Gio Benedetti is inexhaustible. While many entrepreneurs at his stage of life are sunning themselves in their Mediterranean retreats, the 65-year-old italianborn businessman is working at his Wishaw-based company and looking at how he can sell his latest new products
Gio Benedetti is inexhaustible. While many entrepreneurs at his stage of life are sunning themselves in their Mediterranean retreats, the 65-year-old italianborn businessman is working at his Wishaw-based company and looking at how he can sell his latest new products.
When I interview the self made millionaire in his boardroom, the serial innovator enthusiastically shows me an extraordinary range of devices which either he thought up or which have been brought to him to commercialise. His patented box for cutting cling film without getting into a tangle is now well known. But that is the tip of the iceberg. Just some of the new products either recently launched or in the pipeline include a car headlamp converter, a device for telling continental motorists which side of the road to drive on and an underfoot oscillator to help flyers avoid thrombosis.
However, he is also celebrated for fathering two of Scotland's most talented musicians - the international award-winning violinist nicola and her sister Stephanie who leads the Raven Quartet.
Benedetti has been innovating all his life. over the years he has built up a number of companies and sold them on for a profit including a dry cleaning business he bought for £500 and sold for £15m. today he owns Wishawbased Wallace Cameron, which was originally just a first aid products maker, and also has a stake in Clingfilm and Bacofoil producer Wrap Film Systems.
"I am having fun," says Benedetti, who is a huge inspiration to others who want to be entrepreneurs. indeed he was a founding member of the Prince's trust 20 years ago and is also involved in the Prince's Scottish Youth Business trust which has helped hundreds of young hopefuls to achieve their ambitions.
His life story is an extraordinary one. Born in Barca in the tuscany region of italy, Benedetti came from a working class family and got the work ethic very early. From the age of six he used to cut reeds in the river and turn them into basket weave. His father worked in a local engineering factory but was ambitious for his son. At that time the school leaving age in italy was 12 so the young Giovanni was sent to Scotland to be educated. He stayed with his uncle in Bridgegate, irvine, and earned his keep working in the family café.
School was a bit of an ordeal at first for Benedetti who didn't speak any english and, 55 years on, still has a strong italian accent. "it was a bit of a traumatic time," he recalls. "i was only here two weeks and i went to school and they put me into primary two and that was me playing with plasticine. They didn't really know what to do with me to be honest." However, he soon started making progress and got into the top classes at school despite working evenings and weekends in his uncle's café. "i didn't really get much freedom and didn't really get to play," he says. "But i am not complaining. it was good training for my business future."
Benedetti left school at the age of 17. "to be honest i just really wanted to get out and work because i wanted things like e-type Jaguars." one of the customers in the café told Benedetti about a small dry cleaning shop which was up for sale in Kilwinning and he decided to buy it. He left his uncle's café at 19 after buying the shop with £150 of his savings and a £350 loan from the bank. "i knew nothing about dry cleaning," he admits.
"All the businesses i have had i have known nothing about them and you could say that is the good news and the bad news. The bad news is i don't know anything about the business, the good news is i say 'why are we doing this?'. This is where my innovative mind comes in and says 'right, i am going to change it'."
The shop was struggling and Benedetti quickly decided there was no point in waiting for people to come into it. He bought a van and went out collecting dry cleaning. "i just tried to do something different," he says. "We put leaflets through doors and then went round knocking on doors and offered to collect clothes and deliver them back at the weekend."
Eight years on he had six vans and about 15 shops. Some of the shops were quite large so he utilised the extra space by opening fashion boutiques. "That worked well in most of them," he says. But as time went on more and more clothes were being made of crimplene, which meant less demand for dry cleaning, so Benedetti had to s s look for new markets. He decided he would look at the industrial sector doing garment cleaning and rental and that is where his next diversification came. "Instead of just trying to sell garments I developed a system which would manage the garment business. The big boys had jotters and noughts and crosses."
His biggest breakthrough was in the car-making industry. He was already providing services for the Linwood car plant in Glasgow which had nearly 5000 employees. One day he was going round the factory and saw lots of gloves lying all around. "I asked what was done with them and the guy said they threw them away," he recalls. Benedetti then spent three months working out how to clean, repair and sterilise them, saving thousands of pounds for Rootes and providing a good profit for his business.
