Nottingham based food packaging giant, The Wilkins Group, may have humble beginnings but the family run business has successfully built an empire that is continuing to innovate and grow.
The award-winning local company has a client list that reads like a who’s who of retailers and manufacturers. It has divisions across the globe - in fact, it is one of the names behind the innovative M&S gin snow globe bottle - and is assisting the nation's supermarkets with their eco packaging initiatives. The firm even received the seal of approval from world champion boxer Carl Froch who officially opened its multi-million-pound Colwick factory.
The firm, which is heading towards a UK turnover of £50M this year, isn’t stopping there. The Wilkins Group director, Justin Wilkins said: "We've still got some targets that we want to achieve. We're the largest independent carton company in the UK, so we're wanting to keep our foot down on the accelerator pedal.”
However, life for the award-winning Nottingham firm started small, as the firm's directors explain. Back in 1963, graphic designer Ken Wilkins formed Ken Wilkins Design Associates – this would eventually be changed to Ken Wilkins Print Ltd. before coming under The Wilkins Group umbrella. He based himself on Talbot Street in the city with just a drawing board and an artistic passion to set him on the road to success.
Justin Wilkins, Ken’s grandson and one of the firm’s directors, said: “My grandfather was into anything creative, he enjoyed painting portraits and he started the business owning just one drawing board and sharing a room to split the rent with another designer friend.
“My father, André Wilkins joined the business at the age of 18 whilst holding down other part-time jobs. It was his role to promote all of the design and creative services that the business had to offer. With a keen interest in production and manufacturing he set about starting a printing operation to produce the designs his father Ken created. They both worked hard together for over 30 years until Ken’s death in 1993. André is now group chairman.”
In those early days they eventually moved to a large, converted house in Nottingham, their aim was to develop the business and focus on customer service and innovative creative design.
Justin continued: “It was a typical British start-up with an’ in house’ manual screen-printing operation and Litho printing press all from a converted house. They spent 25 years serving predominantly the textile market with printed packaging products.”
On a course for expansion, they would soon move to Private Road No 8 in Colwick, purchasing a 5000 sq. ft building. Honing their efforts around Nottingham’s rich textile history, they concentrated on designing textile packaging.
The move and direction for the company proved successful enabling further expansion and investment in the latest high speed automated printing and finishing equipment. The site would eventually span some 170,000 sq. ft and include an impressive head office as well as a 68,000 sq. ft, fully integrated multi-million-pound warehouse and logistics facility. The latest expansion opened by world champion boxer Carl Froch in November 2022.
At the time that the phase three factory extension was unveiled, Justin Wilkins said that Froch was the obvious choice to open the latest phase, revealing that Carl's Uncle Mick had worked at the firm for 46 years and that Carl grew up on a cul-de-sac next to the factory.
Froch was reported as saying: "As far back as I can remember, around two or three years old, my uncle Mick has worked for Ken Wilkins... Me and my brothers, we used to jump in the paper skip and mess around and try to bury ourselves in the paper and get paper cuts all over our hands - my mum used to go mad at it. I've gone from being chased off the site to being invited back on. It's a bit of a turnaround."
Another area of expansion came as a result of changes to UK manufacturing. Justin said: “The 80s saw major moves to source garments from ‘offshore’ areas and it became clear the business needed to evolve to support the many apparel and retail customers who were moving their production away from the UK. We also needed to change the business model to keep the UK business growing.”
Group chairman, Andre Wilkins, said: “The Wilkins Group was the largest player in the industry at that time and was growing fast. So, in 1999 we set up our first ‘offshore’ business facility in Sri Lanka”. It was the first of several overseas bases.
He said: “A lot of textile firms relocated to Sri Lanka in the 90’s, as did some of our textile-packaging competitors, which resulted in many UK workers losing their jobs.
André emphasised: “We didn’t make any job cuts, and instead made sure that we diversified into the food packaging industry as an alternative. Our workers in the UK kept their jobs and the facility in Sri Lanka created new ones. If anything, we needed to employ even more staff to cope with the increased workload.”
Despite the Wilkins Group now operating on different continents, it still remains a family-owned business with its UK headquarters in Nottingham. The directors say they retain the same values and employee care of its founding principal.
Today, The Wilkins Group employs 340 people at its headquarters in Colwick. It is these hard-working team members that continue to help make the business a success.
Justin said: “Family is crucial. Our family still runs the business, and we see our teams as extended family”. André and wife Ann, and sons Justin and Aron, along with their wives also work within the firm.
He added: “We have established a reputation as a ‘go to’ company for innovation, design and competitive production. We make food packaging for most of the UK’s leading supermarkets, are developing carton board packaging to assist with Eco initiatives, made PPE during the pandemic and made headlines back in 2020 when joined forces with M&S to help create their sell-out illuminating snow globe liqueurs – a partnership that continues.”
Justin concluded: "We've still got some targets for ourselves. We want to take the business to the next stage by improving efficiencies. It has been an ongoing project for us, and we have managed to already open up some capacity in our print and die-cutting departments thanks to our phase three factory extension. We are also aiming to reach £50M turnover later on this year in the UK.
"We are proud to be the largest family run business in our sector and see it as certainly one of our strengths."