Don't turn out the lights just yet

Listening to the fuss about the sale of Cadbury, you'd think it was Britain's last decent company. Not true: this dozen lead the way, but there are many more in every industry imaginable
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The Independent Online


More famous for its rugby league and glass exports, St Helens was also the birthplace of one of the world's drugs giants, Britain's GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The company was formed in 2000 when GlaxoWellcome merged with SmithKline Beecham, the latter having been established in 1843 when Thomas Beecham started selling his laxative pills in the Merseyside town. GSK now has a market capitalisation of nearly $100bn and is a leader in pharmaceuticals, healthcare products and treatments for diseases in the developing world. It employs more than 100,000 people and revenues hit $24bn in 2008. Often a force for good, it is has just announced a new focus on finding a malaria vaccine and is one of the biggest providers of swine flu vaccines across the globe.

Compass Group

While Kraft has wrestled Cadbury away from these shores, when it comes to catering Blighty beats the Americans hands down – even in their own backyard. Compass Group, the world's biggest outside caterer, is the largest player in the US market, where it makes more than 40 per cent of its overall revenues. Founded in 1941, when Jack Bateman established a number of factory canteens to help the war effort, the group joined the FTSE 100 in 1998 and now employs 360,000 people in 55 countries, serving up to four billion meals each year. If you've ever been to the Wimbledon tennis championships, the Kentucky Derby, the Brit Awards, or to watch cricket at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia, chances are that you have eaten something produced by Compass.


If it wasn't for Rolls-Royce engines, more than 100 airlines across the world would be grounded, not to mention much of the US and other air forces. A British engineering success story, it employs more than 38,000 people in 50 countries – its biggest customers include the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence. Rolls-Royce began when the government asked its then motoring engineers to work in factories dedicated to winning the First World War, and it still maintains plenty of UK manufacturing jobs at its Derby and Bristol plants. Any fears the group could go the same way as Cadbury are misplaced, with the government still holding a golden share in Rolls-Royce.


A "nation of shopkeepers", Napoleon once called us disparagingly, but Tesco is so much more. The supermarket giant has been the top dog at home for several years now and the profits it generates are helping to fund a rapid expansion drive overseas. The company has worked with local partners, which, together with selected acquisitions, have helped it succeed where others have failed. Tesco is even in the US now, albeit on the West Coast to avoid a direct shootout with Wal-Mart. Give it time, though. Tesco is the world's third biggest retailer and you wouldn't bet against it making a charge for the top spot.


Another British success story that won't go the way of Cadbury. The company has won just about every design award going for its vacuum cleaners – and the engineers at the company's Wiltshire base are still innovating. But Sir James Dyson, who spends many hours a week in the workshop dreaming up new designs, remains wary of the stock market. "We don't need to (float) and it would mean we'd have to answer to what investors want rather than our customers," he said in an interview with The Independent. Employing 600 engineers at the huge hall where its products are designed, with annual sales marching towards a billion, Sir James reluctantly shifted manufacturing to Malaysia after the local council (backed by a Tory MP) denied him permission to expand his operations.


Icap often fails to get the credit it deserves because it operates in a rough and tumble part of an industry (financial services) that is in disgrace. It's also difficult to describe what it does. However, the company's founder and chief executive, Michael Spencer, is no bonus-snaffling banker. He's a genuine entrepreneurial talent who started his company in a broom cupboard with a screen and a couple of phones. It is now a key part of the world's financial infrastructure which arguably wouldn't work without it. Icap allows banks to trade a huge number of financial products anonymously with each other. It's comfortably the market leader, with operations around the world including Asia and the US. And it did its job throughout the credit crunch. Controversy is never far away, but Icap remains a British triumph.


It is hard to remember a time when our lives weren't run by mobile phones. Yet the industry is only into its third decade, and at the forefront of its development is Vodafone. The group made the UK's first mobile telephone call in 1985 and had picked up 19,000 customers by the end of the year. It set up in Newbury but was so surprised at the rapid growth of the mobile phone that almost 70 offices sprung up around the town to cope, including one above a curry house – The Curry Garden. It was there, legend has it, that the then chief executive, Sir Christopher Gent, hammered out the details of the transformational merger with Mannesmann in 2000, shortly after buying AirTouch, both parts of his strategy to beef up the company so it would not be a takeover target. It remains the UK operator still standing. When the group fully demerged from parent Racal in 1991, turnover stood at £585m. In full-year results ending March 2009, the figure had risen to £41bn.


