When John Cotton talks business, it pays to listen.

The 74-year-old chairman of bedding specialist John Cotton Group Ltd has a wealth of industry experience and wisdom to impart.

Yet he retains a youthful enthusiasm for the family business and shows no signs of wanting to retire.

He devotes three or four days a week to the business, chairing its monthly board meetings, overseeing budgets and charting the firm’s future direction.

He was awarded the MBE for services to Yorkshire business in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Mr Cotton, who received the award at a Buckingham Palace ceremony last week said he was thrilled by the accolade.

And he fully intends to be around for the company’s centenary celebrations in two years’ time, saying: “We are starting to plan for 2016. We are in the process of deciding what we will do. We want to do something for charity; we want to look after our employees and customers and we want to do something to benefit the business.”

John Cotton is among Kirklees’ biggest employers – with more than 600 people working at the Huddersfield Road site. It employs another 200 at its Wigan factory and a similar number at its operations in Wroclaw, Poland.

“Many of our employees have spent a lifetime working here,” says Mr Cotton. “We hold long service awards for 25 years’ service when the recipients bring their families along and then take their families out for dinner at our expense.

“We are very proud of our workforce. It is nice that people have been with us such a long time. We have fathers, sons and grandsons who have worked for the company.”

Many of those employees have accompanied Mr Cotton on a journey which has seen the company transformed almost beyond recognition from its 1916 origins.

He joined the company headed by his father after being educated at Charterhouse, Surrey. He learned the business from the ground up before taking more senior roles. “It’s something I have been brought up with since I was a little boy,” he says. “I used to come down to the factory on a Saturday morning with my father.”

Commenting on the company’s origins, he says: “It was a very different company in those days. Its primary function was to re-fibre jute to go into manufacturing underlays for carpets and sound-proofing for the car industry.

“The advent of foam-backed tufted carpets killed off that business, so the firm diversified to produce fillings for firms making mattresses.”

In time, John Cotton decided to go into the bedding business for itself with the acquisition of a firm called Northern Feather in 1997. At the time, Northern Feather’s turnover was £10m. This year, the business will have revenues approaching £40m.

John Cotton acquired Snuggledown, of Norway, in 2000 and incorporated it into the Northern Feather business, but re-branded the division Snuggledown.

In 2002, the firm took over Northern Textiles and followed up with its Polish acquisition – now John Cotton (Europe) – five years later.

That series of astute acquisitions to shift the focus for the firm has reaped dividends. When Mr Cotton took over as chairman 56 years ago, the firm had annual turnover of £4m. Today, turnover totals £160m.

John Cotton of John Cotton Ltd. Nunbrook Mills, Mirfield.
John Cotton of John Cotton Ltd. Nunbrook Mills, Mirfield.
 

It now operates three divisions. John Cotton Non-Wovens is a UK leader in supplying products to the mattress, upholstery, insulation, filtration, footwear, clothing and automotive industries while John Cottron Home Textiles is a leading supplier of pillows and duvets to national retailers. It is also responsible for the Slumberdown bedding brand.

The third division, Snuggledown, supplies pillows and duvets to department stores and independent retailers. Customers include Dunelm, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.

Operations are seasonal to some extent. Some 60% of business is done between September and February. “When we get a cold winter, duvet sales will fly through the door,” says Mr Cotton.

“We have developed as time has gone on,” he says – candidly stating that the firm would not be around now if it had not changed its focus.

The company’s success is also down to strong and effective management, he says.

“We have managing directors for each division and they have to prepare budgets. We monitor their performance against those budgets with monthly board meetings. We also spend a lot of time getting the strategy right.

“A business is like a small child. For a company to be successful, you have to nurture it, devote your time to it and care about it. A company that’s doing well can go to the dogs in the space of six months if people take their eyes off the ball.

“You have to have a vision. You have to have a first class team of people working with you. If you don’t, you are wasting your time.”

And never be afraid to admit you don’t know it all. Says Mr Cotton: “Take advice. If you don’t know something, don’t be too ‘big’ to ask people’s advice. That’s something I have always done, but a lot of people won’t do that.”

Dedication to work doesn’t mean Mr Cotton has no time for other interests.

An enthusiastic follower of the Sport of Kings, he says he owns “a few” race horses, which are stabled at Malton, North Yorkshire and in France.

“I would go to York, Cheltenham and Ascot races, but I never had time until I was 60 to think about owning horses,” he says.

Mr Cotton says he has enjoyed only modest success on the turf – but his horse Silver Frost won the French equivalent of the 2,000 Guineas a few years back, which was just cause for celebration.

Other interests include sport – which brings an almost apologetic admission that he’s a Leeds United supporter. He also enjoys spending time with family and walking his dog, a much-loved Standard Schnauzer named Lola.

But work is never far from his mind – and typically, he continues to look to the future. “We are putting a lot of emphasis on product development,” he says.

“We spend £5m a year on capital investment in machinery and buildings on an ongoing basis. That’s how we improve all the time.”

John Cotton

Role: Chairman

Age: 74

Family: Married to Barbara with sons Nicholas, 48, Mark, 30 and daughter Annabel, 46

Holidays: We have an apartment at Cannes in the south of France and we enjoy Italy, which is a lovely place to visit

Car: At the age of 70 I decided a Rolls Royce wouln’t be a bad car to have. it’s something I ‘d always promised myself

First job: Joining the family business

Best thing about the job? I like to be able to go into a factory and hear the machines running – manufacturing and actually producing something

Worst thing about the job? There’s nothing I don’t like about it.

Business tip: Live, eat and sleep the business. You have to be totalled dedicated

Work: Bedding manufacturer

Site: Nunbrook Mills, Mirfield

Phone: 01924 496571

Email: sales@johncotton.co.uk

Web: www. johncotton.co.uk