The History of Cousins
Explore our company origins and see how far we've come
In the 1950’s, there were still a number of volume watch and clock manufacturers in the UK. Watch making and repair was a well recognised trade, and most High Streets throughout the country would have a watch and clock repair shop. There was also a large network of material houses with a trade counter service, supplying everything the repairers needed.
Ted Cousins trained as a Watch Maker at St. Loyes College in Exeter. In the years after he qualified, he worked for a number of material houses in London including Shestopal in Whitechapel, Adams in Cricklewood, A. Shoot & Sons, and Henri Picard, both in Clerkenwell.
Ted married Dorothy and the couple set up home in Stanley Road, Ilford. They had three children, Anthony, Alison, and Jill.
Like many of his contemporaries, Ted supplemented his income from working at the material houses by doing watch repair work at home in the evenings and at weekends. By 1969, his reputation had grown to the point where he was able to become a full time repairer, and the Cousins family business began in earnest with Ted doing the repair work, and Dorothy running the accounts and bookkeeping.
Ted had also been networking with other watch repairers in the area. For many of them, travelling to London to buy what they needed at the material houses was a costly burden, but Ted was there every day so he developed a side line, initially taking and delivering specific orders, but ultimately buying parts in bulk to keep in stock and selling them on.
The business grew steadily, but with three small children in the house space was at a premium, so in 1972 Ted rented his first premises, a small shop at 58a Ilford Lane. Anthony would often stop at the shop on his way home from school, or help out at weekends.
In 1970, Ted joined the British Watch and Clock Makers Guild which is the trade association for the industry, and an organisation that the company remains a member of to this day.
The shop at 58a Ilford Lane is currently home to a firm of accountants
Expanding The Shop
The repair work continued to come in, but the biggest expansion was in the materials supply side, and within four years the Ilford Lane shop proved too small to cope, and in 1976 the business moved to a much larger shop at 335 Green Lane, Seven Kings.
335 Green Lane, Seven Kings, Essex
The 1980’s was a period of steady growth for the business. It began employing staff to help picking the orders and serving at the counter.
From 1980 to 1982, Anthony Cousins followed his father’s example and trained as a watch repairer at Hackney College. Once he had qualified, he joined the business full time and concentrated on developing the parts business still further.
Taking orders from customers in the 1970’s and 1980’s was a very different process to the way the company works today. Internet banking did not exist, and Credit Cards were relatively new technology. Mobile phones did not arrive until 1985, and were incredibly expensive. Virtually all telephone calls were made by land line, and call charges were more expensive in the mornings.
Whilst some customers did come and visit the shop, the vast majority of business was done by mail order using credit accounts that were settled by cheque. Cousins provided account customers with a supply of Freepost order cards to write their requirements on. The cards would arrive first thing, so the morning was spent picking, packing, and invoicing these orders. After midday, the off peak telephone rates applied, and the afternoon was spent taking and fulfilling telephone orders and other enquiries. The completed orders were taken down to the Post Office at the end of the afternoon.
Using the latest technology became part of the company ethos in this period. The use of Fax machines became more common in the mid 1980’s, and the firm was quick to use this as another ordering method. Computers for small businesses were also becoming affordable, and the company purchased its first green screen IBM machine in 1985 for stock control and accounts work.
At the end of the month, customers were required to pay their accounts, and Dorothy was kept very busy sending Statements and chasing payment.
The development of quartz watches in the 70’s and 80’s led many in the industry to believe that the watch repair business was in terminal decline, and that the material houses would suffer the same fate. This view was in part driven by traditional watch repairers who had no training in electronics, or understanding of how this was applied to watches. Most material houses began running down their stocks of parts and concentrating on selling tools and consumables.
Ted and Anthony took the opposite view. They understood that consumers have a long term attachment to their watches, and that there would always be a need for parts long after the manufacturers stopped making them.
In 1986, Anthony travelled to Switzerland and attended training courses in the repair of quartz watches. On his return, the firm developed a comprehensive range of spares for quartz watches.
