Sales are on the rise at a Wiltshire family-owned ladder firm loved by the royals.
Melksham-based Henchman, which makes tripod ladders for uneven ground, has supplied most of the royal residences including Highgrove and Buckingham Palace.
The firm was started in 1994 when businessman founder Mike Kitching fell from a conventional ladder while at home in Hannington, Hampshire, and he could not find a safer ladder to use on his uneven garden.
He explained the problem to his teenage son Tom who developed a safer raised platform for his GCSE in Design and Technology exam while studying at Sherborne School.
Henchman has been at the forefront of safety ever since and produces the only Fully Certified tripod ladder on the market in the UK and the rest of the world (Certified to EN131 BSI (British Standards Institute).
Tom is now 46 and executive chairman at the firm while his father Mike, 86, is retired but still takes a close interest in the business which is being driven forward by 28-year-old managing director Owen Simpson.
Tom said: “It is wonderful that we are so popular with the gardeners at the royal residences.
“I have been to Buckingham Palace to help the team there and we have also supplied Highgrove, Sandringham and Kensington Palace which all have beautiful grounds.
“Safety is at the heart of everything we do and our ladders are perfect for royal gardens which have lots of uneven surfaces.
“Our tripod ladders allow the royal gardeners to prune larger bushes and trees in complete safety, allowing them to focus on the job in hand. We see it as our mission to prevent accidents and falls from heights and we are trying to bring a professional level of safety to the consumer.
“There is such a thing as a safe ladder for uneven terrain and we are delighted to have made them and improved them for almost 30 years.
“Ladder falls are a big cause of serious injury with up to 100,000 hospital visits a year and around 12 deaths a year, according to the most recent figures. It is good to think we have contributed to a reduction in those numbers.
“The latest figures from the charity No Falls Foundation estimate between 105,000 and 420,000 falls from height in homes and gardens each year.”
Sales have grown over the last five years by 320% to peak during the height of the Covid pandemic when the UK went gardening mad.
Turn-over is expected to grow again this year with more than 80% of sales coming directly to the business through online and telephone sales.
Around 10% of sales are outside the UK and sister company Henchman BV has been launched to supply the Netherlands, France, Germany and the rest of Europe.
Tom said: “The smallest undulations can make a surface unsafe – it can be something as simple as having to span a pavement and that is why we are excited about growth in new territories.
Henchman has launched the new fully adjustable PRO tripod ladder which has all the benefits of the original but with even more versatility, adjustability and durability and with a second platform if gardeners need to work lower down.
A key part of its Henchman’s success has been bringing in Bristol-based online retail specialists Brightpearl whose software has managed all its orders for the past seven years.
Tom explained: “Brightpearl has been an important partner of ours for a long time. It is vital to have that back office software support to save time and manage stock.
“It has automated the supply side and enabled us to save a lot of money by replacing tasks that were previously done by hand.
“Brightpearl has enabled us to maintain the high levels of customer service which we pride ourselves on and improve the overall efficiency of the business.
“All our different sales channels connect to the same system – whether that be shops, over the phone, our website, Amazon or eBay – so all the stock is controlled in one place.
“Because it is a growing system and it is being worked on continuously, there is always more integration. In the last few years we have been able to automate all of our shipping labels for our couriers which saves several hours a day of work and means we don’t have to recruit more staff, which is important in a business of our size.
“We have been able to automate all of our ordering processing journey.”
Henchman made headlines when England Rugby used its tripod ladder to help with line-out training during the World Cup in Japan in 2019.
Steve Borthwick was then line-out coach and Tom spotted him teetering on top of an old step ladder while throwing balls from the sidelines. It meant the former England captain was struggling for balance while going through vital drills.
The tripod ladder is still spotted in various training sessions with England Rugby and other Premiership rugby clubs across the country.
Tom said: “I am a huge rugby fan and I was delighted that our ladders have been used in rugby training.”
Tom has been busy over the past few months meeting customers at Chelsea Flower Show and other big events and the company also supplies the Royal Horticultural Society as well as lots of National Trust properties.
The firm has 10 staff and is based in new premises in a 20,000 square foot warehouse in Snarlton Lane, Melksham.