sales teams and then opened up for final voting and selection by colleagues attending Congress.

 

Some substantial prizes were added to the mix and a veritable avalanche of amazing product designs started to arrive (people will remember and are still ordering great products from that first crop including the mouse swing, tunnel clip and Mouse Mezzanine.) The Awards have now become a global phenomenon and have gone from strength to strength in celebration of the great, innovative spirit which abounds in our sector and in memory of our wonderful Janet.

 

Uncertainty came unexpectedly in the form of Brexit in 2016. From the beginning of the referendum campaigns to the highly surprising result, nobody knew exactly what Brexit would mean for businesses inside or outside the EU. There still is and will likely continue to be lots of uncertainty, but Datesand have worked hard to make efficient preparations such as setting up a company in the Netherlands to ultimately protect all customers, distributors and the business itself no matter what the outcome may be. Datesand have impressively continued to drive sales despite all the unpredictability.

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After almost 10 years in our HQ in East Manchester and with a growing need for a lot more storage and office space, our building was eventually sold to Manchester City Council in May 2017. Datesand were able to remain on site, functioning as normal for a rent-free period while searching for new premises.

 

In 2019, we were officially given the keys to our new, considerably larger site on Horsfield Way in Bredbury, Stockport. This vast new site with freehold warehouse and office space gives the whole team the chance to come together all under one roof instead of working on four completely separate sites. The move allows Datesand to offer an even more efficient service and make improvements in communication and logistics while keeping costs firmly under control.

 

And now, in 2020, Datesand has officially made it to FORTY years in business! It has been quite a ride from day one, but we feel that through our resilience, our determination and the passion to succeed shared by the whole Datesand team, the business will continue to thrive and make a really positive contribution to our vital sector.

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