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Life begins at forty

12 December 2014

It’s been 40 years since cleaning technology and solutions specialist Prochem Europe rode into the cleaning sector on the back of an innovation – a hot water soil extraction process for carpet and fabric cleaning. Cleaning Matters discovers the secrets of its success

In 1974 the carpet and fabric cleaning industry was undergoing a major technology change where oil-based shampoo cleaning was giving way to a new concept in hot water soil extraction – this was a game changer for the market that carpet cleaner Ron Tilley, who would become the founder of Prochem, spotted and seized. He immediately set to work establishing associations with manufacturers to import hot water extraction equipment from the USA where the innovation had started. 

The "Steemeasy" machine was one of the first to appear on the UK market and later that year the "Prochem" brand name was trademarked by the company as a natural evolution and snappier reduction of the original Professional Chemical trading name. The new machines, which were designed to spray and extract a fast acting detergent or emulsifier solution into the carpet or fabric, took off and were soon replacing old-fashioned rotary scrubbing machines which relied on an oil-based shampoo method often the cause of re-soiling.  

Prochem began developing formulations and cleaning systems to suit the UK market where wool and wool-mix fibres and sensitive cotton, rayon and silk fabrics were favoured. This included the now widely-used concept of pre-spraying and acidic rinsing. At the same time the company developed specialised training courses for the new extraction process as well as advising cleaners on how to improve on the traditional methods still being used.

In 1980, the company began manufacturing chemical products at premises in Kingston-upon-Thames and during the next 15 years developed and refined products and formulations to meet the growing demand from its now extensive distributor network. 

The fast-expanding business re-located in 1994 to much larger premises in Chessington where space became available for manufacturing expansion, storage, laboratory product development and equipment sales and service. The new building also provided for a dedicated two-storey training facility. 

But the story doesn't end there. Cleaning Matters spoke to Alan Tilley, managing director of Prochem and son of founder Ron, to find out how they have managed to build on these strong foundations in an increasingly competitive marketplace...

Cleaning Matters (CM) - Congratulations on Prochem's 40th anniversary! How has the company evolved since moving into its current premises 20 years ago?

Alan Tilley (AT) - Our chemical product range has grown steadily over the years to include multiple market and performance choices for carpet, upholstery and floor cleaning and maintenance. We have also developed niche products for restoration and specialist cleaning along the way including engine driven truck mounted carpet cleaning machines which have become the go-to solution for commercial, transport and aircraft interior cleaning.

Service back-up for our equipment range has always been a priority. The vision was to have a national network of independent partner distributors who would offer a high level of service and advice locally to our customers. Our ethos to manufacture or supply the best quality products and show people how to use them hasn’t changed.

CM -  What challenges have you come up against?

AT - In many respects, the same as other small companies and growing businesses. Maintaining growth and managing the increasing complexities of employment, health and safety and the specific and stringent requirements of manufacturing chemical products. It is a type of business that I believe has many barriers to entry compared to the 1970’s. From a market point of view as a British manufacturer we have always received a lot of interest from overseas which has resulted in a growing export business.

CM -  Where has the company witnessed the most growth?

AT - An unexpected and growing market for us has been the residential elderly care sector which has a very high demand for interior cleaning and hygiene products.

CM - What has been your proudest moment at Prochem?

AT - It has to be receiving the Grant of a Royal Warrant of Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen for the supply of carpet cleaning products in 2012.

CM - What would you say is the biggest lesson you've learnt?

AT - Evolution not revolution. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel.

CM -  How has the cleaning industry changed over the years you've been in the business?

AT - Technology has changed for the better with higher levels of performance and safety of both equipment and chemicals. During this period, the cleaning industry in general has come to recognise the importance of training. Today the majority of cleaners have a level of knowledge and skill that was more the exception than the rule 40 years ago.

CM - Where do you see the biggest product innovations happening in the cleaning industry?

AT - On the chemical side, we are seeing new raw materials and emerging formulations that have a very high performance profile but with a very low impact on the environment. With cleaning equipment the manufacturing, engineering and performance improvements over the last 20 years are combining to produce more efficient, quiet and reliable cleaning machines.

CM - What plans do you have for the future?

AT - To continue to provide quality products to the cleaning industry and to research new innovations.

CM - Do you have any advice for businesses?

AT - Treat every customer as if they are your only customer. It’s something I always did in my early years at Prochem and many of those customer relationships have continued 38 years later.