David S Smith (DSS): A history

Updated: Jul 11, 2020


David S Smith Ltd was formed by David Solomon Smith and David Smith (my father) referred to as David G to help distinguish the two. Their respective fathers were Coleman Smith and Gabriel Smith (hence the G in my father’s “label”), who had been directors, with others, of D Smith and Sons. See history.

The two Companies were completely separate and initial capital for David S Smith Ltd was from the sale of the grandmother of a number of us, Deborah Smith’s, jewellery - approx £5,000. There may have been additional capital provided from other sources, but this is an unknown.

The publisher, Paul Hamlyn (later Baron Hamlyn), was an early employee. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Hamlyn

The Company started life with two printing machines in a basement in Grays Inn Road, but the Company really took off after moving production to the Neath Factory c1947-48, funded in part by post-war Government regeneration grants.

Early customers included British American Tobacco, following an introduction by David G’s brother-in-law, the band leader Nat Temple.

Broadly, David G was head of sales and David S was in charge of Finance and Administration. The full Board consisted of these two, who alternated as Chairmen, David G’s uncle, Jack Elbery (Debbie Smith’s brother), who sales-managed some of the non-tobacco accounts, including Helena Rubenstein cosmetics, plus the works director Leslie Smart, who did a superb job in creating a family-like atmosphere in Neath. This is an era in which emotional intelligence hadn’t even been heard of but employee empowerment and encouragement played a large part in the high productivity. There was a waiting list of local people wanting to join the company. DSS was the only major printing Company in the UK whose workers did not walk out during the nationwide NATSOPA strike in the late 1950s. (Cannot find an historical link for this.)

The major breakthrough arose in securing business in the early 1950s from Gallagher Tobacco, now part of Japan Tobacco International (JTI). Brands included Benson and Hedges, Senior Service, Sovereign and Hamlet cigars. Other tobacco business followed with Imperial Group (Players, Nottingham and WD & HO Wills in Bristol) Brands: Players Navy Cut, Embassy, Woodbine.

The aspiration was always for DSS to be a high quality carton manufacturer, securing premium prices. It had low overheads which underpinned profitability – at one time, it was posting the highest ratio of net profit/capital employed in the whole of the printing industry. In addition, the Company had the services of a brilliant engineer, Arthur Coxhead, who adapted some of the finishing machinery in such a way as to increase output by 50%.

Whilst tobacco packaging provided most of the revenue, substantial business came from RHM Foods, as was, in the form of Atora beef suet cartons, and packaging for J Lyons, primarily tea cartons.

The Company made significant progress during the 1950s and became a public Company in 1961.

It grew year on year but David G’s interest in the business was distracted in the late 50s as he pursued an independent and successful venture, Senior Export and Import Ltd, including two shops called Universal Crafts. This concerned the importation of Soviet arts and crafts and consumer goods. This culminated in the opening of the Russian Shop in High Holborn in 1961. He eventually sold the business to Lord Wolfson’s group, Great Universal Stores. He had continued to lead DSS sales throughout this venture but now gave 100% of his time to DSS.

In the earlier years, cartonboard supplies were mainly from St Anne’s Board Mill in Bristol, a subsidiary of Imperial Group plus foil lined boards from J and J Makin. In the mid-late 60s this changed and cigarette cartons (slide and shell and fliptop) were produced almost entirely from high yield boards produced by Scandinavian mills, such as Tako (Metsa Board) Finland, Papyrus Kopparfors, Sweden and Mesna, Norway.

In the early 1960s, the link between tobacco and cancer, heart disease and other chronic conditions was clearly confirmed by research and DSS’s prime customers, Gallagher and Imperial, were in the process of becoming less dependent on tobacco revenues. Some of you may remember Golden Wonder crisps, which was one of Imperial’s first product ranges outside of tobacco products.

David G felt that DSS should follow that trend but the rest of the Board did not agree to that path. He resigned in July 1970.

The Company grew steadily during the 1970s and the family’s interest in it ended through its sale to Richard Brewster, https://www.rhacc.ac.uk/about-us/governance/racc-governors/richard-brewster.

Ironically, David G and myself had backing from Investment in Industry (3i) to buy the Company but David S had already committed to sell to Brewster. Although already a public company, Company Law changed c1982 so that private limited companies could be distinguished from public limited companies, hence the introduction of the suffix PLC for public companies. The Company grew rapidly and diversely though major non-tobacco related acquisitions within the UK during Brewster’s ownership and, after he sold out, growth continued through expansion within Europe, Australasia and North America into the FTSE 100 Company it now is. It appears that no packaging related to tobacco is now undertaken by the Group.

PS My own career was also in packaging but centered around successful ventures in the cartonboard supply chain, eventually ending up as unit CEO of a UK subsidiary of MM Karton (then Kartonfabrik Franz Mayr Melnhof). I left the industry in 1995 to pursue other interests.

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