Some notable British businesses you might not be familiar with.
A note before we begin — "Royal warrant" means, in essence, official supplier of the Royal Family, or one of them.
Harrods. The largest single department store in the UK, around since 1834. It used to have royal warrants, which it has now pretty much lost. This is due to longtime (1985-2010) owner Mohamed al-Fayed, who sold the firm in 2010 to the Royal family of Qatar. Known for being upmarket; its rough American equivalent would be Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom.
Harvey Nichols has locations around the world and is now owned by a Hong Kong-based group. Their London location is very close to Harrods and is generally known for a edgier and funkier fashion sensibilities. Nicknamed "Harvey Nicks".
Liberty in London is another famed store, noted for their fabrics as well as funky fashion after a makeover. Located in a very old Tudor-style building.
Jenners is the rough equivalent in Scotland; royal warrants still in place, although it's now owned by House of Fraser.
John Lewis claims to be "Never Knowingly Undersold" and yet is quite expensive (not Harrods-expensive though) to the extent that a "John Lewis list" of how much in second home expenses MPs were allowed to claim for various items was considered an example of excess. Also notable for being owned by its staff. Since 2008, it has had a Royal Warrant as "suppliers of haberdashery and household goods." Its supermarket chain is Waitrose.
House of Fraser (who once owned Harrods), Debenhams, and Selfridges are other common high street department stores.
Banking and Financial Services
Given that the City of London is, depending on who you ask, either the largest or second-largest financial center in the world, one naturally expects a fair number of these to pop up in Britain.
Barclays - One of the "Big Four" of British banks, headquarters in Canary Wharf. It's been around since 1690, founded by some Quakers trying to raise finances for Dissenting craftsmen (particularly goldsmiths). Took a lot of flak for its support for the apartheid regime in South Africa and today has questionable involvement in Zimbabwe. Currently sponsors the English Premier League; consequently, it is officially known as the "Barclays Premier League." Also bought the naming rights to the home of the Brooklyn Nets.
HBOS - Created by a merger between the Halifax Bank and the Bank of Scotland. It was bought by Lloyds TSB in 2008 as a result of the credit crunch.
Lloyds TSB - Merger of Lloyds Bank and TSB. Lloyds Bank is also very old and dates from 1765, and was one of the first banks in England outside London (it was founded in Birmingham).
Royal Bank of Scotland
The Natwest, owned by the Royal Bank Of Scotland
Americans: RBS owns Charter One Bank through Citizens Financial Group. There's a good chance that you keep your dollars with them.
The Co-operative Bank, part of the Co-operative Group.
Lloyd's of London - not to be confused with the previous bank, this is a very famous insurance company and has been around in some form since c.1688. Not technically a company, but a society, it has (apparently) insured some very interesting things, such as both Betty Grable and Tina Turner's legs and America Ferrera's smile.
The famous Lutine Bell is based at Lloyd's. It is only rung on ceremonial occasions now—once for bad news, twice for good news. The last time for the former was the 2005 London Bombings. Rumour has it that it will be rung for the latter on Wills and Kate's wedding.
Lloyd's List, a shipping journal running since 1734, is no longer owned by them.
Bradford & Bingley - Former building society that demutualised, nationalised following the credit crunch.
HSBC - bought out Midland Bank in 1991 and relocated its headquarters to Canary Wharf in London. While by some measures the biggest bank in the world, HSBC is probably the smallest of the big four banks in terms of the UK market. Was founded as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank; P. G. Wodehouse worked for it as a young man.
First Direct (marketed as first direct) is a subsidiary of HSBC (from the Midland Bank days) and was the first bank in the UK to operate solely via the telephone (and later the Internet). Renowned for its customer service.
Supermarkets and Grocery StoresThe Big Five
Tesco (not, in fact, "Tesco's")- controlling about 30% of the grocery market, it's the biggest British retailer and third largest in the world (only Wal-Mart and Carrefour beat it). It's a somewhat controversial firm, being accused of labour exploitation, planning violations, being too big, and grammar errors. Tried to expand into the US with fresh&easy.
Referenced in the Lily Allen song "LDN".
Sainsbury's (has the 's) - previously considered an upper-class-sort-of supermarket in the same vein as Waitrose, now more or less the same as its rivals.
Asda - now owned by Wal-Mart, suffice to say the name of the MMO "Asda Story" amuses Britons who see their ads. Has an Artifact Title - it was originally an abbreviation for Associated Dairies.