Few consumers will have heard of Autonomy, but it found a niche in the business software market and then created a UK technology success story with a £4bn market capitalisation. Not bad for a company that started from a thesis and a £1,000 loan just over a decade ago. The blue chip company could be described as doing for businesses what Google does for consumers, although the services are much more complicated than that. It structures information from video, telephone calls, emails and anything else so clients can boost their corporate intelligence and cope with regulation and legal issues. It was set up by Mike Lynch following his doctorate at Cambridge University and first listed at 30p a share in 1998. Those shares are now £16 as the customer list has grown and the company has made a series of strategic acquisitions, especially in the US. Following its first full year as a public company, revenues were $8.3m. The market forecasts 2009 to hit $740m.


In just 30 years, Inmarsat has been reinvented several times. It was set up under UN charter as an intergovernmental agency – and championed by Arthur C Clarke – to ensure that ships could stay in touch by telephone. The group, whose headquarters sit on the Old Street roundabout in the City of London, still provides safety and distress communications for ships that have problems ranging from engine trouble to piracy. It became the first such organisation to go private in 1999 before being picked up by the private equity houses Apax Partners and Permira four years later. They floated the business in 2005 with the shares at 245p, and they are now around the 680p mark. In the decade since it went private, its revenues have soared from £246m to £612m and it now provides services to airplanes and isolated areas around the globe. They have been used by customers ranging from Air Force One, the US president's private jet, to Dame Ellen MacArthur and, in the future, whenever you make a mobile call or send a text from a plane it is likely to have been transmitted via Inmarsat's satellites.


G4S knows a thing or two about making overseas acquisitions. Since the company was formed through a merger of Group 4 and Securicor in 2004, it has bought a string of businesses – small, medium and large – all over the world. As a result, it is now, remarkably, Britain's largest employer, with 585,000 staff in 110 countries. Its expertise has seen it expand into diverse areas including cash management for British banks; providing the security for the world skiing championships; running prisons in the US; and providing services to the military in Iraq. And if you really want to know about the scale of its reach and influence, check out Grand Theft Auto, the video game popular the world over, in which security staff work for "Gruppe 6".


It may not sound British, but drinks group Diageo, which over time has bought up some of the most popular drinks brands on the planet, is another UK success. Every time you sip a Guinness, a Smirnoff vodka or a Johnnie Walker whisky, you could also raise a toast to the company and its market capitalisation of nearly £27bn. Diageo can trace its roots back to 1749 when Giacomo Justerini arrived in London from Italy and established a wine merchant, but in its current guise, the group is just 13 years old, forming when Grand Met and Guinness merged in 1997. It has acquired a number of brands including the Chalone Wine Group, the Jamaican brewer of Red Stripe lager and a 43 per cent stake in Sichuan Chengdu QuanXing Group in China.


As the world buckled in the face of financial crisis in the second half of 2008, Burberry was moving into its fabulous new seven-storey headquarters in central London. Some 154 years after Thomas Burberry set up as an outfitter in Basingstoke at the tender age of 21, the company boasts men's and women's collections for four different clothing lines, a children's line, underwear, eyewear, watches, perfumes and accessories. It has well over 100 retail stores, more than 250 concessions and some 84 franchise outlets in 25 countries. It is worth £2.1bn, enough to qualify it for the FTSE 100 Index, which it entered in the autumn. But the biggest achievement for creative director Christopher Bailey, has been his success in developing a British fashion brand that is envied and followed on the catwalks of Paris, Milan and New York.

Britannia rules: A world leader in luxury goods

From Jimmy Choo shoes to Vertu's gem-encrusted mobile phones, Britain's roster of luxury brands remains robust. Burberry is the best known of the lot, but its compatriots offer everything from personalised stationary (shoppers in New York may visit the Smythson store on West 57th Street) to opal, onyx and yellow gold cufflinks crafted in the shape of a fox's head (by Longmire). If it's a pen you're after, Conway Stewart offers a variety of instruments, all made in England. Churchill used their pens throughout the Second World War, and more recently, Tony Blair, on a state visit to Russia, gifted a Conway Stewart Churchill Burgundy fountain pen to then Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gadget lovers with a few thousand quid to spare can buy themselves a Vertu phone, designed and made at the company's headquarters in leafy Church Crookham, Hampshire. The devices, some of which are embellished with diamonds, come fitted with a concierge key – press it anytime of the day or night and you'll be put through to someone who can find you a table at the hottest new restaurant. Once your booking is made, walk into the eaterie with your Mulberry bag, or for men, a wallet from Ettinger, who also make souvenirs for Wimbledon. This stuff may cost a little more than a bar of Dairy Milk, but it's all British.