What do a crash helmet, a condom, Tower Bridge and a kettle have in common?

The British Standards Institution has given its stamp of approval to goods from helmets to condoms and steel. Mark Leftly meets the boss of a British success story

Tower Bridge is the most famous, enduring physical landmark built by Sir John Wolfe-Barry, the great civil engineer, although his District line remains a somewhat temperamental feature of the London Underground.

Arguably of greater international significance, though, is the legacy of a little stamp that looks like two scoops of ice-cream sitting in a large cone. On the day Queen Victoria died in 1901, Wolfe-Barry led the Institution of Civil Engineers in forming a committee that would standardise sections of iron and steel for railways and tramways, making construction cheaper and quicker.

Within two years, what was to become the Kitemark was created, and for well over a century that symbol has assured customers that the products they buy are safe and of a certain quality. From the Second World War onwards, the British Standards Institution (BSI) was made the sole organisation allowed to dish out this seal of approval on everything from crash helmets to the environmental impact of the London 2012 Olympics.

There are now around 35,000 British Standards being used in nearly 150 countries, which the Government has credited with generating £2.5bn for the British economy. Today, the BSI releases its 2012 results, which show revenue and profit are on the up for the 13th consecutive year, at £254m and £32m respectively.

Howard Kerr, the £342,000-a-year chief executive of the BSI, declares: "Fundamentally, this is a great British success story. The BSI is an incredibly strong brand, a household name in the UK and around the world."

Like the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Bank of England, the BSI works under Royal Charter, pouring any profit back into the business as it certifies the products and services of four in every five companies on the FTSE 100 and half those on the Nikkei. The BSI has developed so many types of standards that there is clearly some frustration that the group is still best known for a brand invented when Arthur Balfour occupied 10 Downing Street.

"We're very proud of the Kitemark, but it's less than 5 per cent of what we do," sighs Mr Kerr. "It's good to be known for something, but the Kitemark is a very UK-centric thing. If you think about Kitemark now, I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is condoms."

As Mr Kerr's example indicates, the Kitemark is primarily used for products around safety, which also include fire alarms and electrical devices. However, Mr Kerr and the Treasury are looking to "modernise" the Kitemark image, by using the standard on simple financial products, such as savings accounts.

The idea is to provide bank-doubting consumers with greater certainty that they have not been duped into taking up something they do not need in the wake of scandals like the mis-selling of payment protection insurance.

Apart from the Kitemark, the BSI provides certification for medical devices, the CE mark that means products meet European standards, and training, which saw double-digit growth last year. Operating from 60 offices in 26 countries means that BSI has a range of different international standards to award, as they can vary across borders.

Indeed, for about five years now more than half of BSI's business has come from outside the UK. Mr Kerr has £41m in cash handy should he want to go on an overseas spending spree, which would likely be businesses valued at £10m to £30m with the scope to be rolled out internationally.

"That could be a business involved in training, something with relevant software, or people certifying new sectors," explains Mr Kerr. "We would look at businesses with the potential to be global, that are in one or two countries today."

Mr Kerr's plan is to double revenue within five years, having noted that BSI is experiencing particularly fast growth in the emerging economic titans of China, India and the Middle East. As these markets integrate with the rest of the global economy, so their business and political leaders want to prove the quality and safety of their products to existing and potential trading partners.

However, he plays down talk that BSI could soon be listed on the London Stock Exchange. "We're always asked that," smiles Mr Kerr, though he does not dismiss the idea entirely. "People always assume that we want a different ownership structure."

The BSI has no direct involvement with the "horsegate" scandal, as this part of the food industry is covered by different standards providers. However, Mr Kerr accepts that standards are not sufficient to tackle what is potentially criminal activity: "No regulation, no standard in the world can [prevent] people who want to perpetuate an economic fraud."

However, those little stamps of approval do put people's minds at rest that a condom is unlikely to split, a heart monitor won't fail, or a manhole cover will be able to hold the weight of pedestrians walking over it.

Tower Bridge made Wolfe-Barry's name, but the BSI is the organisation that has developed what could be considered his most important idea.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'