Since the formation of the Imperial Tobacco Company in 1901, dramatic changes have taken place in technology, commerce and society. Throughout these years the company has seen expansion, diversification and rationalisation, mergers, demergers and acquisitions.
Use the links below to find out more about the history of our company, or visit Who We Are for the latest company information.
Major businesses (1786–1901)
WD & HO Wills
WD & HO Wills was founded by Henry Overton Wills (1761-1826), who opened a shop in Castle Street, Bristol, in 1786. He traded as Wills, Watkins & Co, but on the retirement of his partner in 1789, the company became Wills & Co.
William Day Wills and Henry Overton Wills II succeeded their father in 1826 and, four years later, the company adopted its familiar title.
Wills was known for its family spirit and a belief that workers should enjoy themselves. The company pioneered canteens, free medical care, sports facilities and paid holidays.
It was one of the first of the larger tobacco companies to make cigarettes. ‘Bristol’, introduced in 1871 and initially made by hand, was the first cigarette produced at the company's London factory and appeared in several guises until it was withdrawn in 1974.
Three Castles and Gold Flake followed in 1878 and Woodbine, produced on the revolutionary Bonsack machine, ten years later. Embassy, introduced in 1914, was to repeat its initial success after re-launch as a coupon brand in 1962.
Wills' factories and offices were at the forefront of design. From the late 19th century, factories were built and extended not only in Bristol but also in London, Swindon, Dublin, Newcastle and Glasgow.
In 1974 the first cigarettes were produced at a new factory in Hartcliffe, Bristol – the largest in Europe – which closed in 1990.
Nearly 30 members of the Wills family served the company. The last, Christopher, the great-great grandson of H O Wills, retired as sales research manager in 1969.
John Player & Sons
John Player bought a small tobacco manufacturing business in Broad Marsh, Nottingham, in 1877. It employed about 150 people and produced pipe and chewing tobaccos, as well as hand-made cigarettes.
In 1881 he bought an extensive site at Radford in Nottingham, where he set out to build three factory blocks. They became the centre of the 30 acres of factories and offices that were to develop there.
John Player did not live to see his plans mature. He died aged 45 in 1884, the year the first Radford factory opened.
The business continued to expand and was run by a group of close friends until his sons, John D and William G Player, took over as managing directors in 1893. Two years later it became a private limited company and, by 1898, all three Radford factory blocks were in operation. The Player brothers retired from active participation in the business in 1926. The number of employees increased from 2,500 in 1914 to 5,000 in 1928 and 7,400 by 1939.
By 1960 the company was riding the crest of a new wave and it launched its first coupon brand, Player's No 6, in 1966. It was an overnight success. The biggest addition to its operations came in 1972 with the opening of the £14 million Horizon factory, occupying a 45-acre site at Lenton in Nottingham.
Thomas Ogden started the business in 1860 when he opened a small retail shop in Liverpool's Park Lane. In a short time he had established several branches in the city and within six years had his own factory in St James' Street.
In 1870 additional premises were acquired in Cornwallis Street and within just 20 years Ogden's had six factories and stores in Liverpool.
By 1899 it became clear that it was uneconomical to have the company's operations spread between locations and construction began on a new factory site in Boundary Lane.
On its completion in 1901, all its activities were concentrated on the one large site. As the business continued to expand, the building grew. After a brief ownership by the American Tobacco Company, Ogden's became a branch of Imperial Tobacco in 1902. Over the years several tobacco companies merged with it, including William Clarke's UK business in 1924, Hignett Brothers in 1930 and W & E Faulkner in 1959. In 1962 Ogden's stopped making cigarettes and concentrated on pipe tobaccos including the brands St Bruno and Gold Block. The final consolidation of pipe brands came in 1973 when Churchmans was taken over by Ogden's.
In the 1980s there was a £1 million improvement of the Liverpool site and in 1989 snuff manufacture transferred there from J & H Wilson of Sheffield. Production at the site continued until 2007.
The Imperial Tobacco Company (1901)
The American Tobacco Company (ATC) set aside a massive 30 million dollars to buy up British tobacco companies one by one at the start of the 20th century.
The key figure was James Buchanan Duke, head of ATC, whose aggressive methods had created a virtual monopoly for the company in the US.