Cousins took every opportunity to buy stocks of parts for even the oldest of watches, and it was their ability to supply repairers with everything they needed “off the shelf” that meant the firm grew as its rivals began to fade.
The series of photographs below illustrates very well how the business grew in both size and sophistication in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The first two pictures are from an open day at the British Horological Institute at the end of the 1980’s. The display stand is little more than a couple of fold up tables with stock laid out to sell.
The next two pictures are from the Jewellery and Watch trade fair at the NEC in Birmingham in 1993. The company by this time had invested in some professionally made display stands and signage. The last two pictures are from the same fair at the NEC in 1997 and 1999. By this time the company was using professional stand builders.
After 16 years at the Green Lane address the firm once again had outgrown its home, and moved off the high street to a 5000 square foot unit on an industrial estate in Romford.
Unit J, Chesham Close, Romford
After the move to Romford, Ted Cousins passed control of the business to Anthony, and whilst he formally retired in 1993, he could be found at Romford most days helping with the orders. Jill took over the bookkeeping from Dorothy, and Anthony’s wife, Christine, came in to assist her.
Ted passed away in 1998, and Dorothy died in 1999.
The company continued to follow a policy of focussing on stocking as wide a range of watch parts as it could source. In 1994 Shestopal, one of Ted’s old employers, moved out of the watch repair market, and Cousins bought their entire stock of parts.
The 1996 Open Day at the Romford Showroom
Instead of the old trade counter, the firm created a showroom on part of the ground floor, but with the vast majority of customers using mail order, the space was heavily under utilised. The company ran a couple of successful open days for customers in 1995 and 1996, but it became obvious that watch repairers had understood the benefits of mail order, and no longer wanted to buy in person.
Cousins Tool Centre at 41 Warstone Lane, Birmingham
In the 1990’s, the company had begun to do a lot more business in the jewellery sector which had a heavy concentration in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. To help expand Cousins presence in this market, in 1997 the showroom in Romford was closed, and a new shop was opened next door to the Birmingham School of Jewellery.
As Early as 1989, Anthony began regularly making a few simple double sided flyers on the photocopying machine, and handing them out to customers who came to the shop. Over the years, the Noticeboard has grown in quality and importance, and the company now mails out 7,000 copies monthly. The pictures below are another example of how the company has grown in both size and quality.
The expanded version of Unit J, Chesham Close, Romford
At the turn of the Millenium, once again the company had run out of space and was finding it increasingly difficult to meet the demand for new products for lack of anywhere to keep them. In 2002, the company bought the unit next door and connected them together with a second floor bridge section. This expanded the overall floor space from 5,000 sq. ft. to over 10,000 sq. ft.
A revolution in communications was underway. Mobile phones were affordable, and the Internet was an ideal place to showcase products, although on line purchasing had not yet arrived. The back office team had grown substantially. Almost all orders came in by phone, and at its peak the company employed 12 telephone operators to take orders and deal with enquiries. The company had computerised many different aspects of the operation and was operating a sophisticated network.
The biggest development for Cousins in the new millennium was the same as it was for businesses everywhere, and society in general. The arrival of a commercially useable form of the Internet.
Competition in the Telecommunications sector had made broadband affordable for most businesses, which in turn meant large web sites with lots of graphics were quick to load, and comfortable to use. On line payment systems were still in their infancy, so to begin with sites were basically on line catalogues and orders still needed to be telephoned in.
Cousins bought two domain names, “www.watchspares.com” and “www.clockspares.com”, and went live with those in 2001. In 2004, the company engaged a web design and ecommerce company and began a strategic move to an integrated database driven system, that remains at the core of the company today.
In 2006, the company went live with the new “www.cousinsuk.com” web site, and for the first time customers could order and pay for goods on line, and not need to telephone or fax in.
The company also put a great deal of effort into educating customers in how to buy on line. It released a number of customer guides showing customers how to search for the items they wanted and how to use a shopping basket.
