Sussex soap company goes from strength to strength

30th September

Hidden away on a small, farm-based industrial estate in the sleepy country lanes of Waldron in rural East Sussex is a business that is quietly and confidently flourishing.

Christina May started nearly 20 years ago after the co-founders Bob and Juliet Butts discovered some vintage soap moulds lying disused in a machinery workshop on a farm. Their aim was to revive the traditional skills of the master soap maker using techniques that have been used for well over 100 years.

Christina May Managing Director Oliver Butts

From very small beginnings, the company is now exporting its luxury soaps, hand creams and candles around the world with a growing customer base in countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan whose consumers love The English Soap Company brand and appreciate quality, British-made products. In fact, overseas sales are so strong that the business has grown by over 50 percent in the last year and The English Soap company is now regarded as one of the top suppliers of premium, luxury soaps in both the UK and overseas.

The soap wrapping machine in action

Impressively Disney is one of Christina May’s customers along with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew which sells an exclusive range of luxurious soaps inspired by the fragrances and beauty of their plants. The contract with Kew, explains Managing Director Oliver Butts, was pivotal in the company’s success as it contributed to a global presence and a significant boost in turnover. Importantly, it was a good match as both organisations are passionate about safeguarding the environment.

The latest coup for the company, after attending a trade show with support from the Department for International Trade (DTI), is a Japanese contract estimated to be worth £100,000 a year. Japan is one of 34 countries that are enjoying the beautiful soaps made from pure vegetable oil and English-produced fragrances. The contract is estimated to increase Christina May’s annual turnover by up to 3 percent.

From production to the packaging design, wrapping and boxing up for distribution, everything is done in-house which is unusual but keeps costs competitive says Oliver. The packing is particularly striking and, surprisingly, the artwork is still produced by Oliver’s father and co-founder Bob Butts. All of the eye-catching designs for the Kew range are based on original botanic drawings from the Kew archives.

Some of the many products produced and packaged by Christina May

Now employing 37 staff, up from 26 last year, mostly from nearby Heathfield, Hailsham and Uckfield, Christina May is capitalising on the resurgence of traditional bar soaps. Figures show that the UK exported £378.4 million worth of soap last year alone.

In 2018 there was a major investment in state-of-the-art machinery to enable the production of liquid and cream products such as hand cream, shower gel and eau de toilette. As well as the machinery and a dedicated, sterile production area, there is now an in-house lab and team responsible for constantly checking each batch produced meets the highest standards in terms of composition and longevity. Special warm ‘stability ovens’ are used to test product shelf-life and quality.

Testing Christina May products
Checking the composition of products

A key strength of the company and one that is hugely important to Oliver is sustainability and making ethical products that are fully recyclable and long lasting. For instance, a bar of soap can often still be useable after 12 years. There has also been a drive towards minimal packaging, no plastic, and pure, totally recyclable aluminium tubes for products like hand creams. The vegetable oil used in the soaps is sourced from RSPO accredited suppliers and all the essential oils used are synthetic which has less impact on the environment than land-intensive natural production.

“ Vegetable oil gives the soap a smooth creamy texture while the glycerine increases the longevity of the bar whilst moisturising the skin leaving it feeling less dry. Importantly, soap has a low impact on the water course,” says Oliver.

There has also been a conscious decision to use local suppliers and Christina May’s success has had a knock on, positive effect for these businesses. Cardboard comes from Challenge Packaging in Golden Cross, fragrances from Quintessence in Newhaven and printing services from Tansleys Printers in Newhaven

With exporting currently accounting for over 55 percent of Christina May’s annual turnover which has grown from £800,000 to over £3 million over the last seven years, exports have remained consistent during this time and has been a key driver of growth for the company.

Oliver explains: “The prospect of exporting is exciting and perhaps a little daunting, but always fun and a great experience. The paperwork can be an issue in difficult markets which is why we focussed on the easier markets first to build up experience before exporting to the more challenging countries.

“Exporting has also helped us to secure our business against the uncertainty of Brexit as we have diversified our market portfolio across the world so that the impact and any consequences are reduced.

“I would recommend any business that is considering exporting to see how DIT can help. The department has supported us with grants to attend trade shows and general advice which has allowed us to develop an expansive export strategy and find international success.”

Ben Raby, Head of Region, South East, at DIT said:“DIT started supporting Christina May back in 2014 when the company approached us for advice, and it is really exciting to see just how much its exports have grown since that initial interaction.

“The company is one of a growing number of British manufacturers – many of which are SMEs – that are driving British success in the multi-billion-pound soap market. Their global success is proof that there is strong overseas demand for quality made English products and that there has never been a better time to explore international markets than right now.

Christina May is a real success story that has come about after sheer determination and hard work. Co-founder Bob Butts put all his cash from selling a software business and savings into the fledgling soap company.

Oliver and Ailsa Butts

Oliver added: “The first six of seven years were very tough with my father working around the clock and doing almost everything himself. When I joined in July 2012 the company was in a stable situation and my father was able to step back, work from home and concentrate on the packaging and design. He is still the creative director while I focus on sales. We’re a good team and since my wife joined us to run the operations room it has become a real family business.”

Eau de toilettes and shower gels have become part of the core range and there are plans to include more products. As it heads into the busiest time of the year, with Christina May’s products making perfect gifts, the future looks bright for this local company which is has no plans to move as there is plenty of space to expand on the beautiful site in Waldron.

And new hot off the press is the news that Christina May won the Export Business of the Year 2019 category at the East Sussex Business Awards.

The view from factory of rolling Sussex hills