He had just built a new 100,000 sq ftfactory to do the extra work when the owner of the plant decided to shut it. "There I was with half my business at the plant so that was a traumatic time," he says. "I had to run." He blitzed other major car manufacturing plants in the UK and won work from them all cleaning gloves and garments for Ford, Nissan, Jaguar, Vauxhall and Rover. "At one stage we had twelve 40 fttrucks leaving Kilwinning and servicing the whole of the British motor industry. Basically, if we didn't deliver the British motoring industry would have shut down." He was also cleaning garments for Tesco's then 700 stores in the UK.
In 1988 he sold the business - by then called ICS - to cleaning giant Initial for £15m then spent the next two years working for Initial before going on to buy toilet roll manufacturer Pendigo. The firm was turning over just £1m a year and over the next six years grew to sales of £30m. The innovation which made the difference at Pendigo was a new dispenser for the toilet rolls. "We developed 17 new ranges of dispensers and that is what really sold it," he says.
However, Pendigo provided problems for Benedetti who was not happy with his management team. "The entrepreneur's biggest problem is getting the right people to run a business. I don't particularly want to run one and am not particularly good at it." Despite that he managed to sell the company to SCA in 2002 for £10.5m after buying it for some £500,000 eight years earlier.
In the meantime, in 2000, he had bought Telford-based £2m turnover Clingfilm producer Wrapfilm. "I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with it," says Benedetti, who later saw an opportunity to create a new dispenser for Clingfilm. "We have been to the moon twice and it was still in poxy boxes that everybody hates so I thought I could change that." Today the Benedetti dispenser is sold in major supermarket chains and earlier this year his company bought rival company Bacofoil. It now has turnover of between £55m and £60m.
Benedetti sold Wrapfilm in a £21m management buyout backed by venture capital group Close Growth Capital in 2007 though he still has a stake in the company. His main focus now is Wallace Cameron. In 1994 Scottish Enterprise asked him to look at the company, which had been put up for sale by US company Alberto Culver. "The people who were going to buy it were going to close it and Scottish Enterprise asked me to see if I could save it. I went across and really had a week to buy it."
The company's main products were first aid kits for industry and Benedetti was flabbergasted when he saw how old-fashioned they looked so his first priority was to redesign the boxes to make them look attractive and also more practical. Today Wallace Cameron makes a huge variety of award-winning, different coloured perspex dispensers. Its annual sales have grown to £15m a year with exports to 30 countries and the Wishaw factory employs 150 people. "We helped to change the whole first aid market. I introduced colours and innovations and everybody is trying to catch up now. We are now moving on to the next stage of dispensers."
All the dispensers are assembled in Wishaw though their contents are sourced from all over the world. Two years ago it moved into the domestic market and that now accounts for £3m of turnover. Its products include first aid boxes in football club colours and custom designed first aid boxes for bicycles. The company also capitalised on its expertise by launching a first aid training division and now looks after many major clients including British Telecom and Tesco.
His eight-strong design team at Wishaw works on new products for both Wallace Cameron and Wrapfilm as well as outside individuals and companies. "We put out two or three products potentially a year," he says.
The ideas from products often come from meetings with customers. "I was at a meeting with one of the big supermarkets and the guy said 'come up with some ideas for shopping bags'," he says. Benedetti and his team produced the Eco-Handle shopping bag - which launched last month - and he has already had 200 enquiries.
Cradlesafe, which monitors babies' breathing and movement, was invented by 25-year-old Paul Sommerville, who met Benedetti through the Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust. He had already spent £500,000 and had run out of money but Benedetti saw the potential and is now about to launch it.
Another product in the pipeline is a safe ampule opener which makes life easier for nurses and doctors. "This idea came from a university," says Benedetti. "We now do work for universities, and the NHS come to us.
"People have ideas but they are always ideas. What we can do now is add value to it. Make a differentiation. We may change it. We can also manufacture it, package it and sell it. We can do the whole package."