Individually, British companies, even those of the size of WD & HO Wills and John Player & Sons, could not survive.
When Duke arrived in Liverpool in 1901, he walked into Ogden's factory and bought on the spot.
Duke then approached other British companies and is reported to have burst in on the Player brothers, saying: "Hello, boys. I'm Duke from New York, come to take over your business."
He was politely shown the door, an experience repeated at other companies. Facing such resistance, he paused for reflection.
This pause gave 13 family-run businesses, led by Wills, Players and Lambert & Butler, time to meet and, in December 1901, The Imperial Tobacco Company (Great Britain and Ireland) Limited was formed.
The obvious choice for chairman was Sir William Henry Wills, who became Lord Winterstoke in 1906.
Even so, the companies continued to trade under their own names and retained responsibility for their own manufacturing and selling.
Through Ogden's, ATC began cutting prices and offering free gifts in the UK – tactics that had served it well in the US. But Imperial frustrated ATC at every turn.
It acquired the retail business of Salmon & Gluckstein and also set up a customer bonus scheme, whereby a proportion of Imperial profits was distributed among wholesale and retail customers.
Imperial then decided to take the battle to the US, with the aim of acquiring a suitable business with which it could challenge ATC.
After suffering heavy losses in the UK, and faced with a trade war at home, ATC was ready to talk.
In September 1902 an agreement was reached – ATC surrendered Ogden's to Imperial while Imperial abandoned plans to enter the American market, except for leaf buying.
The result was the formation of the British American Tobacco Company Limited (BAT) and the agreement remained in place until 1911 when, under an anti-trust ruling in the US, ATC was split into four main companies. One kept the ATC name and the right to continue selling a number of Imperial brands in the US, leaving Imperial free to export any of its other brands to the American market.
Imperial's trade was almost entirely limited to the UK and the Republic of Ireland until 1973 while BAT confined itself, in the UK, to manufacturing for export and the duty-free trade. Imperial Tobacco owned some of BAT's brand names in the UK, while BAT owned most of Imperial's in Western Europe. Only in 1973 did each company, broadly, regain control of its own brand names in the UK and Western Europe.
Imperial had sold off its last financial holding in BAT by 1980, although many trademarks owned by the company in the UK still remain the property of BAT outside Europe.
By the same time, the original constituent companies of Imperial Tobacco were reduced to three: WD & HO Wills, John Player & Sons and Ogden's.
Reshaping the company (1902–1950s)
The first two decades of the 20th century were a time of consolidation for Imperial Tobacco. Its structure remained largely unchanged, apart from setting up the American Leaf Buying Organisation in 1902, the acquisition of J & F Bell two years later and, in 1906, forming the British Nicotine Company to process waste products for agricultural use.
At the end of the First World War it explored new areas, acquiring Robert Fletcher & Son and Ashton Containers to produce the paper for cigarettes.
In 1921 St Anne's Board Mill Company became a wholly owned subsidiary and six years later a financial interest was acquired in the Finlay chain of tobacconist shops and kiosks (becoming wholly owned in 1963).
In 1930 a controlling interest was also bought in Robert Sinclair, a Newcastle-upon-Tyne tobacco wholesaler.
By the late 1970s Finlays was the largest group of retail tobacconists in the country while Robert Sinclair became the biggest business of its kind in Scotland and the north of England.
Imperial's tobacco interests continued to grow. Canon's Marsh Tobacco Bonds was formed in Bristol in 1920 to store bonded tobacco leaf and Wills' and Player's manufacturing plants were established in Ireland a few years later.
The Leaf Buying and Processing Organisation in Africa and the British Leaf Tobacco Company of Canada were formed in 1926.
Walters Tobacco Company was acquired in 1938, followed by E & W Anstie in 1944 and Sheffield snuff makers J & H Wilson in 1953.
From 1960 Imperial developed a strategy aimed towards diversification and away from its focus on tobacco.
This saw a move towards the food, drink and leisure industries and began in earnest with the acquisition of Golden Wonder, a fairly small business making potato crisps in Edinburgh.
With Imperial's financial backing, by the end of the 1960s Golden Wonder had become a leading company in a multi-million pound market.
Two years later Mardon Packaging International was formed, a joint venture between Imperial and British American Tobacco, producing a wide variety of commodities ranging from cigarette packaging to general printing, plastic bottles and paper cups.
