David Pedley Retires from GWP
Founder and CEO discusses the highs and lows of starting and growing the business
David Pedley, the former CEO and founder of GWP Group, has been reflecting on his time with the company.
With GWP having been purchased by Macfarlane Packaging back in March, David decided that it was the right time to retire following more three decades at the helm.
He spoke regarding the challenges he faced in starting the business, the success of growing GWP to more than 100 employees across two specialist manufacturing facilities, as well as some of the more memorable moments from the past 30 years.
Quick Reference / Contents
01: How It All Began
How did you get involved with packaging industry?
I got involved with the packaging industry completely by accident. I served a fairly conventional indentured apprenticeship in mechanical engineering and that was my ambition really, to become an engineer. I began working for the Atomic Energy Authority at Cullum Laboratories, who at the time were building a nuclear fusion reactor (a joint European venture). This was a fantastic job, with brilliant engineering challenges, but not very financially rewarding. I think that, even today, engineers don’t really get the rewards they deserve in this country – and certainly not the recognition.
As such, I was looking for a more commercial role in engineering, but every time I went for an interview for a technical sales position, the feedback was that I had the right engineering background, but no commercial experience. A friend of mine (that I used to play crib with, in the local pub) worked for a packaging company in Swindon, who were looking to recruit a trainee salesman. He suggested it might be a good idea to take that job, get some experience selling – or at least working in a far more commercial environment – and then moving into a technical engineering role from there.
I started at Brunel Cases in 1981 and stayed for nine years, which is where I first met Charles Eatwell – he was my manager at the time, and later co-founder of GWP. We recruited Ian Heskins (current GWP Group Business Development Director) and David Mason (now GWP Packaging Sales Director) as salesmen, and Ruth Cook (now GWP Group Managing Director) as accounts junior.
I eventually got promoted to Group Sales Director and all was well. We were thoroughly enjoying running the business, as although it was part of a larger group, it was pretty much run as an autonomous unit.
Where did the idea for starting GWP come from?
Everything changed late 80s when the business was sold to a big multinational packaging company and the culture of the business changed pretty much overnight.
I remember walking into Charles’s office one day and having a fairly frank conversation with him. I told him I wasn’t enjoying the culture of the new business (I was spending probably two days of each week writing reports and not getting on and actually doing my job) and that I was looking to leave.
Surprisingly, Charles said that he felt exactly the same. That was really where we hatched the plan to start our own business.
So, on 13th August 1990, we set up GWP (or Great Western Packaging as it was then called).
What was it like in the early days of the business?
When Charles and I first left Brunel and began looking for premises, we were for a while working from a spare bedroom in Charles’s house. And then, once we had organised premises, we sourced cheap second-hand machinery and started recruiting.
We were working extremely hard, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. But at that time we were all full of enthusiasm and hope – and I guess, in a sense, a degree of invincibility – and it was also enormous fun.
We would often be getting into work very early in jeans and t shirts, working in the factory on production, then putting on a collar and tie and going out to meet customers during the day. Then we would be back in the factory, often working late into the evening and then we would do it all again the following day.
A lot of the current employees of GWP have been with the company since the very early days. When did everyone join?
There were six of us at the very beginning – myself, Charles, Ron Williams, Ruth Cook (now GWP Group Managing Director) and a couple of lads in production. From there, we recruited new staff as and when we needed them. At that stage, we were trying to cover as much of the production as we could ourselves to save money.
Ian Heskins (now GWP Group Business Development Director) joined a few weeks later. David Mason (GWP Packaging Sales Director) then joined about two years later but, as I’d recruited him at Brunel Cases, I was keen to get him onboard as soon as we could.
Which of your colleagues / friends / family have helped most over the years? Which people have you most enjoyed working with?
I’ve got a lot of colleagues that I have worked with for a long time now, that I would also consider to be very good friends.
And although I never intended for GWP to be a family business, it just sort of ended up evolving that way. Obviously, most people are aware that Ruth is my sister, but she has been an absolute stalwart in the company from day one. James (my son) is now right-hand man to Ruth, and both have been an enormous support to me over the years.
My brother-in-law, Ian Cook (Ruth’s husband) is Managing Director of our GWP Conductive division and has been integral to growing that part of the business. And most people involved with GWP will have also known Lindy’s (my wife) mum, who began on a part time basis when we started the company. I think she retired three times, but kept coming back!
In fact, there is only a very small handful of my extended family who have not worked in the business at some point, be it summer holidays or breaks from university etc.
And, I have to say I have enjoyed working with 99% of our employees enormously.
Who was the most difficult employee / colleague that you worked with?
Whilst there have been challenging employees over the years, I would say that it has helped to build the structure of the business (i.e. in the way that we have managed to deal with them).
We also always made sure that the people we recruited would fit the culture of the business (or at least tried very hard to). This has meant that to this day we have a large number of longstanding employees. Many have been with the business for over 10 years, and a significant number for almost 30!
