What’s in a name? Interview with Wray Bros founders, Graham and Mark Wray
When Liverpool brothers Graham and Mark Wray found themselves living amongst a dearth of employment opportunities during the early 1980s, creating their own business seemed like their best option for a brighter future. Move Commercial finds out how a helping hand from The Prince’s Trust and a charismatic company name set them on a path to decades of entrepreneurial success.
Interview by Natasha Young
These days, Graham and Mark Wray are at the helm of growing multi-million pound workwear and janitorial supplies company Wray Bros, providing services to public sector organisations and businesses. Rewind 32 years though and the city the company is based in as well as the firm’s vision and even its name were very different.
Living in a Liverpool which had recently endured the Toxteth Riots and was going through a difficult economic time, the two brothers were in their early twenties and searching for job opportunities when the idea for their own venture came about.
“Graham worked for a company which sold wipers,” explains Mark, who at the time was an unemployed sheet metal worker having been made redundant.
“[The business] was Graham’s idea; he said ‘I’m thinking of going self-employed doing something similar to what my current employer does but I think we can actually do it better’. He took the brave step of handing in his notice and brought me along and that was that.”
A £3,000 bursary from The Prince’s Trust helped the duo make their start-up idea a reality and they set about selling old clothes as rags and wipers to garages around the city.
“Nobody had jobs and when you were in the pub people were talking about The Prince’s Trust, saying you could get money from it,” says Graham. “You’d be having a pint and you’d think ‘actually that’s not a bad idea’.”
When the business was born its trading name in particular was sure to attract attention.
“We called ourselves Willy Wiper,” says Mark. “We were advised to keep the name and we did for 12 years. We had three or four royal visits and people wanted to know about Willy Wiper.
“We were the memorable firm rather than, say, John Smith the Hairdresser, and Willy Wiper draws attention but it restricts you.”
Once established for more than a decade the company renamed to Wray Bros – a title more suited to its vision for growth.
“You couldn’t go to a university and say ‘I’m Mark Wray from Willy Wiper’,” adds Mark. “They wouldn’t take you seriously.
“I always liken it to Virgin. It’s commonplace now, it’s on planes and on trains, but when it came out it was very risqué, cutting edge. With Willy Wiper we didn’t have the finance to make it professional or acceptable.”
Over the years Wray Bros has gradually branched out to offer a wide range of services to clients, from cleaning products to workwear and embroidered uniforms as well as consumable workplace items, signage and training videos. The acquisition of a row of buildings on Liverpool’s Pleasant Hill Street has facilitated this expansion.
“I’d go round selling rags and wipers to garages and they’d say ‘instead of you coming for rags and wipers and him over there for a case of paper hand towels, can you get them for us?’, so we started the evolution to become a more janitorial distributor,” says Mark.
“We took our company and aligned it with other companies and we made this huge conglomerate, so really there’s 45 of us throughout the country and we have our own range of branded products.
“Six years ago we decided that if we’re going for a nursing home or university where we’d supply all the cleaners and consumables, then why don’t we supply cleaners’ clothing such as tabards or tunics? We’ve now got an embroidery print department here because around 25% of the company is clothing.”
“If this campaign puts one young person or a group on track to achieve something similar to us it will be worthwhile.”
According to the brothers, each change has proven pivotal to making the company what it is now.
“When we started, The Prince’s Trust invested £3,000 in us, and we’ve self-financed £1.1 million in the last five years,” says Graham. “It’s never been a Eureka moment but we’ve had staging posts like buying the likes of buildings.”
Positioning Wray Bros as somewhat of a one-stop shop has helped the firm keep up to date with consumers’ demands as well as future proofing the business.
“We live in a convenience society,” explains Mark. “With supermarkets you park your car and can get anything from 30,000 products.
“If you come to us we’re going to try and get as many products as we can and then it’s more difficult for somebody to take your business off you because you become more of a support mechanism to the client.”
The now 22-strong Wray Bros team’s clients include Liverpool City Region councils and a significant share of the area’s schools along with higher education institutions. Such organisations make use of many of the company’s services.
“A primary school will probably spend around £6,000 per year on products,” says Mark. “A secondary school could spend around £15,000 a year, a college could spend up to £25,000 per year.
“With universities, for instance, we’ve just put a tender in for a quarter of a million and that’s just on consumables.”
According to Graham, the company has benefitted from cleaning becoming more of a serious factor in the industries it caters for.
“You find now that the environment people work in is a lot cleaner,” he says. “If you go into a garage it’s not like a garage I remember; they’re spotless.
“These are very tight and clean units so their image is important to them.
“And as clever as you are, if you run out of toilet rolls the building grinds to a halt!”
As Wray Bros continues to keep an eye on the future, with plans to increase its staff number to 30 and an aim to enhance the firm’s retail element with a “high end trade counter” at its site, it’s also looking back to its roots.
Now considered to be one of the oldest businesses to have begun with support from The Prince’s Trust, Wray Bros has created a campaign to give back to the charity and help more young people live out their aspirations – all in the name of Willy Wiper.
Soft toy versions of the company’s original mascot Willy Wiper – a character dressed for the workplace – are being sold, with proceeds being donated to the cause. Meanwhile buyers are being encouraged to take Willy on their travels and share his far-flung ‘selfies’ via social media and the character’s own website.
Graham, who admits the firm’s toughest challenge during its evolution has been becoming a “digital savvy company,” believes the initiative will also be effective in spreading the Wray Bros word online.
“The Willy Wiper doll works more now on the internet than it would have done slapped on the side of a van,” he says, adding: “And it would be boring to just write a cheque for The Prince’s Trust so we decided to [show support] the hard way – we’ve always done things the hard way. If there’s a lift, we go up the side of the building!”
“Graham and I would be absolutely delighted if the circle was complete,” says Mark. “Someone gave us a hand so we went out and proved this social experiment does work. If you invest in underpriviledged kids who don’t necessarily have degrees they can do it another way.
“I remember what it was like to have no future so if this campaign puts one young person or a group on track to achieve something similar to us it will be worthwhile”