Imperial moved into industrial and domestic plastics, teaching machines and electronics with the acquisition of the Creators Group in 1964 and the formation of Education and Scientific Development as part of ESL (Bristol).
In 1967 the company made its biggest acquisition to date: the HP Sauce Group with its many subsidiaries, including Lea & Perrins.
This was followed by the National Canning Company (Smedley's), taking Imperial into frozen foods and further into tinned foods.
A huge addition came in 1969 with the Ross Group, another frozen foods company, and Imperial changed its name to Imperial Tobacco Group Limited.
By 1971 it had acquired Plastic Coatings and its subsidiary, United Moulders.
In 1972 Courage, with all its subsidiaries, joined the group, bringing with it eight breweries, six bottling stores, 6,000 pubs, nearly 700 off-licences and 38 hotels.
The following year the company's name became Imperial Group Limited (later PLC) and Imperial Tobacco Limited was formed to manage its tobacco interests.
By 1979 the group employed around 100,000 people and its structure was revised into five divisions: Tobacco; Paper and Board; Food; Distributive Trade and General Trade.
Its international character increased, particularly with the purchase of Pillsbury Farms in the United States in 1974. Six years later Imperial bought the Howard Johnson hotel and restaurant chain in the US in a move to lessen the company's dependence on UK earnings, but sold it again in 1985.
A major reorganisation of Imperial Tobacco began in 1981 as a result of the decline in the market for tobacco goods and the need for greater cost effectiveness.
Administration was centralised and four factories were closed – Wills' cigar factory in Bristol, Wills' cigarette factories in Glasgow and Newcastle and Player's cigarette factory in Stirling.
A £35 million new technology programme was planned to re-equip the remaining factories with faster, less labour-intensive machinery.
By 1986, three new regional distribution centres had come into operation – in Bristol, Nottingham and Glasgow – and a major change in the company's management structure was announced.
It was recognised that only an efficiently structured company could hope to lead the British tobacco industry into the future, as Imperial had done over the previous 85 years.
The Hanson years (1986–1996)
In late 1985, Hanson Trust (later PLC) made a successful bid to buy Imperial and the takeover was completed the following April.
Change followed rapidly. Courage was sold in September and Golden Wonder in October. Finlays, Bond's Delivery and the wholesaling arm of Sinclair and Collis soon followed.
Simultaneous moves were made to improve Imperial Tobacco's efficiency. Thirteen new divisions were set up – five manufacturing (Bristol, Nottingham, Liverpool, Ipswich and Glasgow), three trading (Southern, Central and Northern) and sales and marketing, technical, leaf, financial and personnel divisions in Bristol.
By mid-1988 the sales forces of Wills and Players had merged, the number of brands had been cut from 155 to 63 and the number of packings from 238 to 105.
Within two years, there were only 29 brands and 54 packings left in the portfolio.
In October 1989 a new trading division was set up in Liverpool, taking over the sales and distribution of all J&H Wilson snuffs, specialist pipe tobaccos and a selection of non-proprietary tobaccos.
By the end of that year the office block at Hartcliffe in Bristol was empty and a year later it was declared that the entire estate would be sold.
In May 1990 a major strategy was announced with the objective of making the company Europe's most efficient tobacco manufacturer.
The two-year programme concentrated on consolidating production. A massive £40 million was spent on resources to increase efficiency.
New cigarette machines at the Horizon factory operated at 14,000 cigarettes a minute – double the previous output. A new cigar factory was opened in Bristol in 1991 and equipped with machines producing 200 cigars a minute compared with a mere 20 previously.
These developments and the concentration of production at three main sites – Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham – meant a reduction in the workforce. By the end of 1993 the number of employees had fallen to 2,500.
Given the establishment of the Single European Market in 1993, Imperial's actions were not surprising. It had to improve efficiency and reduce production costs to compete with its European counterparts.
Between 1987 and 1995 productivity had almost trebled, the brand portfolio had been refocused and market share had increased.
Independence and acquisitions (1996–2008)
In October 1996, after ten years with Hanson PLC, Imperial regained its corporate independence and the Imperial Tobacco Group PLC was listed on the London Stock Exchange as a FTSE 100 company.