In saying that, we have had a number of salesmen over the years who thought it was perfectly acceptable not to sell anything. And one in particular who even thought it was OK to sell enamel football badges on eBay – during office hours!
03: The Highs and the Lows
What was the most challenging period for the business?
Well, I guess I would be tempted to say the most challenging from a workload perspective was when we first started.
However, I feel the most difficult period was when GWP co-founder Charles Eatwell retired in 2005. We borrowed money to buy his shares and, not long after, we had a great opportunity to buy a business called Eastman Packaging in Salisbury (which went on to become GWP Protective). So we borrowed more money to do that too.
Business was great at the time, and the banks were willing to lend us as much money as we wanted. But what nobody had foreseen was the severe recession that started not long after (the financial crash of 2008). We went through a period of about 18 months where we were always looking over our shoulder a little bit.
Now at the end of that period I remember meeting with the bank who told us they weren’t ever remotely concerned about GWP, but it never felt like that at the time. For me, that was by far the most challenging period. The lesson that we learned is that we should never be that in that position again, being beholden to the banks to that extent.
Who has been the most difficult customer to work with?
Obviously I would never name any names, but in all fairness I don’t remember any single, particularly difficult customer. We’ve certainly had lots that were challenging in one way or another, but I would suggest we used them as learning experiences and, ultimately, they have made our business stronger. They have been as much an opportunity as a difficulty.
What customer / contract were you most surprised at winning?
As a business we have always steered clear of e-auctions, mainly as they tend to erode the value of contracts. There are also certain sectors within the industry we have typically avoided – food and drink, and FMCG – being two examples. This is largely due to the competitive nature of these sectors.
But there was one e-auction that caught our attention in particular, largely because of the environmental elements of it. We entered it, slightly tongue in cheek, and put in a price for the project. We pretty much came out last in terms of competitiveness of our tender.
But they asked if they could visit our factory anyway. We gave them a fairly positive presentation, but we explained in words of one syllable we weren’t able and / or prepared to move on price. They then visited on two further occasions and eventually came back and said they wanted to give us the business.
They remain one of our largest accounts to this day, and perfectly highlight the intangible importance of fit, ethos and company values in business.
What has been the most rewarding period and / or event?
It’s very difficult to narrow this down, as we have experienced so many rewarding periods and landmarks during the growth of the company.
But if I had to choose, probably the most rewarding time I can remember was moving into the new factory at Chelworth, Cricklade (where the business is based currently) in 2003.
It was a purpose-built factory for us, built on a greenfield site. I’d never been involved in building before, but I project managed the design and build of the factory myself. It was delivered exactly on time, and exactly on budget.
The other enormous satisfaction came from witnessing how the business came together as a team to move – almost over a bank holiday weekend – the whole operation from five separate units around Swindon into the new factory in Chelworth. That involved moving about 1,200 pallets and relocating them all in new racking, installing some brand-new production equipment, and moving all of the old production equipment. Despite this, we didn’t cause any disruption to a single customer. That was quite an achievement and enormously rewarding.
What are you most proud of?
Without a doubt, I am most proud of the people of GWP. An amazing group of individuals that all come together to work as an extraordinary team.
I am also incredibly proud to have watched a large number of individuals grow in stature and confidence with the business. In that respect, I feel like I’ve touched people’s lives in a small way. That gives me an enormous sense of pride.
04: Not what you expected…
What is the most unusual event / occurrence you can recall? Something you couldn’t believe happened?
It is not every day that you get to meet royalty, and the Royal visit (of His Royal Highness Prince Edward the Duke of Kent) to Chelworth came completely out of the blue.
The main purpose of the visit was to go to the Honda plant, but because GWP had always been very involved in the local chambers of commerce and Business Link, it was decided we would be another good business to visit.
We didn’t get much notice at all – perhaps four weeks at most – and we had a very, very thorough vetting process by security staff. Even the whole approach to the site was mapped out in detail, with security staff on pretty much every road junction between Honda and GWP. It was a very high-profile visit, and a very nice surprise.
In a similar vein, we also had BBC visit the site. Staff members and myself appeared on the BBC2 Budget coverage, and the evenings Points West show. We had numerous media appearances after this, most unusually including a visit from Radio France!
What is your happiest memory from your time with GWP?
I think it was probably day one of standing in an empty factory – at Lynton Road, Cheeney Manor – when we first setup GWP.
What has been your funniest moment(s)?
I’m struggling a bit with this. We have had lots of laughs along the way but to single out one thing would be difficult. Some of my colleagues may have moments that stick with them as being particularly amusing, and we would certainly have lots of stories to tell over a few pints in the pub!
Are there any other stories or events over the years that you will recall fondly?
A lot has happened over the 30 years GWP has been in business. I’ve already mentioned being featured on BBC2 and the Royal Visit, but the 25 anniversary was a great time (we had a thoroughly enjoyable party for staff, and students from Swindon college created an art installation / exhibition using only cardboard!). This was in stark contrast to the 30th anniversary, which happened in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Winning a number of awards – including Wiltshire Business of the Year and a number of Starpack industry accolades – was also incredibly satisfying.
