New chapter in the 81-year history of Durex

By Will Smale
News reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
All of Durex's condoms are now made in Asia

For adults looking to earn some extra money, there was a job advertisment last year that may have tickled their fancy: tester for Durex condoms.

Durex said it would pay 5,000 people across the UK £500 to help evaluate its latest range of products.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unusual job offer made a few headlines.

For a brand that for 81 years has been the best-selling condom in the UK, it was just the latest example of its skill at self-promotion.

But now Durex is in the news for strictly business reasons, with the annoucement that its owner - UK group SSL International - has agreed to be bought by Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser for £2.54bn.

With SSL's shareholders widely expected to back the deal, Reckitt says Durex will be added to its so-called "powerbrand" group of best-selling products, which includes Vanish stain remover and Finish dishwasher tablets.

Ignoring the temptation to speculate whether doing domestic cleaning can have an aphrodisiac effect, it is the latest development in Durex's colourful history.

'Durable, reliable'

Durex's origins go back to 1915 when the London Rubber Company was formed to sell imported condoms and barber supplies.

Image caption,
Durex remains the world's biggest selling condom brand, with a market share of 30%

Condom production eventually started in the UK, and the brand name Durex was born in 1929, standing for "durability, reliability and excellence".

And soon Durex advertisements were a regular sight across the country.

Despite some opposition to the product in question, the company was greatly helped by the Church of England ruling in 1930 that birth control could be used by married couples.

At the forefront of advancements in condom manufacturing, Durex dipped its condoms in water to test for breakages, and extended this in 1953 by introducing electronic testing.

Fast forward to 1969 and it introduced the world's first anatomically shaped condom, while in 1974 it produced the first to be spermicidally lubricated.

Fraud scandal

However, it was the 1980s, and public awareness of HIV/Aids that brought Durex and other condom manufacturers to much greater prominence, as people became more aware of the dangers of unprotected sex.

Image caption,
Durex is a long-established brand name in many countries

This was also the time that supermarkets started to sell condoms, and vending machines were installed in pub toilets.

With sales booming, London Rubber Company floated on the stock exchange in 1985, when it changed its name to London International.

SSL International was formed in 1999 when London International merged with Seton Scholl Healthcare, the maker of Scholl footcare products.

Yet while Durex was by now the world's best-selling condom brand, SSL faced financial difficulties in its early years, sparked by a fraud scandal in 2001.

This resulted in an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, and six people faced criminal charges.

The charges were ultimately dismissed, but not before SSL had to issue a number of profit warnings, and saw its share price fall to all-time lows.

'Good fit'

The London-based company has since recovered, with global sales of Durex continuing to rise as it targets China and other developing countries.

Today, Durex remains the world's best-selling condom brand, with 30% of the branded market.

However, all production now takes place in China, India and Thailand, with its last remaining UK condom factory ceasing manufacturing in 2007.

With SSL and Durex now about to pass to Reckitt Benckiser, financial analyst Damian McNeela of Panmure Gordon told the BBC the deal was "a good fit".

"SSL is getting a good price, and it makes an excellent strategic fit for Reckitt," he says.

"One of the main attractions for Reckitt is SSL's big exposure to overseas markets.

"I can't see anyone else coming in to better Reckitt's offer, which is a good price for SSL's shareholders to accept."

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