Obituary feature: John Twallin

JOHN Twallin, who died on December 14, was the driving force behind the creation and growth of the tools and hardware distributor Toolbank, and of its parent company, the Dormole group.

John Twallin (or JT as he was affectionately known) was effectively born into the tool trade: he was a direct descendant of Ann Buck and her son John Roe Hickman, who together founded the tool distributor Buck & Hickman in London in the mid 19th century.

Following national service, which included qualification as a Russian interpreter, John joined Buck & Hickman in the early 1950s and rose to become purchasing director. In late 1971, however, the firm fell victim to a hostile takeover bid, and the new owners told him his services were no longer required and he could leave at the end of the week.

Arthur Clemson, Buck & Hickman’s sales director, was unimpressed with the new owners and the way the family had been treated. “If I had my time again,” he told John, “I would start on my own”; and together they planned the launch of a midlands-based wholesale tool distributor with a crucial difference from Buck & Hickman: they would sell only to the retail trade, not to end-users. They re-mortgaged their houses, and with a loan from John’s mother, set up CA Clemson & Sons. Clemsons opened for business on February 28 1972, achieving sales of £204,000 and net profit of just £1,056 in its first year. 

It was clear that the new business would not initially be able to support both of them, so John took a job with the engineers’ merchants Thomas P Headland; and while still working there he was introduced to Curtis Holt, a small tool wholesaler in Kent. Curtis Holt MD David Lister could see the potential benefits of having Buck & Hickman’s former purchasing director on board, and appointed John as a non-executive director in December 1971. Then early in 1974, David Lister invited John and Arthur to buy him out. They didn’t have the cash, but persuaded Lister and the other Curtis Holt shareholders to take loan stock, repayable over five years. An off-the-shelf company, Dormole, was used to complete the purchase, and John became chairman with Arthur as MD.

Over the following 45 years, Dormole grew to become the UK’s leading distributor of hand tools and power tools to the hardware trade, to builders merchants, and later to the fast-growing online market. Early expansion included opening branches in south Wales, Norwich (under the noses of rivals RCF, who were planning a move in the same territory), Bradford, and Southampton.

But the emphasis was never on sheer size. The 1979 catalogue spelled out the ethos of the business: “We do not wish to give anyone the impression of great size, for great size does not add anything to the efficiency of a distributive unit. We aim to be considered as small but efficient companies, servicing local areas but strengthening each other through our association together.” John believed deeply in letting the branch managers run their branches, and fostered a policy of branch autonomy which continued as the group grew. Having the stock was a vital point, too: “Stock was the basis on which our business was founded,” John recalled much later. “We weren’t great businessmen, but we did know that the only way to get business was to have the stock.”

The Toolbank brand was registered in 1979, but at trade shows in the early 1980s the company was still exhibiting as Curtis Holt and Clemsons, sub-titled ‘The Tool Bank Group of Companies’. It was not until the 1984 edition of the catalogue was published – the first of many Big Blue Books – that the Toolbank name appeared as a national brand for the first time, and definitively as a single word.

More expansion followed: the Exeter branch opened in 1980, and in 1981 the group acquired a garden machinery business called Godfreys – later sold to a management buy-out. The same year, John was tipped off that rival distributor PTS was in talks to buy the Glasgow wholesaler Finnie & Co. His buccaneering instinct came to the fore – he and Arthur flew to Scotland and a deal was agreed within two weeks. “So quickly, in fact, that Finnie’s agreement came through on the very same day as we got approval from the Midland Bank, on whose support we had rather irresponsibly been relying,” said John. Dennis Lloyd, his financial advisor, was less than impressed: “Don’t you ever do that to me again,” he said.

Expansion continued through the 1980s: the launch of the Hand Tool Distributors operation, servicing DIY superstore customers; the acquisition of Rees Jones in Warrington and the opening of the north London branch in Bushey; the acquisition of a minority shareholding in the French wholesaler Denuziere; the start of a daily delivery service, initially from the Bushey branch; the launch of the XMS Christmas promotion; and the successful re-launch of the Faithfull brand. Amid all this, Arthur Clemson retired in 1985, and thereafter John drove the business forward at the head of a team of long-serving and trusted colleagues.

The 1990s saw the creation of a national warehouse for slower-moving specialist lines, freeing up space in the branches and reducing the group’s overall stock level without impairing availability. But it was also in the 1990s that John fought his biggest battle, after the power tool maker Bosch, which accounted for 25% of Toolbank’s turnover, abruptly ended their 10-year trading relationship. In the absence of a formal written contract – John was a firm believer in the weight of a handshake – Bosch refused to accept that their action had been in breach of the gentlemen’s agreement. It took four years of legal argument, including a period of several months when John was seriously ill, before Toolbank’s claim was settled, the day before the case was due to come to court.