Morrisons - big in the North of England, expanded into the South when it bought out former big-name Safeway in 2004.
The Co-operative Group (the Co-operative, or just the Co-op) is the worlds largest and oldest co-operative, run along ethical lines including a strong support of fair trade. Most often seen and used as small convenience stores - some cities have an extensive network of them (Portsmouth alone has at least twenty). Not all Co-operative or Co-op stores are owned by the Co-operative Group - there are about 20 independent Co-operative societies still around such as ScotMid, Midlands, Penrith and Southern. Bought smaller chain Somerfield in 2009.
Marks and Spencer (not, in fact, "Marks and Spencer's") - known as "Marks and Sparks" (or just M&S), it aims for the upper middle class market. High quality but tends not to worry too much about being the cheapest. For this reason, it experiences a big boost in numbers around December when people start stocking up for Christmas dinner. Had a famous advertising campaign that used a high-class version of Sex Sells, employing literal Food Porn with a seductive voiceover by Dervla Kirwan: "This is not just X, this is M&S X".
Waitrose - Like M&S, also aims for the upper middle-class market and also has an emphasis on quality. Part of the John Lewis Partnership, as mentioned above, and has undergone a major expansion in recent years, including buying stores from other supermarkets including Somerfield and Morrisons. Often a shorthand in British fiction for being posh, or at least having delusions of being such.
Booths – A small chain based in Lancashire and spreading into the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and the affluent Cheshire suburbs of Manchester. A kind of upmarket Waitrose, which surprises Southern folk who think Oop North is all grime and poverty.
Budgens, featured in 28 Days Later. Tends more towards small convenience stores rather than large supermarkets.
Lidl and Aldi - The two German supermarkets have quickly become known in Britain for cheap, non-brand stock. As a result, they're kind of the opposite of Waitrose in British fiction.note Aldi has much the same reputation in America, generally only being found in the ghetto.
Marks and Spencer - in later years has tried to make itself more sexy in the clothes department. Nonetheless, is still thought of by most Britons as the source of grey socks and white underpants. For some reason, their returns policy was a popular subject for comedy in The Eighties.
Best known for its Dervla Kirwan voiced ads- "This is not just food, this is M&S Food".
JJB - a sports clothing chain. Originally set up by Dave Whelan, a Blackburn footballer who got a career-ending injury in the 1960 FA Cup Final, claimed an insurance payment and invested it in a food stall, which he built up, sold to Morrison, then started this chain, which he has now sold on.
Woolworths, usually referred to as "Woolies" - although this was originally a US companynote Woolworth's last general store in the U.S. closed in 1997. The company continues today as Foot Locker, Inc., a retailer of athletic shoes and clothing, the UK stores had been a separate company since 1982 and had operated in the UK since 1909. Remembered by many from their youth for the Pick'n'Mix sweets and as a good place to get stationery, The Noughties saw the chain's business (largely confectionery and videos, games etc.) being increasing eroded by the big supermarkets on one hand and online stores in the other. The 2008 credit crunch and the announcement of huge debts led to the chain closing down over Christmas 2008-January 2009, in a closing down sale in which even the shelves and staff microwaves were sold.
During the late sixties and seventies, British car manufacturing was dominated by the British Leyland group, which was formed from the mergers of such companies as Jaguar, Austin, Morris, Rover and Triumph. British Leyland had serious difficulty as a company due to repeated labor strikes, inept management, poor design, and horrible build quality. It underwent nationalisation and eventually was forced to sell off its more successful lines to competitors. The company reorganised as MG-Rover, which would go though its own troubles (see below). In British programs set in the 1970s or focusing on cars, expect jokes about British Leyland's poor performance, frequent strikes and the poor quality of its mass-market cars.
While mass-market British cars are generally objects of ridicule, Rolls-Royce and Bentley are among the most widely recognised brands of luxury car, and Jaguars and Aston Martins can be expected to make appearances when high-performance sports cars are called for. The fast, gadget laden car driven by James Bond, the quintessential British action hero, has been at various times, a Bentley (in the novels), an Aston Martin, a Lotus, and a BMW (German). Crowley also drove a Bentley in Good Omens.
However, all major British-rooted car companies are under foreign ownership:
After an intense bidding war in the late '90s, BMW got Rolls Royce (the trademark, which is owned by Rolls Royce the airplane engine maker) and VW got its hands on Bentley and the old Rolls Royce plant. Now BMW assembles Rolls Royces in a brand new manufacturing facility near Goodwood, not too far from the South Coast.
