Our global aviation services business was founded in 1833, eighty-six years before the world’s first non-stop transatlantic flight. It is one of the things that makes our story unique. From John Menzies’ beginnings to the present day, our passion, pride and most of all, our people, keep our business relevant to the markets in which we operate and responding to the needs of our valued customers.
In 1833, John Menzies spotted a gap in the market. Leaving his London publishing job, 25-year old John travelled north and opened a bookshop at 61 Princes Street, Edinburgh, which was to become the only wholesale bookseller North of the Border.
There followed a series of firsts. In 1837, he became the Scottish agent for sales of The Pickwick Papers – the first published work of Charles Dickens. In 1841, he became the agent for the famous periodical Punch. He also sold The Scotsman daily newspaper over the counter.
Although unusual at the time, this move was to dictate the future of our business.
By the end of the 1840s, the golden age of rail, virtually every town in the UK was served by a station and in 1857, a new phenomenon appeared – the railway bookstall.
In just a few years, John Menzies had secured the rights to bookstalls in almost every part of Scotland, including in 1862, Waverley Station in the heart of Edinburgh.
By the time he handed John Menzies & Company over to his sons, the business had thriving wholesale premises in Edinburgh and Glasgow operating alongside the bookstalls.
Although John Menzies’ achievements were remarkable, his sons John R. and Charles Menzies continued with an era of extraordinary expansion, transforming a local business into a nationwide concern.
The War Years
Although led by the Menzies brothers, by the early part of the 20th century other trusted people were helping to manage our business. William Dawson and Robert Dickie, managers of the Edinburgh and Glasgow wholesalers, became directors, and technological innovation was at the forefront of our growth. Motorised vehicles were quickly adopted as the norm, and the horses were retired.
The First World War brought opportunities for expansion, with the constant need for news distribution. The directors were able to buy up other businesses that were struggling, and both the wholesale and bookstall businesses grew. By 1934, there were 13 branches around Scotland.
From the ashes – 1941
On 7 May 1941, the manager of the Greenock branch, James Kyle, arrived to find his warehouse a smoking ruin from an air raid the previous night. The Partick bookstall was destroyed the same night.
But we carried on expanding and innovating, at the same time focusing on the prosperity of our growing number of employees. A pension scheme was set up, as was a club for long-serving employees, which still exists to this day.
Post War – 1948-65
During this era, we see an early nod to what our business would become. The first bookstall at Edinburgh Turnhouse Airport opened in 1948, under the John Menzies banner.
Rapid expansion through acquisition saw John Menzies’ presence spread throughout the UK, and in 1960 the limited company was incorporated, followed by a share issue in 1962, which saw around 20% of the business distributed to employees.
By 1965 we held 90 wholesale warehouses, 350 railway bookstalls and 161 shops, and recorded a turnover of almost £50 million. In today’s money, that’s around £828 million.
In 1987, the directors began to lay the groundwork for the business we see today. The acquisition of Scan International Group and Cargosave saw us beginning to handle large volumes of overnight and heavy freight. Distributing over 26.5m newspapers daily, John Menzies Wholesale had one of the largest paper rounds in the country.
Further acquisitions and contract wins saw our business begin cargo transport and handling at London’s Heathrow Airport, and in 1995, the business moved to new modern headquarters at Edinburgh Park, where it is still based today.
A 21st century business
By the early 2000s, we had begun consolidating the business, disposing of retail concerns and focusing on the fast-growing areas of cargo handling and passenger services.
Between 2002 and 2008, international expansion moved apace with the acquisition of cargo and distribution businesses in the Netherlands, USA, Australasia, Sweden, Norway, and South Africa to name a few, and operations in many other countries were being driven by contract wins.
In 2009, the global recession sparked by the banking financial crisis led to huge reductions in cargo volumes. This was followed in 2010 by the closure of European airspace due to volcanic ash created by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. The impact was felt across the aviation industry.
It is fair to say that 2009 and 2010 were tumultuous. However, as John Menzies and his sons had done in previous years, we regrouped and continued measured growth through acquisition, innovation and stellar contract wins.
Business in Oceania grew, major UK contracts with British Airways were won, and the network expanded in Eastern Europe. South America came on-line, and the Australia and New Zealand markets were established.
Amid all the expansion, some unusual projects amplified what our business is all about – our people. In 2013, our team in Johannesburg looked after over 40 VVIP flights for world leaders and dignitaries attending a memorial event following the passing of Nelson Mandela. The following year we proudly served as the exclusive ground handler for the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia.
By 2017, other countries and contracts had come online, and with the acquisition of ASIG, the world’s largest into-plane fuelling business, we were firmly established as a global player in cargo, fuelling and ground handling. It was time for the business to move forward as a ‘pure-play’ aviation business and so in 2018, the board agreed to sell the entire share capital of the distribution business. The transformation of John Menzies’ business had come full circle, and the next evolution of the aviation market would be our main focus.