Led by Chief Executive Gareth Davis, the management team actively sought to strengthen Imperial's position in profitable overseas markets and between 1997 and 2008 around £17 billion was spent on acquisitions – transforming the Group into the world's fourth largest international tobacco manufacturer.
In 1997 Imperial acquired Rizla, the world's number one manufacturer of rolling papers. In the following year, Imperial bought the Netherlands-based tobacco business of Douwe Egberts Van Nelle and its famous Drum and Van Nelle brands of fine cut tobacco.
In September 1999 a portfolio of quality cigarettes, fine cut tobacco and rolling paper brands was acquired in Australia and New Zealand. The Baelen Group, a Belgian manufacturer of roll-your-own tobacco, was acquired in September 2000 and a month later the EFKA Group, a German-based manufacturer of rolling papers and tubes, became part of Imperial Tobacco.
Early in 2001 Imperial announced the purchase of Tobaccor, the second largest cigarette manufacturer/distributor in sub-Saharan Africa, with expanding interests in Vietnam. This acquisition transformed Imperial's presence on the African continent and provided a springboard for further growth in Asia.
In 2002 Imperial acquired Reemtsma Cigarettenfabriken GmbH, the German-based international tobacco company. This acquisition marked a strategic evolution of Imperial's business and reinforced its commitment to become a global tobacco company.
Reemtsma's strong market positions in Germany, Central and Eastern Europe and Asia provided a natural complement to Imperial's major market strengths in the UK, Western Europe, Australasia and Africa.
In 2005 Imperial invested in Skruf, a Swedish manufacturer of snus, and in 2006 the Group acquired the worldwide Davidoff cigarette trademark, having been the long-term licensee since the acquisition of Reemtsma.
In April 2007 Imperial entered the profitable USA tobacco market through the acquisition of Commonwealth Brands, the fourth largest cigarette manufacturer in the country.
This was followed in January 2008 by the acquisition of Altadis, the world's fifth largest cigarette manufacturer, owner of the iconic Gauloises cigarette brand, and the world leader in cigars.
Company today (2009–present)
By 2009 Imperial had become an established international tobacco company with an established track record of creating value for its shareholders.
Its acquisition-led approach to growth had enabled the development of the most comprehensive and balanced brand and product portfolio in the industry and a presence in around 160 markets.
However, following a ten-year period of intense industry consolidation Imperial remained one of just four strong international companies competing against each other on a global scale.
The years since the turn of the decade had also been characterised by high levels of illicit trade and increasing tobacco regulation, with public place smoking bans becoming commonplace.
In this context, and against the backdrop of one of the worst recessions in history, Imperial’s strategy was refocused to improve the quality of organic growth and strengthen the sustainability of the business.
Now under the leadership of Chief Executive Alison Cooper, following the retirement of Gareth Davis in 2010, Imperial also began pursuing opportunities for growth in other areas through a new standalone subsidiary, Fontem Ventures.
Initially tasked with entering the fast growing e-vapour sector, Fontem acquired e-vapour assets and expertise from Dragonite International, a company founded one of the pioneers of e-cigarette technologies.
In 2013 Imperial’s global footprint was realigned and managed on the basis of the strategic role of each market rather than its geographic location, with markets prioritising Growth or Returns.
In addition, Imperial’s most important products were categorised as Growth Brands, largely well-established brands with strong consumer appeal – or Specialist Brands, a range of cigarette, fine cut tobaccos, papers, cigars and smokeless tobacco brands with strong positions in their own categories and appeal to specific consumer groups.
In June 2015 Imperial completed the acquisition of four US cigarette brands and the international rights to the blu e-cigarette brand. The deal transformed Imperial's presence in the world’s most profitable tobacco market outside of China, significantly enhancing its portfolio, market share and distribution coverage.
Imperial Tobacco Group PLC was renamed Imperial Brands PLC in February 2016. The change was made to reflect the breadth of the company’s brands focus across its five distinct entities: Imperial Tobacco, Tabacalera (premium cigars), ITG Brands (tobacco business in the USA), Fontem Ventures and Logista, a European tobacco and non-tobacco logistics business acquired as part of the 2008 Altadis acquisition.
Also in 2016, Imperial’s last remaining tobacco factory in the UK – the Horizon factory in Nottingham – was closed, with production transferring to facilities in mainland Europe.