05: Beyond GWP
What will you miss following your retirement?
Most of all I’ll miss the people – pretty much all of my peers in the industry. I’ve made great friends amongst suppliers, competitors, and obviously colleagues. I’ll miss the challenge of big projects. Winning new contracts. But, most of all, the people.
What won’t you miss?
The occasional betrayal of trust and loyalty (from staff and even customers on occasion) that can sometimes happen in business. The older I got, the more upsetting personally that became for me. Thank goodness it didn’t happen that often, but I definitely became less able to deal with that as time went on.
What would you have done differently (if anything)?
Not much! I’d have definitely started GWP 10 years earlier, and I would have pushed much harder for making acquisitions earlier in our development too. But then I guess it’s fair to say we’d all be much richer with the benefit of hindsight!
Do you have any advice for anyone entering (or considering entering) the packaging industry?
I would say be very clear about what you want to be. Specialise. Don’t try to be all things to all people, and don’t try to compete in markets you are not equipped for. And understand that you don’t need to make everything that you sell. I think this applies equally well to both the packaging industry and running / starting a business in general.
What is your proudest achievement outside of work / GWP?
I guess I ‘ve always enjoyed challenges, as anyone who knows me will attest to.
One of the biggest of these would be when I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2012, raising a significant amount of money for the Help for Heroes charity.
Besides this, in 2017, Lindy (my wife) Tom (my son) and myself sailed our yacht, Sea Flute, around the world. We covered about 36,000 miles, navigated the Pacific Ocean, and crossed the Atlantic 3 times. It was an incredible adventure and something I know that not many people have accomplished. That would definitely be one of my proudest achievements outside of work.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, last year I motorcycled down through South America (3,500 miles) with a couple of mates. Along the Andes, across Chile and Argentina right down to Tierra la Fuego, pretty much on the Southern Ocean.
Next year – restrictions allowing – I have a 12-week ride across the USA planned, taking in all of the national parks.
Lindy and I have also just bought an old house to renovate in Somerset, and we’ve got some extensive travel plans for the next couple of years too, including more sailing (and going back to the Pacific to visit some of the places we missed first time around).
And finally, I’ll now also have the luxury of spending more time with family, including my two grandsons – the eldest starts school in September so it is incredible how quickly they are already growing up!
06: What David’s Colleagues / Friends Say
Matthew Green, GWP Group IT Director
I have had the privilege of working with David for over 24 years, and I have found him to be a truly inspirational work colleague and personal friend. David has on many occasions allowed me to participate in some of his non-work-related activities and has the ability to push people above and beyond their normal comfort zones in both work and social settings.
On more than one occasion this ability has placed me in situations such as: hanging from a cliff face getting eaten alive by midges; being strapped to a sailing mast sobbing as the Isle of White Red Funnel Ferry bore down on us, announcing our impending doom with blasts from its foghorn; belly flopping onto a neighbouring yacht whilst being watched by crowds of onlookers; and walking until the blisters on my feet stopped me from walking any further. Some team building experiences were even enjoyable!
On a serious note, David’s unquestionable leadership talent has managed to push me through these and many more successful experiences that I shall be forever grateful for.
Ian Heskins, GWP Group Business Development Director
It was Dave who gave me my first sales opportunity as a trainee rep for Brunel cases back in 1987 and he remained my boss for almost 30 years!
I was fortunate enough to become a part of GWP when it was first started by Charles and Dave and while many talented people have been involved in building the business, Dave was always the architect. He has a natural talent for business at every level and has been a real driving force in growing and shaping GWP.
Ruth Cook, GWP Group Managing Director
I have obviously known David for my entire life and, having been alongside him at GWP since day one, have seen first-hand the drive, commitment, and acumen he brought to the business. He has lived and breathed GWP.
David has always been driven to achieve the best and had the ability to see opportunities that were not always obvious from a very early age. Similarly, when many would have sat back and celebrated the success of the business, David would always be out looking for the next step forward. He has been – and continues to be – an inspiration for me.
“On behalf of everyone here at GWP, we wish him a long and happy retirement to enjoy his passions – sailing, travel, and spending quality time with his family.
Matt Dobson, GWP Group Marketing Manager
I’ve only known David for a relatively short period of time when compared with some members of the GWP team (I joined the business around 9 years ago) but he has had a big influence on my career and approach to business.
The environment and culture instilled by David at GWP is really geared towards developing people and rewarding them for their progress. This is also reflected in the approach that the business has to customers too, with a real focus on forging partnerships and close working relationships.
I don’t think I ever intended to enter or stay in the packaging industry as long as I have (does anyone?) but I have found working with David and being part of GWP to be incredibly rewarding.
All the best for the future, David!
Although David retiring from GWP will leave big shoes to fill, thanks to his leadership, the culture he has instilled and empowerment of his colleagues, the business has the perfect foundation to go from strength to strength.
From all of his colleagues (past and present), peers, family, and friends, we wish David a long and happy retirement.