Also in the '90s, BMW bought the ailing Rover Group (Land Rover, Rover, MG), but could not revive the business. A decade later, the Rover group was dismantled. BMW kept MINI, sold Land Rover to Ford, and the rest of the group became independent. Eventually Rover disappeared into the dustbin of history, only to have the factory in Longbridge was literally moved piece-by-piece to China, where their cars are now developed and produced for the domestic (Chinese) market under a variety of names. There are plans to restart MG manufacturing in Britain on a much much smaller scale, but the plans are still up in the air.
Ford got a hold of Jaguar in the '80s, and over the next two decades managed to fix (some) of the legendary reliability problems and even occasionally churn out a popular model. In the 2000s Ford bought Land Rover from BMW, which joined it with Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo as an attempt to form a premium brand portfolio. Soon after, though, mounting losses and other problems both foreign and domestic forced the sale of the companies. Jaguar and Land Rover, both British icons, are now under the ownership of the Tata group, makers of mini econo-boxes headquartered in the former British domain of... India. (Funny how that works.) Aston Martin was granted its independence after the company was bought by a group of British businessmen backed by Kuwaiti money.
Lotus: manufacturer of sports cars, came under the ownership of the Malaysian Proton group.
Morgan: A minor player specialising in handbuilt sports cars, still British owned but gets its engines from BMW and Ford.
Alexander-Dennis (ADL): Still completely British (HQ in Falkirk, Scotland) manufacturer of buses, coaches and formerly fire engines. Buses are operated all over Britain and beyond in Hong Kong, Las Vegas and Toronto.
Wrightbus: Actually a Northern Irish company, based in Ballymena. Bus manufacturers like ADL, they pioneered the British version of low-floor buses preferred today for accessibility reasons, and make the double-deck New Bus for London, or "Borismaster," as it is called.
Despite the disappearance of a native car industry, car manufacturing remain a robust industry in Britain - in fact, more cars are produced in Britain than Italy, and more per capita than the USA. Many car companies (including Toyota, Honda and Ford) have plants in the country, and the car enthusiast culture remains very strong in the country.
Royal Dutch Shell - One of the six oil "supermajors," Shell is a joint Anglo-Dutch affair with HQ in the Hague but certain major operations (including refining, marketing, finance, and HR) managed out Lambeth. Formed by a slow-motion merger of the Royal Dutch Oil Company and the British firm Shell Transport (or something),note Initially, it was a "dual-listed company" consisting of what amounted to a general partnership between two legally distinct companies, one British and one Dutch. Over time, the companies became indistinguishable. In 2004, they adopted a simpler structure, with there just being one British corporation headquartered in the Netherlands. it was initially done just to stay in competition with John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil. It is still the world's largest private-sector oil company and the largest energy company in Europe.
BP - Formerly British Petroleum, and before that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It changed its name to "British Petroleum Company" in 1954, a year after the CIA and MI6-backed coup in Iran. It quickly diversified its operations, striking oil in Alaska and the North Sea—a good thing, given the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that deprived BP of its assets in Iran. After buying up several pieces of the former Standard Oil, British Petroleum decided to call itself simply "BP" without the letters meaning anything in 2001. Also a "supermajor," and also in very deep shit IN AMERICA! thanks to that Deepwater Horizon thing.note And the British government isn't any too pleased with them either, because a wave of surprise safety inspections in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf spill turned up some equally egregious code violations on their North Sea rigs.
Stagecoach - a Scottish-based bus and rail firm with a somewhat controversial history. Namely, that owner Brian Souter keeps endorsing and/or donating money to anti-LGBT causes such as Section 28 or opposing the Scottish Parliament's proposals to legalise gay marriage, and performing some rather underhanded tactics in its earlier days.
Megabus, a "no frills" bus service is a subsidiary, and has expanded into North America.
FirstGroup - another Scottish-based bus, coach and rail firm.
Also has large operations in the US: First purchased Greyhound Lines in 2007, and later established the BoltBus discount service (under pressure from Megabus and the Chinatown bus services) under the Greyhound brand. It also owns the school bus subcontracting giant First Student, and many other operations besides.
Arriva - a North-East based bus, coach and rail firm. Is less attention-seeking than the other groups, but has substantial operations in mainland Europe. Now owned by Deutsche Bahn (German Railways, known as DB for short), the state-owned German Rail operator.