Despite the fact that many watch repairers were amongst the oldest members of the working population, the increasing integration of the internet into daily life, and the greatly increased use of on line payments and banking, all contributed to customers adopting the new way of working with less problems than might have been expected.
The biggest change for Cousins was the steady reduction in the number of telephone staff that were needed for orders, but as that department shrunk, the space was quickly taken up by new products and more stock.
The main Cousins catalogue was first produced in 1999 and every new edition has grown in size to the point where the 2020 edition contains almost 1600 pages. The catalogue contains a great deal of technical information, and it quickly became a valuable reference book for the watch repair industry. Visit almost any workshop and you will see well thumbed old copies on the bookshelf, they are rarely thrown away. As the website grew, the assumption after the 2006 edition was that there would be little demand for a paper publication, but constant requests from customers led firstly to supplements being published in 2009 and 2010, and then a return to the full version.
As the range of products that the company stocked steadily grew, preparing the catalogue became a mammoth task, so the company invested heavily in software to integrate the core database with the website and catalogue design, and it is now possible to send the completed layout to the printers with a few keyboard commands.
From the very beginning, the business had grown steadily in both volume of sales and profitability. All of the past efforts and investment in expanding the product range and making everything easilly available for customers to access really began to reap rewards.
In this decade, the company overtook all its UK rivals and became the premiere supplier to the watch repair trade, and it continued to invest in technology to ensure it maintained this position. One key area of development was in ensuring that customer orders were properly picked, and that everything was packed and delivered safely.
All items were barcoded, and the company integrated scanners and CCTV cameras into the order system so that it could verify that every item in an order had been packed and sent. With the vast majority of orders now coming direct from the web site the company initiated the order fulfilment process that is still in use today.
Order pick sheets would be generated, and the items collected and taken to the verification area. Laser scanners ensured that everything on the order was present, and cameras linked to the same system recorded both this and the packing process. Any errors in what arrived at the customer invariably could be traced to an ordering mistake by the customer themselves. Cousins reputation for quality service grew.
2011 saw another milestone in the company’s history when Anthony’s eldest son, Sam, joined the firm full time having finished his University degree. Sam became the third generation of the family to work in the business.
The increase in mail order business in the 1990’s led to the closure of the Trade Counter at Romford in 1997. The Birmingham showroom had proved pivotal in establishing Cousins presence in the jewellery trade, but web based buying inevitably led to a sharp drop in personal callers, and in 2013 the decision was taken to close the outlet down.
The company had become a key sponsor of a new watch and clock repair training centre that had been opened in Epping. The benches and equipment that Anthony had learned on in Hackney in the 1980’s had passed through various institutions since those days, and had been saved from being scrapped by a group of enthusiasts who formed the Epping Forest Horology Centre.
Cousins provided £10,000 in modern equipment and many of the old display tools from the Birmingham showroom. With this backing the centre went on to get another £25,000 of backing from an education trust.
Cousins steady growth since it began meant that it was in a position to tackle one of the greatest threats to its industry that other rivals and many industry associations had run from.
Despite the fact that sales of quality watches had greatly increased over the past 40 years, the independent watch repair industry had been in declining. The cause of this problem was an increasing refusal by watch manufacturers to openly supply spare parts. This practice began in 1984 when Rolex stopped supplying wholesalers, and limited availability of parts to its in house repair service and a small number of selected and heavily controlled repair shops. Every two or three years after, another company would copy this practice, and supplies of parts for more brands would dry up.
In 2002, a Belgian watch repairer formed a small company called CEAHR to represent the European repairers, and in 2004 launched a formal complaint about anti competitive behaviour to the European Commission. This resulted in two formal investigations and two court cases over the course of the next 11 years. Unfortunately, CEAHR had very little funding and was unable to gather and document the evidence that the European Commission asked for. As a consequence, the investigation was ended without any decision being taken on whether or not these restrictions were legal.
