A company that is investing in the future after rising to the coronavirus challenge has a colourful history. PETER BARRON reports

IT is a family business that has a fascinating and colourful history, with roots going back to 1885, when a man called Elias Sliufko left Poland to settle in the North-East of England.

Today, 135 years on, Tricogen Laboratories continues to grow, despite the challenges of a year that will be forever remembered for the biggest public health crisis in living memory.

And chief executive, Garth Sliufko – the great grandson of Elias – can look back with justifiable satisfaction that the company remains in such healthy condition in the competitive hair and beauty sector.

“Yes, I am very proud that the company has survived through good times and bad,” says Garth. “And that, despite everything that has happened in 2020, we are still able to look ahead with ambition.”

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In April, with the lockdown in its early stages, Tricogen made the headlines in the papers and television when its production of hand sanitiser rocketed from five tons a year to 100 tons a month. Despite problems surrounding the supply of raw materials, the firm had shown the kind of adaptability and enterprise that had been the hallmark of Garth’s forefathers.

Now, the business is installing a new £500,000 production line at its manufacturing facility on the Newton Aycliffe Industrial Estate, as it continues to look to the future, and prepares for the changes that will inevitably reshape the industry.

“Every year, we have invested a considerable chunk of the profits back into buying the most modern plant and equipment to ensure the business keeps moving forward, and this year is no exception,” says Garth.

It is the kind of technology that Elias Sliufko could hardly have dreamt of when he made that journey from his homeland and settled in the market town of Darlington.

Not a great deal is known about Elias, other than he was a businessman – possibly in the rag trade – who quickly established himself as a prominent member of Darlington’s Jewish community.

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Elias had a son, Solomon Abraham Sliufko, who is known to have made his living selling furniture to hairdressers in Darlington, and also worked for Nestlé, which brought out one of the first perm lotions, and still has a stake in L’Oréal.

Solomon’s son, Ray, and his brother, Maurice, went on to launch a business called Ray and Company (Hairdressers Sundriesmen), in Clark’s Yard, Darlington, in 1946, just as the country was emerging from the dark days of World War Two.

Ray had served in the Army, and Maurice in the RAF, and a living had to be made back on civvy street. Their answer was to begin touring the local area with a suitcase, selling a wide range of products to hairdressers, including: colours, perms, lotions, conditioners, combs, scissors, brushes, and salon equipment.

As the sales business grew, the next step was to launch their own manufacturing company – called Raydiant Chemical Company Ltd – to run alongside Ray and Company. Also initially based in Clark’s Yard, it later moved to Coniscliffe Road, to the site where Clervaux Artisan Bakery and Café is now, and then to a purpose-built facility in Green Street.

Raydiant Chemical Company made all kinds of products for the hairdressing industry, such as: perms, lotions, shampoos, conditioners, setting lotions, blue rinses, hair lacquers, and hair sprays.

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Meanwhile, Ray’s older sister, Lilian, had also continued the family connections to hairdressing by working as a self-employed stylist from her front room at home.

Ray’s son, Garth, joined the family business at the age of 22, having studied accountancy at Teesside Polytechnic, and both companies have continued to flourish under his leadership ever since. Raydiant Chemical Company was rebranded as Tricogen Laboratories 25 years ago, at the same time as Garth bought some land at Aycliffe Industrial Estate and set up a purpose-built manufacturing facility.

Ten years later, Ray and Company became Trade Hair Supplies, and now has sales reps working out of branches in Darlington, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Gateshead, and Carlisle. Garth’s son, Guy, also runs a Trade Hair Supplies operation in Sweden.

There have been clear challenges for businesses worldwide during the pandemic, and Garth admits to being angry by what he sees as “discrimination” against wholesalers, with no support forthcoming from the Government.

“Small retailers rely on wholesalers for their supply chain and it’s an area that seems to have been forgotten,” says Garth, who has written in protest to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Darlington MP Peter Gibson.

Despite that frustration, he is confident that Trade Hair Supplies will continue to grow post-pandemic and become more important to the overall business. There will be more focus on the internet, and the business is also planning for big demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) when hairdressers reopen.

“There will be an initial rush, and we’ll see hairdressers having to work a lot of hours to get through the appointments, and then it will settle down,” says Garth. “A lot depends on whether there is a vaccine, but there will have to be major changes in the way hairdressers and beauticians work.

“The future will see hairdressers and their staff wearing a range of protective equipment. We’ve always supplied gloves and aprons, but there will also be a need for disposable gowns and towels, masks, and we also recommend visors. Hairdressers won’t serve refreshments or provide magazines – it will be a very different world.”

Meanwhile, the manufacturing arm of the business, Tricogen Laboratories, has been placed in the safe hands of managing director Neil Bagnall, who has an impressive 30-year track record in the personal care industry. Neil joined the company in 2008 as operations manager and took over as MD a year ago.

Tricogen is now ten times bigger than when it was established 25 years ago, and around 80 employees are split between the two companies.

With demand for hand sanitiser showing no sign of slowing down, a new production line has been ordered and will be up and running by September. It will give Tricogen the capacity to fill an additional million units per month and add six jobs to the payroll.

Back in 1946, when the business was founded, it relied on single-head manual filling. In recent years, six-head machine fillers have been the standard, but the new production line will see the first automatic 10-head filler being introduced.

“As businesses reopen, they will want to establish hand sanitiser stations, along with hairdressers and restaurants, so we are preparing for that continued demand,” says Neil.

But it is not just hand sanitiser that the company is focusing on. More hand wash will be produced, and new outlets are being explored for its toiletry products. With foreign holidays being restricted, self-tanning products are also likely to increase.

“With everything we do, the focus is on customer service,” says Garth. “Business is all about the people you have, and our aim is always to employ the best people we can find. That’s what drives us forward.”

One hundred and thirty-five years after Garth’s great grandfather travelled from Poland to England, the family’s entrepreneurial spirit continues to shine through – even in the dark days of a lockdown.