Thursday, 14 December 2017

Company ships brand names to dangerous places around globe

A HENLEY firm that exports goods to some of the world’s most dangerous countries has celebrated its 40th anniversary.

A HENLEY firm that exports goods to some of the world’s most dangerous countries has celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Michael Houdret founded Houdret & Company after leaving his job as an overseas sales rep for Gillette.

The firm ships products by corporations such as Kraft, Kellogg’s and Nestlé to places where their own staff cannot go for security reasons.

It employs seven people at its courtyard offices off Hart Street, including Mr Houdret’s daughter Claire Walsh, and has an annual turnover of £9million.

The company sends most of its clients’ goods to Africa and the Middle East, where it also advertises and markets them to retailers. Last year, it exported 1,300 tonnes of Kellogg’s breakfast cereals alone.

Mr Houdret, 71, who lives in Skirmett with his wife Gillian and has four adult daughters, studied philosophy, politics and economics at University College, Oxford before starting work for Gillette in 1965.

He built up a network of contacts that he was able to fall back on when he launched his business in 1973.

A fluent Portuguese and French speaker, he traded with nations that spoke those languages, such as Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.

He also built up links with Libya, which at the time had just been taken over by Colonel Gaddafi.

The relationship was initially fruitful but Mr Houdret was forced to flee when Gaddafi’s regime became hostile to the West in the early Eighties.

His Libyan contacts were arrested and tortured, while he narrowly escaped on one of the last flights back to Britain.

Despite many brushes with danger, the company founder and his staff continue to visit the countries they supply in order to meet contacts.

Two weeks ago, he returned to Libya, where Gaddafi was killed in a revolt in 2011, and in the coming month he will visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Algeria.

Mr Houdret said: “I’ve never really thought much about the risk, although I do think we’ve been reasonably lucky.

“We’ve taken risks and got away with them but you do hear stories of businessmen being shot and worse. I know of someone who was burgled in Nigeria. The culprits threw acid in his guards’ faces and ran him over with a van, which left him disabled.

“Places like that are pretty wild. The challenges of daily life are horrendous yet people there somehow have a great sense of humour.

“My career has been incredibly good fun and consistently so — I’ve made lots of seriously good friends and been to some incredibly interesting places.”

Mr Houdret grew up in Surrey before moving to Binfield Heath in 1971. His family settled in Skirmett in 1978.

When not abroad, he was based at the company’s offices in Market Place and then Reading Road before the business moved to Hart Street in July last year.

Mr Houdret’s achievements were recognised in 1981, when the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire presented him with the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement. The certificate was personally signed by the Queen and the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 2000 his junior business partner Philip Meadowcroft, from Wargrave, sold his share in the firm to start a new venture.

Mr Houdret is training his daughter to take over as director but says he has no plans to retire just yet. “That’s a decision only the great chairman in the sky will make,” he said.

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