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From Kitchen Recipe to International Business – How Johnson’s grew from one man’s dream to a Leading UK Pet Care Brand

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July 31st 2021 marks the 100th year anniversary of Johnson’s Veterinary Products. To celebrate this important milestone in our company history, we went into the archives to bring you the story of how Johnson’s went from a homemade recipe crafted in Arthur Johnson’s kitchen, to the International pet care brand that it is today. 

Note: This article is part 2 of our series on Johnson’s 100-year history. To read part 1 click here

The Early Struggles

Johnsons Veterinary Products started as ‘Johnson Brothers, Poultry Specialists’ in 1921. As the old name suggests, in the early days Johnsons only specialised in healthcare products for fancy pigeons (pigeons that are bred for exhibitions and pigeon show contests) as well as caged birds and poultry.

Johnson Brothers, Poultry Specialists letterhead, 1922 

Yet despite the popularity of bird keeping during the early twentieth century, spreading word about Johnson’s products was not without its challenges. Having few resources and funding at hand, Arthur’s only option for selling his bird keeping products was by contacting local councils for corn shop addresses (the earliest pet shops, that specialised in grains and food for kept animals), then travelling door-to-door to each one.  

To further convince corn shop owners to take a chance on his products, Arthur would offer them “sale or return” deals on each product they took on. He also assured corn shop owners that any Johnson’s newspaper ads that he paid for would include their business details, so that customers would be driven to their shops in order to purchase the products.  

Sale or Return deal with Proffitt & Westwood corn shop 

How ‘Old Bill’ helped Johnson’s grow 

However, it wasn’t until Johnsons was featured in The Racing Pigeon magazine (a publication that is still going strong today) that Arthur began to see significant success. The Racing Pigeon helped build Johnson’s reputation amongst pigeon keeping professionals and hobby-enthusiasts through “Old Bill” – a fictional pigeon keeper character, who would frequently name-drop successful and prize-winning pigeon fanciers who were using Johnson’s products.  

May 1938 edition of The Racing Pigeon
The Racing Pigeon’s ‘Old Bill’ feature, recommending Johnson’s Pigeon Tonic to readers

Through coverage in The Racing Pigeon, publicity for Johnsons as a brand grew and orders increased rapidly.  

Johnsons during the Second World War 

By the time the second world war came round in 1939, pigeon keeping had halted and the development of new products was no longer possible. Luckily, unlike with the First World War, Arthur was prepared.  

Years prior he had expanded the Johnsons product line to accommodate the considerable increase in “backyard” poultry keeping, which during WW2 had grown in popularity as more families relied on it as an extra food source. This included remedies for roup (an infectious disease in poultry that is characterised by discharge from the eyes and nasal passage) as well as tonics for treating leg weakness and preventing ovarian cancer (a common affliction in hens). 

It was thanks to these product developments that Johnsons were not only able to survive the economic impact of the second world war, but able to contribute to the war effort by offering families easily-accessible and affordable poultry care products. 

Newspaper advert listing various remedies offered by Johnson’s for birds
Order form listing Johnson Brothers branding and the various Johnson’s products offered, 1948

Takeover of Johnson’s Brothers and move towards Pet Products 

After 24 years of running the business, Arthur finally decided to hand over Johnson’s to his two sons Arthur Junior and Raymond in 1945. It was under the brothers’ takeover of the business that Johnson’s began to focus on producing products solely for the pet trade and not just poultry care. 

In 1950 the brothers filed the business under a new name – Johnson’s Veterinary Products Ltd and began investing funding into existing formula improvement and modern machinery that sped up production time. In 1954 the brothers successfully acquired land to build a factory and new premises in Sutton Coldfield, which they moved the business to a year later. It is these premises in Sutton Coldfield where Johnson’s still operates today. 

In the late 1950s to early 1960s Johnson’s oversaw the development and production of our first medicinal products for dogs, cats, poultry, pigeons and caged birds, which saw great success with the general public upon release. As word spread about Johnson’s products, the brothers began outsourcing production of animal care products to other companies, as the on-site factory was no longer big enough to keep up with demand.  

Advert for some of our first medicinal products for cats and dogs 

Johnson’s also enjoyed a period during the 1970’s where our products could be found on the shelves of Boots chemist stores. Boots eventually moved away from stocking pet products altogether in the late eighties to solely focus on human toiletries and over the counter human remedies, however the brief partnership allowed Johnsons to boost sales and gain long-term customer loyalty for our pet products. 

The Third Generation of Johnson’s 

In 1970, David Johnson – son of Arthur Junior and grandson of our founder, joined the Company and in 1984 took over as managing director from his father and uncle. His father continued to support the business as an external consultant until his sad passing in 1987. 

Under David’s leadership, the Johnson’s board of shareholders grew – recruiting more leading professionals from the pet care trade, including Johnson’s first full time sales manager Bernard Bell, trainees Paul Gwynn and Nick Franks (who are now both Johnson’s Directors) and appointed Financial Director Simon Wilcox in 1984. David also oversaw a refresh of the Johnson’s packaging, that brought it to the high modern standards that you see today.

The Johnson’s sales team outside our Sutton Coldfield headquarters, 1994 

Johnson’s Veterinary Products Today 

Chairman David Johnson is now semi-retired; he is still involved with the business and continues to be a major figure in the Johnson’s Veterinary Product family.  

The team is now headed by directors Paul Gwynn and Nick Franks, who both started at the company in junior roles and have now each been with Johnson’s for over twenty years. Under their management, Johnson’s have grown into one of the UK’s leading pet brands; selling thousands of our products every year both nationally and internationally. 

Despite having grown exponentially in the past 100 years, we are proud of the close relationships we still foster with the pet shop community. The team at Johnson’s recognise that we wouldn’t still be here if it was not for both the large and independent pet stores that sell and recommend our products. Pet shops have been pivotal to our success since day one, and we are humbled and grateful for their support over the years.  

Which is why on our 100th year birthday, we want to give something back to pet shops. 

We have some exciting announcements to come for how we plan to celebrate pet shops alongside our 100th birthday, so watch this space for more details to come!

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