Avent: The firm that revolutionised the baby bottle

Philips Avent general manager Walter Mattis,left, and former general manager John Morris.

Philips Avent general manager Walter Mattis,left, and former general manager John Morris. - Credit: Archant

It’s 30 years since production of Avent’s revolutionary baby bottle started in Glemsford. Ross Bentley meets general managers past and present to talk about the firm’s story en route to this significant milestone.

The birth of a baby can alter a lot of things and for one Suffolk company the arrival of a little boy led to a crucial change in the firm’s product range that has seen it go from strength to strength in the years since.

The origins of Philips Avent – a world leading manufacturer of baby bottles and related products based in Glemsford near Long Melford – can be traced back to the early 1980s when the company was called Cannon Rubber. At the time, it made a number of products, such as car mats and hot water bottles, as well as a range of baby feeding products under the brand of Cannon Babysafe. But when the then managing director, Edward Atkin, tried feeding his newborn son, Ross, with the Babysafe bottle he realised the product was not fit for purpose. The long standard bottle was unwieldy and the teat too long and hard. His experience of using the product first-hand forced him to reassess its design.

The product Edward came up with – later named the ‘Classic’ – revolutionised the baby feeding industry. His new bottle was squatter and more stable than previous models and had a wider body and neck so it could be easily filled and cleaned. The new teat was also radical and was the first to be made entirely from silicone. Its design allowed the baby to feed continuously and was later proven to reduce the risk of colic. The new range, named Avent, was unveiled in September 1984.

Fast forward 30 years and the company, now called Philips Avent following a buy-out by the dutch technology company in the mid-2000s, has seen over 100 million bottles roll off the production line. In addition, its state of the art factory in Glemsford also produces one million baby soothers per week when production is at its peak, The day I visit the site, I have the pleasure of being accompanied by the current general manager Walter Mattis, as well as John Morris, who was originally tasked with developing the Avent brand in the mid-1980s. The first thing that strikes me, as we tour the factory floor wearing hair nets and steel toe-capped shoes, is the level of manufacturing sophistication that is on display in this quiet corner of west Suffolk.

An array of glass cabinets display cutting edge mechanisation: plastic granules are moulded into bottles, helter skelter type conveyor belts carry plastic bottles to where the logos are printed on them, while robotic arms assemble parts. One machine tests the strength and stretchability of the teats – apparently they must be able to bear the weight equivalent of a large Labrador dog. I eagerly jot this down – I have my bizarre fact for the day.

Around 500 people work here on shifts producing bottles and soothers around the clock. Walter says Philips has introduced this impressive level of automation over time and that the company prides itself that 80% of what it produces is made in the UK. It’s Made In Britain tag and the guarantee of quality that marque suggests goes a long way on the world stage, where proud parents across the globe insist on nothing but the best for their new offspring. Key markets for Avent are China, Russia and other emerging economies.

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The most recent recognition for the company’s innovative approach came earlier this month when it topped the World Class Manufacturing category at a glitzy awards ceremony hosted by The Manufacturer magazine in Birmingham.

Walter says the company is always looking at ways to improve the manufacturing process and is already planning how it can produce the next generation of soothers more efficiently.

“We are looking at the way they are assembled – should it be in one piece or two? Everything is being looked at,” says Walter, a German engineer who worked at Philips’ Amsterdam headquarters before moving to Suffolk several years ago.

He says recent investment in the factory has created spare capacity for more production.

“The biggest opportunity for the future is combining lifestyle solutions with health technology, and moving into manufacturing more health care products.,” continues Walter. “We are currently in discussion with the research teams at Philips’ centre in Chichester about the possibilities. Phillips is already a market leader in ultrasound scanners and produces nipple protectors and shields, and breast pumps for hospitals. There’s a big potential in broadening our supply to the hospital accessories market.”

According to Walter, a big advantage for the company is that it already has approval for a number of its products from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a crucial certification which helps it sell into the US market.

John Morris says getting backing for Avent’s products from the medical profession and other respected establishments has also been crucial for the company’s success. John still works for the firm today in facilitating clinical trials

“Some of our first clinical trials compared the Classic bottle with the standard feeding bottle,” he says. “They showed that in a newborn baby there was a reduction in colic using the new bottle because of its shape and the ventilation it offered. Because it had been proven in robust trials we were able to say this all around the world. We were challenged by other manufacturers but because we had the paper we were able to keep on saying it.

“Later we compared our £27.50 manual breast pumps with some of more expensive electric breast pumps and through trials were able to prove that our pumps were superior in terms of the amount of milk they produced. Things like that have helped massively in terms of our credibility and our marketing strategy.”

As well as gaining support from the medical sector, John says the company has also cultivated the support of mothers and health visitors.

He adds: “Mothers can be hugely outspoken about products, especially in the age of social media – we have 1.4million likes on Facebook.”