PEOPLE NEWS JOHN TWALLIN: an obituary
John Twallin, who sadly passed away on 14 December, was the driving force behind the creation and growth of the tools and hardware distributor Toolbank, and its parent company, the Dormole Group.
John Twallin was born into the tool trade; he was a direct descendant of Ann Buck and her son John Roe Hickman, who together founded the tool distributor Buck & Hickman in London in the mid 19th century.
Following national service,
Twallin joined Buck & Hickman in
the early 1950s and rose to become purchasing director. In late 1971, however, the firm fell victim to a hostile takeover bid, and the new owners told him his services were no longer required.
Arthur Clemson, Buck & Hickman’s sales director, was unimpressed with the new owners and the way the family had been treated. Together they planned the launch of a Midlands-based wholesale tool distributor with a crucial difference from Buck & Hickman; they would sell only to the retail trade, not to end-users. They re-mortgaged their houses, and with a loan from Twallin’s mother, set up CA Clemson & Sons. Clemsons opened for business on 28 February 1972, achieving sales of £204,000 and net profit of just £1,056 in its first year. It was clear that the new business would not initially be able to support both of them, so Twallin took a job with the engineers’ merchants Thomas P Headland, and while still working there he was introduced to Curtis Holt, a small tool wholesaler in Kent. Curtis Holt’s managing director, David Lister, could see the potential benefits of having Buck & Hickman’s former purchasing director on board, and appointed Twallin as a non- executive director in December 1971. Then early in 1974, David Lister invited the pair to buy him out. They didn’t have the cash, but persuaded Lister and the other Curtis Holt shareholders to take loan stock, repayable over five years. An off-the-shelf company, Dormole, was used to complete the purchase. Over the following 45 years, Dormole grew to become the UK’s leading distributor of hand tools and power tools to the hardware
registered in 1979, but at trade shows in the early 1980s the company was still exhibiting as Curtis Holt and Clemsons, sub- titled ‘The Tool Bank Group of Companies’. It was not until the 1984 edition of the catalogue was published – the first of
6 DIY WEEK 24 JANUARY 2020
acquired a majority shareholding in the specialist power tools distributor Biz, which included Bosch in its range. Following his
decided to take a step back from the day-to-day management of the group. A Toolbank management board was set up with Andrew Strong as CEO, and Twallin focused on his role as chairman of the Dormole parent board.
In 1995, the company unveiled Toolbank Express, the first significant step taken by a UK tool wholesaler towards a coherent online proposition, and which would evolve into Toolbank.co
m a few years later; and in 1997 it opened its first accounts with stockists in the Republic of Ireland. By 2002, group sales had reached £100m.
2003 Neill Tools terminated a 25-year trading relationship without warning, Twallin
his colleagues decided not to pursue a legal fight; instead they concentrated on replacing the Neill-owned ranges, and with the support of their other key supply partners, quickly retrieved the lost business.
Acquisitions continued; the hand tools maker Olympia, the fastenings specialist ForgeFix, and the aforementioned majority share in the distributor Biz Power Tools. These companies were consolidated within Dormole’s acquisition
Investments. In 2018, with Brexit looming, the group strengthened its position in the EU with the takeover of the leading Irish tool distributor, Tucks O’Brien, and its sister company Tucks Fasteners & Fixings.
many Big Blue Books – that the Toolbank name appeared as a national brand for the first time, and definitively as a single word. More expansion followed; the
merchants, and later to the fast- growing online market. The Toolbank brand was
Exeter branch opened in 1980, and in 1981 the group acquired a garden machinery business called Godfreys – later sold to a management buy-out. The same year, Twallin was tipped off that rival distributor PTS was in talks to buy the Glasgow wholesaler Finnie & Co. He and Clemson flew to Scotland and a deal was agreed within two weeks. Expansion continued through
the 1980s. The launch of the Hand Tool Distributors operation, servicing DIY superstore customers; the acquisition of
Rees Jones in Warrington and the opening of the north London branch in Bushey; the acquisition of a minority shareholding in the French wholesaler Denuziere; the start of a daily delivery service, initially from the Bushey branch; the launch of the XMS Christmas promotion and the successful re-launch of the Faithfull brand. The 1990s saw the creation of a national warehouse for slower- moving specialist lines, freeing up space in the branches and reducing the group’s overall stock level without impacting availability. But it was also in the 1990s that Twallin fought his biggest battle, after the power tool maker Bosch, which accounted for 25% of Toolbank’s
turnover, abruptly ended their 10-year trading relationship. In the absence of a formal written contract – Twallin was a firm believer in the weight of a handshake – Bosch refused to accept that their action had been in breach of the gentlemen’s agreement. It took four years of legal argument, including a period of several months when Twallin was seriously ill, before Toolbank’s claim was settled, the day before the case was due to come to court.
In the meantime, Toolbank had successfully replaced the Bosch range with other brands; and a successful and amicable trading relationship was re-established some years later when Dormole
In 2014, Twallin decided to step down as chairman of the business he had co-founded 42 years earlier. He remained a non- executive director and continued to take a close interest in the group’s progress. He was much more than just a successful businessman; he was a long-standing supporter of the industry charity, the Royal Metal Trades Benevolent Society, later re-named the Rainy Day Trust. In addition, he was a committed and generous governor of Sir Robert Geffery’s School in Landrake, Cornwall, through his association with the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, for whom he had previously been the Master.
He is survived by his widow Elizabeth, his daughters Frances, Catherine, Philippa and Alex, and their families.
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