Clean sweep

The English Soap Company, now led by managing director Oliver Butts, is a family-run business that has not only stood the test of time but flourished

Every corner you turn, The English Soap Company seems to echo with resounding success. In 2023 alone, the business achieved a series of accolades, including securing the prestigious ‘Exporter of the Year Award’ from The Department of International; claiming the title of ‘Export Manufacturer of the Year’ at Insider Media’s Made in the South East Awards; and earning ‘Highly Commended’ for Sussex Business Awards’ ‘International Business of the Year’.

For those unfamiliar with the brand, The English Soap Company has a compelling narrative to share. Founded in 2000 by dynamic husband-and-wife team Bob and Juliet Butts, it specialises in crafting pure vegetable soap bars, toiletries and candles from its farm nestled in the heart of the Sussex countryside. Over the past two decades, the business has grown to new heights, and today, Bob and Juliet’s son Oliver heads up operations as managing director.

Oliver and Ailsa Butts

The English Soap Company’s inception can be traced back to Bob and Juliet’s fascination with soap making. What started as a kitchen experiment eventually led them to establish a small operation on a local farm. Joining the venture at the age of 15, Oliver reflects: “It started as a bit of fun, but quickly turned into a serious business, which my mother and father poured everything. Back then, as a 15-year-old, I didn’t realise the hard work that went into it. I helped during the holidays and at weekends, and sometimes my friends got summer jobs too. Now, when my old friends come and visit, they can’t believe it is the same place. We have expanded beyond all recognition – transforming from a humble two-room factory to a thriving business with strengthened facilities and a diverse product range.”

Despite working at the factory during school breaks, Oliver never envisioned his role as managing director. It was only after returning from three years of travel, teaching TEFL in Spain and Slovenia, and pursuing a degree in European Studies that he recognised the calling to continue his family’s legacy. “My decision to lead the company was fuelled by a desire to give back to my family, build upon my parents’ hard work, do something meaningful, and instil positive values into the business.”

The generational shift unfolded in 2012 when Oliver officially took up the mantle of MD. “Shortly after, I met Ailsa, who was training to be a lawyer, with no thoughts or knowledge of soap,” he explains. “This soon changed, however, when she became part of the managerial team and shortly thereafter, part of the family when we got married in 2019.”

Under Oliver’s stewardship, The English Soap Company underwent a transformative journey, marked by international expansion into 40 countries and the introduction of new product lines such as hand washes, hand creams, candles, eaux de toilettes, hand sanitisers and body oils.

Oliver and Ailsa with some of The English Soap Company team

With a current turnover of £6 million and 68 staff members, Oliver’s leadership has fostered a healthy and thriving work environment. His management style centres on trust, empathy and a strong moral foundation. Rather than seeking to excel in every aspect, he focuses on empowering his team, allowing them to contribute their expertise, and strategically delegates responsibilities to those who can do it best, which enables him to concentrate on the business’ overarching strategy.

The English Soap Company differentiates itself by adhering to the principles set by Oliver’s parents – offering high-quality, British-made products at affordable prices. The commitment to sustainability, coupled with an agile approach to manufacturing, allows the company to stay ahead in the market. “I also like to think that what sets us apart is how much we care,” says Oliver. “My father always said staff may come and go, but we look for them to be able to leave the business better than they came, with new skills, friends or interests. Myself, Ailsa and my chief of staff Susannah spend hours discussing ways to improve, what to change and how to move things forward in a positive way.”

The English Soap Company actively seeks involvement in the local community – a commitment recognised by the Wealden Hero Award it received during the pandemic. The business donated tens of thousands of bars of soap and hand creams to local causes, and the practice endures to this day. The company also sponsors various community events with its products. For instance, it played a key role in a gala event for Maggie’s Centre, contributing to a fundraising achievement of £66,000. Additionally, The English Soap Company proudly sponsors its local football team, Lewes FC Women’s team, which stands as the first club in the world to equally invest in its men’s and women’s teams.

Constant innovation drives The English Soap Company’s recent developments, with a rolling two-year plan for new product development. “We analyse the performance of current ranges to see where improvements can be made but also create whole new ranges to showcase other styles and what we can do,” explains Oliver. “For 2024, we have a mix of reinvention and completely new being released throughout the year.”

Further expansion is on the horizon, marked by the acquisition of additional space and machinery to accommodate the growing team and production needs. Oliver is dedicated to continually reinvesting the business profits into subsequent phases of growth, ensuring a sustained trajectory of development. This holds a sentimental significance, especially when reflecting on the company’s humble origins. Oliver expresses: “Our family’s investment in the business is profound, and we collectively remain devoted to ensuring its enduring success for years to come.”

So, what’s next? The English Soap Company charts its course with ambitious short-term goals, including the operationalisation of a second soap production line, an extended global footprint and the implementation of a new MRP system for heightened efficiency. In the broader perspective, the business aspires to achieve a turnover of £10 million within the next five years.

From a kitchen table to global acclaim, The English Soap Company narrates a tale of legacy, growth and indomitable spirit. The team’s steadfast commitment to quality, sustainability and community engagement positions them as pioneers in the soap-making industry, poised for continued innovation and impactful growth. We can’t wait to see what the next 20 years hold!

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