Packing a punch thanks to the people

The buoyant economy is changing the shape of the Middle Market 50 - our listing of private firms that have sustained strong growth
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EXPORTERS may be complaining mightily about the trading difficulties caused by the strength of the pound against other currencies. But this year's Middle Market 50 indicates the extent to which the buoyant economy reflected in that exchange rate is spread across sectors and regions.

The market listing recognises the achievement of continued strong growth by ranking companies that had sales of at least pounds 5m in the first of the five years covered by the survey. And as with the main Independent 100 listing, it contains a fair proportion of companies involved in computers, mobile telephones and recruitment.

Yet retailers - such as Sports Division, which has grown strongly on the back of taking over the Olympus chain from the ailing Sears, and New Look, the fashion group that is planning to float on the Stock Exchange in the coming weeks - are also up there. They are joined by construction and property concerns such as 15th-placed George S Hall Holdings and even a few manufacturers, such as Metrocab, the West Midlands maker of London taxi cabs.

Moreover companies featured in the listing, compiled by the Independent on Sunday in association with the accountants Price Waterhouse, are based in places as far apart as the south coast of England and Scotland.

One of the more out-of-the-way companies is Lakeland, which props up the table in 50th place from its base in Windermere, Cumbria. Run by three brothers, this mail order and retail supplier of specialist kitchenware was set up in the early 1960s as Lakeland Poultry Packers.

As the name suggests, its original business was supplying polythene bags for packing chickens and other poultry. From there it was a small step to supplying plastic containers, primarily for use in freezers, as a result of which the name of the company was changed to Lakeland Plastics.

However, the development of its current market - kitchenware - came in the past decade. Sam Rayner, the managing director, and his brothers Martin and Julian, have built the company on a strategy of service. "We are very people-focused, both in terms of service to customers and in the way we deal with our staff," says Sam Rayner.

One of the ways in which this approach manifests itself is in the company policy of resisting the temptation to hire and fire staff according to seasonal demand. He believes that it is not reasonable to expect employees to give their best to a company if they are not given continuity of service, and adds that the company also seeks to be competitive in terms of the pay and benefits offered to staff.

"We want them to be very happy doing the job. We want them to get as much enjoyment as they can out of their work," says Mr Rayner.

The strategy does not seem to have hurt the business - quite the opposite. With 16 stores now open besides the mail-order business, the company has 600 staff, making it the largest employer in Windermere.

Expansion is continuing. An outlet in Worcester is next, while the company has space booked in the Blue Water development, which is due to open on the Kent side of the Thames next April.

In the five years covered by this year's Middle Market 50 table, Lakeland's annual sales grew at 21.9 per cent a year to just over pounds 38m. They are now at about pounds 40m.

Sam Rayner says that much of the firm's success is also due to the fact that the three brothers work well together. "We share a vision about how we want the business to be."

One of their strategies has been to plough profits back into the business, as demonstrated by the recent expenditure of pounds 2.5m on extending the company's distribution centre. By not taking a lot of money out for themselves, they do not need to float the company to raise finance for growth, he adds.