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Celebrating 120 years of Initial: our journey so far

Did you know that Initial first opened for business as a towel rental service way back in 1903? Since these humble beginnings, we’ve become the world-leading experts in washroom and premises hygiene and have grown into a global brand with one of the most comprehensive and flexible service portfolios on the market.  

In 2023, we’re thrilled to celebrate 120 years of service. With well over a century of experience behind us, we now operate in 70 countries across the globe. As part of our celebrations, we’re looking back over some highlights from our journey in this blog.

For office towel service

1903 – Initial is born

In 1903, Mr A P Bigelow, a soap salesperson in New York, discovered linen supply services were almost unheard of in Europe. Bigelow saw an opportunity and took it, relocating to London to start a personalised towel rental service for businesses there. His first innovation was simple but effective – each towel was marked with the customer's initials to ensure they only received and used their own towels. From that creative idea sprung our business and our name: 'Initial Towel Supply Company'. By 1905, the company employed three 'routemen' who made deliveries by pedalling box-carrier tricycles.

Women in linen factory working

1920s – business is booming

The business was a big hit and Initial quickly expanded across the UK. By the 1920s, we opened our own laundry – reputedly the first in the world to specialise in service linen. By 1928 when we floated on the London Stock Exchange, Initial had become the leading firm of its kind and was one of the largest buyers of towels in the world.

Woman wiping her hands on towel

1930–1950s – embracing new ideas

After three decades of trading, we’d made a name for ourselves in the hygiene sector and were considered a commercial success. With a keen eye for innovation, we noted the launch of the automatic towel cabinet in the US – a wall-mounted cabinet housing a continuous towel system. This new roller-towel approach to hand drying offered certain advantages over our own business model, so we moved quickly. In 1937, Initial was the first company to introduce the roller towel in the UK.

1960s–1980s – the towel takeover

By 1963, Initial had 17,880 miles of roller towelling in circulation – enough to reach more than three times the distance from London to Los Angeles. To meet this ever-increasing demand, Initial acquired a manufacturer, Dudley Industries. This proved to be a savvy business decision – by the 1970s, Dudley was producing 120,000 towel cabinets a year. With this production power behind us, Initial could process an impressive 50 miles of towelling every hour.  

When we celebrated our 50th birthday in the 1980s, we were firmly on our way to global leadership in hygiene services and had established operations in the UK, Australia, France, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Rentokil Initial employees worldwide

1990s–2000s – global expansion

In the 1990s, our global expansion continued with Initial entering South Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. 1996 was a particularly significant year in our story as it saw Rentokil, a world-renowned pest control provider, acquire Initial. This move marked the creation of the parent brand – Rentokil Initial – that we operate under today.

2010–2017 – award-winning innovation

In 2013, we launched Signature – a stylish range of quality washroom products that are made from durable materials and help reduce the spread of germs. The range sets the bar for hygiene excellence and won the prestigious Red Dot Design Award in 2014 and Singapore’s President’s Design Award in late 2013. 

With increasing consumer demand to touch fewer products in the washroom, our no-touch range expanded in 2015. Meanwhile, following the Signature range’s success, we also launched Signature COLOUR. This range combines all the superior hygiene qualities from our Signature range with the power of colour to reflect a brand’s personality and boost user moods and experiences.

Car driving along country road with fields

2018 – partnering to preserve our planet

As part of our commitment to sustainability, we’ve pledged to only work with suppliers that align with our environmental values. We will also continue to establish strong relationships with environmental charities and communities across the world to support their work in fighting the climate crisis.  

In 2018, we announced a new partnership with Cool Earth. Since our work with the charity began, we've supported communities to protect 42,000 ha of rainforest, over 20 million trees and over 8 million tonnes of carbon stores. We've also funded the installation of seven 9,000-litre rainwater-harvesting tanks to provide clean drinking water during droughts and supported biodiversity officers in Wabumari to help community members protect forest wildlife.

Person in hazmat disinfecting indoor area

2020 onwards – protecting people and enhancing lives

For us and the rest of the world, 2020 was a momentous year as we faced the COVID-19 pandemic. To help keep people safe and create hygienic environments, we launched disinfection services so that businesses could re-open their premises after periods of lockdown or contamination incidents. Our teams worked tirelessly to protect communities worldwide and give organisations peace of mind that customers and colleagues could return quickly and safely.

From 2020 onwards, we adjusted to a ‘new normal’ and an increased focus on how germs can spread via the air. To meet the increasing demand for good air hygiene in businesses, we launched air purification solutions that can help people relax in the knowledge that they’re breathing in cleaner and safer air. Keen to stay ahead of evolving hygiene requirements, we opened our dedicated Research and Development facility that helps us continue to innovate and maintain the highest standards of product durability, compliance and efficacy while remaining compliant with any changes in regulations.

And that brings us to today when Initial celebrates 120 years of service. Now, as the global experts in hygiene and enhanced environments, we provide the services and solutions needed for businesses to create safer, healthier and more hygienic indoor spaces for everyone, every day. We’re proud to offer our customers unrivalled expertise, a broad and flexible range of solutions, and continuous research and development that benefits their businesses and the planet. Fundamentally, we remain focused on innovating for the future and delivering exceptional service that our founder, Arthur Bigelow, would recognise.

A big thank you from Initial

From our loyal customers to our hard-working employees and partners, we want to say a big thank you to everyone that has been a part of Initial’s success over the past century. Here’s to many more years of protecting people, enhancing lives and preserving our planet.

If you’re looking for a hygiene services provider with experience and expertise, we’d love for your business to be part of our journey. Find out more.

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Hygiene services for your business

From washroom hygiene to air purification, Initial solutions are designed to create a safer and healthier environment for your peace of mind

  • With over 100 years of experience in the hygiene industry, Initial is a trusted and reliable partner for your hygiene-related needs
  • Offering a range of innovative hygiene solutions to provide comprehensive and effective services for any business or space
  • Committed to sustainability, Initial aims to make a positive impact on the environment and the communities in which we operate
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