Go-Ahead Group - a North-East based group. Apart from in London and in the North East, is unique in running companies with their own liveries. Also has airside operations and is part of a joint venture that runs the Southern, South Eastern and London Midland rail franchises.
National Express - a bus, coach and rail firm, best known for long-distance coaches. Based in Birmingham. Has had financial problems which ended up losing the East Coast Rail Franchise.
One of Britain' thriving industries, the second or third largest in the world depending on standard of measurement. The Other Wiki has an article on the subject. Should be brought up whenever people in the pub moan that Britain doesn't make things. The British aerospace industry has made many important contributions to the history of aircraft, and was solely or jointly responsible for the development and production of the first aircraft with an enclosed cabin (the Avro Type F), the first jet aircraft to enter service for the Allies in the Second World War (the Gloster Meteor), the first commercial jet airliner to enter service (the de Havilland Comet) the first aircraft capable of supercruise (the English Electric Lightning), the first supersonic commercial jet airliner to enter service (the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde), the first fixed-wing V/STOL combat aircraft to enter service (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier), the first twin-engined widebody commercial jet airliner (the Airbus A300), the first fly-by-wire commercial aircraft (the Airbus A320), and the largest commercial aircraft to enter service to date (the Airbus A380). Britain would also have been the first to break the sound barrier had the United States kept its post-war technology sharing agreements, instead of letting the British share their engine and aerodynamic designs with them and then pulling an I Lied.
British Airways (BA)- Not to be confused with the next two examples, this is the national airline of the UK. Famous for Concorde, although that's gone, a row over tail-fin imagery and just being stylish.
A merger of BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) and BEA (British European Airways), the former being James Bond's airline of choice in the Ian Fleming novels and immortalized in The Beatles' "Back in the USSR" (which opens, "Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC...").
BAA Limited (British Airports Authority)- The company that used to run seven UK airports before being told to sell four of them. Most notably, Heathrow, where the opening of the fifth terminal ran into a lot of problems...
BAE Systems- Combining a lot of defence companies (Avro, English Electric and Vickers to name but three), they have been accused of unethical practices quite a bit. Makes the Typhoon and Hawk aircraft, as well as submarines, aircraft carriers, missile systems and... everything else, much of it bleeding-edge (BAE was under contract with the US Navy to develop the first operational railguns until Congress cancelled the program in 2011). They periodically trade off between Lockheed Martin and Boeing to be the largest defence contractor in the world (BAE was number 1 in 2008). It also supplies the US and French armed forces (the M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle and iconic M113 APC are both produced by BAE today). It also inherited its predecessor British Aerospace's stake in the Airbus Indusrie consortium; when Airbus incorporated itself, BAE got a 20% stake, which it then sold off in 2006.
Rolls-Royce plc. The real Rolls-Royce, manufacturer of damn fine engines for planes, and the second largest in the world. Produced the Merlin, which powered various iconic aircraft of World War II, such as the Spitfire and P-51 Mustang. Now has major stakes in naval propulsion and space. Fun fact: Rolls-Royce was the preferred manufacturer for engines on the iconic Boeing 747, but the US government pressured Boeing into buying American, courtesy of Pratt and Whitney. Ain't free trade wonderful?
Reaction Engines Limited. A tiny company founded by a collection of boffinsnote Note to Americans: "boffin"="nerd," "geek," "egghead". in 1989, it deserves to be noted for the breathtaking ambition of its its current projects, the Skylon and the A2. Essentially, a traditional "garden-sheds and dreams" company is trying to go where giants of the space and aviation world have failed by creating a single stage to orbit spaceplane to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life, and new civilizations - no wait, instead they want to create a single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft (essentially what the next Space Shuttle should look like) that could carry 15 tonnes or 30 peoplenote No spacecraft has ever carried more than eight, and no more than about 10-12 people have every been in space at once to space in one go at 4% of the cost per kilogram of conventional rockets, and a green hypersonic airliner that could travel from Brussels to Sydney in just over 4 and a half hours (the trip today takes a full day). As of 2013, the various tests have gone off swimmingly. Watch this space.
Travel Booking And Information Firms
Thomas Cook Group - One of the oldest such firms in the world, with the main component founded in 1841, organising rail excursions to the 1851 Great Exhibition.
George Bradshaw - Publisher who made a lot of maps and railway timetables.
Bradshaw timetables get mentioned a lot in 19th and early 20th century works.
