From humble beginnings, Doreen Lofthouse, who has died aged 91, went on to become one of Britain’s most successful and richest businesswomen.
Having begun her working life as a shop assistant, such was her energy and visionary zeal that she was able to transform a Lancastrian menthol and eucalyptus lozenge from a cottage industry into a major international success story. At the same time, as head of her family’s charitable arm, she made a distinctive and lasting contribution to her local community.
An only child, Doreen Wilson Cowell was born and raised in the once busy Lancashire fishing port of Fleetwood. After leaving school in 1945, aged 15, with no qualifications and no particular ambition, she worked in a local family-run chemist’s shop managed by James Lofthouse. The business, founded in 1865 by Lofthouse’s grandfather, was renowned for supplying trawlermen with bottles of a liquid remedy containing liquorice, eucalyptus, menthol and capsicum. If you had aches and pains you rubbed it on your joints. And if you had a cough, you put a few drops on a sugar cube. As bottles tended to break at sea, the formula was later mixed with a dough that became the basis of today’s Fisherman’s Friend.
While Lofthouse made the lozenges by hand on the shop’s marble slab, his sons Alan and James and daughter Florence helped him with packaging and serving customers. During the summer, the family also operated a number of popular seafront kiosks to sell their products to the hordes of holidaymakers who ventured north on the tram from neighbouring Blackpool. In 1948, Doreen married James Lofthouse’s younger son, Alan. They would have a son, Duncan. The marriage would eventually founder and, in 1976, to the surprise of many, she married Tony Lofthouse, the son of her former husband’s brother, and 14 years her junior.
Initially, the Fisherman’s Friend was only sold locally, but Doreen grasped the lozenge’s wider potential. With the help of a van, before long this pocket-sized powerhouse could be found in the textile towns both of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Doreen and Tony worked 100-hour weeks, selling by day and packing by night. Within a couple of years, with the chemist Boots now onboard, they moved into a newly converted tram shed. In 1972, they invested further, in a 20,000 sq ft unit on a Fleetwood industrial estate.
A turning point came 12 months later when, out of the blue, a UK-based distribution company called Impex Management sought permission to supply the lozenges to Norway. After an initial delivery quickly sold out, further orders soon flooded in as neighbouring Scandinavian countries, along with Iceland and Greenland, became devotees.
Long believing that the company could only prosper in cold countries, Doreen was both surprised and delighted to find Greece and Italy developing a passion for the product. The first of three Queen’s Awards for Export Achievement came in 1983. Today, the company produces billions of lozenges every year.
As Fleetwood’s once vibrant fishing industry declined, the Lofthouse of Fleetwood company became one of the port’s major employers. Concern for the wellbeing of employees has long remained a hallmark of this still family-run business.
Through its charitable arm, the company financed the town’s 150th birthday celebrations, sponsored a new lifeboat, donated £1.6m to the local hospital, refurbished the esplanade and turned a derelict engineering works into a well-equipped youth centre. Doreen also gifted a 17ft replica of London’s Eros Statue to the town and generous funds have helped refurbish the Mount park.
Away from business, the couple lived quietly with their pets in nearby Thornton where Doreen was able to indulge her love of gardening. However, her world was turned upside down in March 2009, when two masked intruders broke in and viciously assaulted Tony. Locking the couple overnight in a bathroom, the thieves then made off with more than £500,000-worth of possessions that included Doreen’s MBE and OBE medals and the solid gold Fisherman’s Friend that Tony had given her on their wedding day. Typically, the insurance payout was later donated to Lancashire Constabulary to help fund the provision of a new automatic number-plate recognition system within the county.
Tony died in 2018. She is survived by her son.
Doreen Lofthouse, businesswoman and philanthropist, born 27 February 1930, died 30 March 2021