The story of Rentokil Initial begins suitably with a pest control problem and a Professor of Entomology. The pests were death watch beetles in Westminster Hall, beside England's Houses of Parliament, and the Professor of Entomology was Harold Maxwell Lefroy from Imperial College, London. In the early 1920s, Lefroy was asked by Sir Frank Baines, Principal Architect of the Office of Works, to study ways of exterminating the beetles in the hall.
His work led him to devise various successful formulations, and in time Lefroy began receiving regular orders from people who had heard about his work. In 1924, Lefroy and his assistant Miss Elizabeth Eades started supplying bottles of woodworm fluid from a small factory in Hatton Garden, which he called ‘Ento-Kill Fluids’ – an amalgam of the Greek word ‘entomon’ meaning insect and the English word ‘kill’.
New-found success inspired the pair to register a company in 1925. Their first choice for a name was, predictably, ‘Entokill’, but trade name objections did not allow this. So instead they settled on Rentokil Limited.
Lefroy was accidentally killed by poisonous fumes in a laboratory experiment the following year and initially it seemed like the year-old Rentokil would be buried with him. That is, until Miss Eades, who had a small investment in the business, offered to take over the running of the company, which she did successfully.
In 1944, Dr Norman Hickin joined Rentokil Limited as an entomologist and started a servicing section that in 1952 became Woodworm and Dry Rot Control Ltd.
The story of Ratin, the other forefather of Rentokil Initial, begins in 1902 with the discovery of a strain of bacteria lethal to rats and mice by a Danish pharmacist, Georg Neumann of Aalborg. This became known commercially as Ratin.
The development grabbed the attention of a company by the name of Sophus Berendsen A/S, and it secured the sales rights to Ratin for Denmark, Sweden and the British Isles. The first London sales office was opened in 1906.
Operations in Britain struggled initially, and it was not until 1927, when a young Dane, Karl Gustav Anker-Petersen, was appointed in the UK, that business began to develop.
In 1928, Anker-Petersen realised that the newly-incorporated British Ratin Company could make more money by providing a service killing rats and mice than by selling products targeting the rodents. So he switched the focus of the company, and during the next ten years or so it expanded across the UK.
As with all companies, British Ratin was faced with severe difficulties during the Second World War, with the only respite coming from the government-led drive to conserve food-stocks and prevent pest-borne epidemics, which helped to stimulate some demand for industrial pest control work.
During the forties, the demand for pest control services began extending beyond rodent control to insect control, and to keep up with demand British Ratin made its first acquisition, Chelsea Insecticides Ltd.
Early in the 1950s, British Ratin took the decision to move into the woodworm market, and shortly afterwards its subsidiary, Disinfestation Ltd, carried out the first woodworm treatments in 1952.
By the mid-1950s, the synergies between British Ratin and Rentokil Ltd had become obvious and in 1957 British Ratin acquired Rentokil Ltd and its service arm, Woodworm and Dry Rot Control Ltd. The move brought two brands into one stable, and forced a decision on which brand the company would trade under. In 1960, Rentokil Group Ltd was adopted as the main title, and on January 1 1962, all the UK trading companies became divisions of Rentokil Laboratories Ltd, shortened to Rentokil Limited.
From then on, the Group progressed at an enviable pace, both through organic growth and by modest acquisitions.
In 1969, Rentokil Group Ltd listed on the stock exchange with one of the largest new issues of shares the City had seen. In the same year, it established the basis of a hygiene division with the purchase of Rashbrooke Chemical Co., and added to it the following year with the acquisition of Thames Services (Kingston) for £1 million. Post-listing, Rentokil Pest Control created the leading pest prevention systems in the food industry and established itself as the largest pest control contractor in the UK, a position it still holds today.
During the 70s, 80s and early 90s, Rentokil embarked on its geographical expansion and increased its list of services with acquisitions of businesses involved with office cleaning, indoor tropical plant care and office machinery maintenance. A healthcare (washroom services) division was also set up during this period, and bolstered by the acquisition of the Calmic washroom hygiene company. In 1993, Securiguard plc was purchased, representing the company's first entry into the security and parcel delivery markets, and in 1996 Rentokil made its largest acquisition to date, BET (British Electric Traction).
BET was a major competitor in the business support services sector, and the acquisition immediately added mass to existing operations and exposed Rentokil to new business areas, including textile services, electronic security and education and training centres. The outcome was that the company could offer a wider and more comprehensive range of business services than ever before.
Again, the acquisition raised questions about branding. The company had to decide whether to stick to the powerful Rentokil brand, or use the new Initial brand which came from BET (see Initial Origins). It was felt that while Rentokil was a respected global brand, it was not ideal for marketing certain services. So, a decision was taken to use both the Rentokil and Initial brands, and to name the company Rentokil Initial. So it was, that in October 1996, Rentokil Initial was born.
The Initial brand traces its origins back to a Mr A P Bigelow. In 1903, the enterprising Mr Bigelow introduced a towel rental service to the business establishments of London, with the unique selling point that each towel was marked with the customer's initials. The initials ensured that customers only received their own towels, and formed the basis for the name of the company, ‘Initial Towel Supply Company’.
The idea worked, and in 1928 the company was floated on the stock market and shortly afterwards Mr and Mrs Bigelow - Americans - returned to the United States.
BET's involvement with Initial dates back to the 1930s, when BET acquired a small stake in the business. The move followed a decision by BET to move into the profitable service business of laundries, and its acquisition of the Advance Service laundry business.
BET's investment proved timely. Shortly after the Second World War, Initial established itself as the largest towel-rental company in the United Kingdom, and began expanding into Europe, Australia and, later, the United States.
In the early 1980s, BET increased its stake in Initial to 40%, and in 1985 BET acquired the remaining 60%. Allowing it to merge Initial with Advance Service's laundry operations - while retaining the Initial brand name.
Finally, in 1996, the dynamic company and brand passed to Rentokil, following Rentokil's acquisition of BET.