Jaffa Cakes. Cake-like cookies with an orange-flavored jelly and chocolate topping. A Mitchell and Webb sketch featured a man who could control biscuits with his mind, but had no power over Jaffa Cakes, as the Jaffa Cake is a cake, and not a true biscuit. Giles was also very glad to find some of these in Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The cake/biscuit issue was the subject of a court case. This isn't as strange as it sounds: under British law chocolate covered biscuits are taxed at a higher rate than cakes (chocolate covered or not), as they are "luxury items". Supposedly the clinching argument was that Jaffa cakes go hard when stale, as cakes do, whereas biscuits go soft. The company also baked a cake-sized version of the pastry to show that, despite its size, it uses a cake recipe.
Jelly Babies. Fruit-flavoured sweets shaped like babies. A favorite of the Fourth Doctor.
They were introduced to celebrate the end of World War I, and originally known as "Peace Babies".
Marmite. A yeasty bread-spread (similar to Vegemite, the Australian equivalent). Famous for being a foodstuff you either love or hate: its advertising has played this up.
Bovril: a sticky, tarlike beef extract that you stir into boiling water to create a warm, nourishing savoury drink/ disgusting undrinkable mess (again, you either love or hate it). Strongly associated with football matches where flasks would be brought along to accompany the inevitable terrible pie. Often assonated with the West Midlands and North of England. Temporarily replaced with a yeast-based version to try to move into the vegetarian market but the yeast version was horrible/ slightly more horrible so the company went back to the old recipe of heavily rendered miscellaneous cow parts to the delight/horror of all. Can also be spread on toast in the manner of marmite to simultaneously delight the senses and show those yeast-loving, marmite eating vegetarians who’s boss/ torture yourself.
Irn Bru, Scotland's "other national drink". Bright orange, tastes like bubblegum. Outsells Coca-Cola, but only in Scotland. "Made from girders", according to the adverts.
It is also highly caffeinated (as well as containing quinine of all things) and generally held to be a great hangover cure — it's often known as the Scottish Alka-Seltzer. Also highly regarded in some quarters as a mixer for vodka—although, let's be honest, everything mixes well with vodka.
The West of Scotland also has a fondness for Red Kola, a drink that makes Irn Bru seem like an all-natural health supplement.
Tizer - a fruit flavoured drink popular in the North of England, owned by Barr's (Irn Bru and Red Kola) since 1972.
Although it's not a British company, you cannot get Dasani in UK McDonalds. This was the result of a) an advertising campaign that failed to take into account British slang, b) the discovery of potentially harmful bromate levels and c) the discovery of its sourcenote For the curious, they took ordinary tap water, made it carcinogenic, then marketed it as bottled semen.
You can't get Mountain Dew in England either. It was out for a while, then discontinued, and now only the energy drink version is available.
And it is minging.
Vimto - mixed fruit drink, available as both a fizzy drink and a diluting cordial. Often mentioned in UK media because it's a quirky and distinctly British soft drink, with a name that fits the pattern of Inherently Funny Words.
Ribena - A fruit cordial made from blackcurrants. Nearly the entire blackcurrant crop of the UK and in Ireland is bought out to make this drink. It is not a small crop either, blackcurrants are very popular in the UK for cordial, juice, or as an ingredient in dessert cookery. Available in the regular, highly sugared, variety and a sugar-free "toothkind" variety. Ribena has tried breaking into the market for non-blackcurrant cordials, but hasn't had mixed sucess.
Unilever - Another Anglo-Dutch affair (with HQs in the City of London and Rotterdam). Established in 1930 by the merger of the Dutch Maragarine Unie ("United Margarine"; you don't get three guesses as to what they made) and the British soap manufacturer Lever Brothers for the more efficient importation of palm oil (a key ingredient in both soap and margarine).note Not only did the larger company allow for larger bulk purchases and therefore lower rates on shipping the stuff from tropical colonies to Britain and the Netherlands, it also allowed the Dutch operations to take advantage of oil from British-controlled Malaysia (then called Malaya) and West Africa, and the British operations to take advantage of oil from Dutch-controlled Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies). From there, it sort of got crazy, and the company now makes everything from Dove soap to Lipton Tea to ice cream (of which it is the world's largest manufacturer; including its "Heartbrand" ice creams—e.g. Wall's in Britain and Good Humor in North America—as well as other brands like Breyer's and yes, you hippies, Ben & Jerry's, too). Most importantly for some people in Britain, they make Marmite.