In the meantime, Toolbank had successfully replaced the Bosch range with other brands; and a successful and amicable trading relationship was re-established some years later when Dormole acquired a majority shareholding in the specialist power tools distributor Biz, which included Bosch in its range.

Following his illness, John decided to take a step back from the day-to-day management of the group. A Toolbank management board was set up with Andrew Strong as CEO, and John focused on his role as chairman of the Dormole parent board, although for many years afterwards he continued to play an active part in trading matters.

In 1995, the company unveiled Toolbank Express, the first significant step taken by a UK tool wholesaler towards a coherent online proposition, and which would evolve into Toolbank.com a few years later; and in 1997 it opened its first accounts with stockists in the Republic of Ireland. Profits were continually ploughed back into the business, funding new and bigger warehouses, continuously updated IT systems, and more marketing and promotional support for the customers. By 2002, group sales had reached £100m.

When in 2003 Neill Tools terminated a 25-year trading relationship without warning, John and his colleagues decided not to pursue a legal fight; instead they concentrated on replacing the Neill-owned ranges, and with the support of their other key supply partners quickly retrieved the lost business.

The global financial crisis in 2008 saw Dormole sales decline by 9%, and then by a further 9% the following year. For Andrew Strong, it showed the importance of shareholder support. “It was the ultimate test – in contrast to many companies in the industry, where there were people having to re-apply for their jobs and so on,” he said. “John and his family were all massively supportive – and over the long term, they have given huge support to the management team and its policies.”

Acquisitions continued: the hand tools maker Olympia, the fastenings specialist ForgeFix, and the aforementioned majority share in the distributor Biz Power Tools. These companies were consolidated within Dormole’s acquisition operation Galleon Investments. In 2018, with Brexit looming, the group strengthened its position in the EU with the takeover of the leading Irish tool distributor, Tucks O’Brien, and its sister company Tucks Fasteners & Fixings.

John decided in 2014 to step down as chairman of the business he had co-founded 42 years earlier. “Andrew and other members of the Dormole and Toolbank boards have taken on a greater and greater share of my workload in recent years, so it is therefore very much ‘business as usual’ as far as the company is concerned,” he said. He remained a non-executive director and continued to take a close interest in the group’s progress – but his presence at the Dartford office became less and less frequent.

“He was a real entrepreneur, a fearsome negotiator, and passionate about promoting the interests of wholesale distribution and Dormole in particular,” said Andrew Strong. “He drove us on at times when the odds seemed insurmountable because he believed so strongly in the business and the team that he had built. His love of the business and everyone in it, who he referred to as the Toolbank family, meant that the development of Toolbank and Galleon became one of the major focuses of his life. He and his family therefore kept re-investing in the business in order that it could grow and prosper.”

Recognition of the group’s achievements came from an unexpected quarter in 2015, when Toolbank was ranked number 219 out of 250 in the Sunday Times Top Track 250 ‘league table’ of independent medium-size private companies in the UK ranked by turnover. The ranking actually understated the group’s position, as the Sunday Times looked only at Curtis Holt’s accounts, and neglected to include CA Clemson. When the companies merged in 2018, and the figures included Clemson’s sales as well as Dormole’s, Toolbank rose to number 114 in the table.

John always saw his role as an employer as something like a benevolent patriarch, and research during 2018 confirmed that the Dormole group had an extraordinarily high proportion of long-service employees. Of the 939 people employed, nearly half had clocked up 10 years with the company. 299 had reached 15 years, and of those 299, 197 had done 20 years. In fact there were 72 people who had been with the group for 30 years or longer. There can’t be many companies – in any industry – that could match this record of loyalty and long service.

The ‘family company’ feeling is evident throughout the group, and not just because the business is still owned and run by the founders’ families. There are family connections at all levels in the business: fathers and sons, husbands and wives, generations of employees. Another staff member put it this way: “There is a ‘pitch in together’ mentality about the place”.

John was much more than just a successful businessman: he was a long-standing supporter of the industry charity, the Royal Metal Trades Benevolent Society, later re-named the Rainy Day Trust. He served as a trustee for many years, and when he stepped down, he ensured that other Dormole group representatives took his place on the charity’s board. In addition, he was a committed and generous governor of Sir Robert Geffery’s School in Landrake, Cornwall, through his association with the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, for whom he had previously been the Master.

Also behind the scenes, he built up one of the UK’s most significant collections of rare and historic hand tools, working with honorary curator Wally Flude. For many years the collection was displayed in a locked room at the Dartford office, where it could be seen only by invited guests, but John had long cherished an ambition to have it on public view. This was finally achieved with an agreement to transfer the collection to the Ken Hawley Collection Trust in Sheffield, and the transfer took place in 2019, a few months before his death.

He is survived by his widow Elizabeth, his daughters Frances, Catherine, Philippa and Alex, and their families. His life and work will be recalled at a service of thanksgiving in Sevenoaks.

John Twallin; obituary; Toolbank; Dormole;
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