When the decision was announced by the Commission, CEAHR launched its second appeal to the European Court of Justice, but the last of major Swiss companies that was still supplying spares, the Swatch Group, did not wait for the outcome and announced it would cease supplying spares at the end of 2015. This action would see Cousins driven out of the very market that had been the foundation of its success.
The company responded with a two pronged approach. It applied to the European court to be allowed to support CEAHR with its appeal, and at the same time responded to an approach from the Chairman of the Epping training centre, supported by British Watch and Clockmakers Guild, to sponsor an industry conference to formulate a response.
As a result of the Conference, an Industry Action Fund was set up and tasked with gathering funding and evidence to prepare a full submission to the UK authorities. Once again, Cousins was a main sponsor of this activity, and Anthony also sat on the steering committee overseeing the work.
In November of 2015, a delegation went for a meeting with the Department of Business, Inovation and Skills in London to submit its report and findings. These were quickly passed on to the Competition and Markets Authority, who are the UK regulator.
In parallel with this, Cousins own legal team had been in Court in Europe trying to get permission to support CEAHR with its appeal against the ending of the European investigation. At the end of 2015 the EU Court announced that it had refused Cousins permission to join the appeal on the grounds that CEAHR represented the repairers, but Cousins was a wholesaler, not a repairer.
When a case on an issue is being held in one Court, it is not possible for anyone else to bring the same case into another Court. The side effect of the decision by the EU Court was that Cousins was clearly not part of that case, and was therefore free to bring its own case on the matter if it wished. With Swatch Group being the most recent to cease supply, the company’s legal team advised that they were the organisation to launch an action against, so in March of 2016, Cousins send a formal letter to Swatch warning them that if supply was not restored in three weeks, legal action would follow.
None of the Swiss brands thought that anyone in the independent repair trade would dare to take them on, or have the resources to do so. Swatch Group were over 1,000 times bigger than Cousins, and the threat of action caught them by surprise.
In an attempt to frighten Cousins away, and stop the UK courts from hearing the case, Swatch brought an action against Cousins in the Swiss courts, thinking that the prospect of fighting in a foriegn language, and having to find Swiss lawyers, would be enough to make Cousins give up.
The idea failed. Cousins dug in and has been fighting the case ever since. One side effect for the company of all this effort has been a greatly enhanced profile within the industry and the wider business community. Articles have appeared in the business press, and submissions have been given to MPs and government departments on dealing with anti competitive behaviour in general.
Cousins went online, launching cousinsuk.com in 2004. Over the years, the company website has evolved and in recent years has become Cousins' primary point of sale. As the technology landscape has changed, the company has developed and released new versions of the website to cater for smartphones and tablets as more and more customers move to mobile devices for their day-to-day tasks.
Cousins continue to develop new features for the company website to give customers the best shopping experience, to help find the items they need at the best prices and to give direct support from our customer service team.
Despite the problems obtaining watch parts the business continued to grow, and once again was being held back by lack of space. Repeated offers had been made to buy a neighbouring unit, but it wasn’t possible to reach a deal, and in 2019 the company began widening its search. In the Autumn, the location in Maldon came on the market, and the company moved quickly to acquire it.
The unit was the headquarters of Wolf Race Wheels. It had the potential to offer Cousins six times the space of its Romford base, but whilst the bones of the Maldon site were ideal, the building would need a great deal of updating.
Architects were engaged in October of 2019, and designs were completed and submitted to the Council for approval. Cousins took possession of the building on the First of February 2020, and an extensive building program began lasting 11 months.
New fencing went up to secure the site. A new insulated roof and wall cladding system were installed. The toilet block, staff facilities and offices were all extensively remodelled. A secure container for hazardous materials was placed outside, and a comprehensive air conditioning system went in to protect the stock and provide the best possible working environment. The building was completely rewired. Fibre optic cables were laid, and a fully updated data network with digital CCTV was installed.
Much of the day to day management of the refurbishment was run by Luke Cousins, who along with his sister, Beth, had now also joined the family firm. The climax of all these efforts came over the Christmas and New Year break when the move from Romford took place, and the new layout was installed at Maldon.