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Inchscape’s history dates back over 170 years to Calcutta, India when William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie formed the Mackinnon Mackenzie Company (MMC) in 1847. Prior to arriving in the East, Mackinnon, born in 1923, started in the grocery trade in his birthplace in Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland and later moved to Glasgow where he began working for a merchant with Asian trade links. He journeyed to India in 1847, joining his old schoolfriend Mackenzie in carrying merchandise around the Bay of Bengal. Realising the possibilities of coupling trading with ocean transport, they formed a general merchanting partnership.
In search to expand their trading connections, Mackenzie sailed to Australia in 1853. Unfortunately, it was to be his last business venture, Mackenzie did not make it back from that trip. He died on board the boat which was found shipwrecked off the coast of the Australian state of Victoria.
After almost a decade in India, Mackinnon created another company called the Calcutta and Burma Steam Navigation Company in 1856. He appointed the Mackinnon Mackenzie Company to be the carrier for post around the region as well as getting contracts to transport troops during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In 1862, Calcutta and Burma Steam Navigation Company was named British India Steam Navigation Company and they floated on the London Stock Exchange under this new name.
James Lyle Mackay joined the company in 1874. He was a shipmaster’s son and took an interest in his father’s profession as early as eight years old when he journeyed to Russia with his father on a flax run. Mackay lost both of his parents when he was just 12 years of age. Fortunately, they left him a substantial inheritance, part of which was invested in shipping providing him with an annual income. He began working for a shipbroker and agent in 1871 that was involved with Mackinnon’s British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). Due to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a large increase in trade occurred as the route from London to Bombay was an incredible 4,000 miles shorter. The Mackinnon Mackenzie Company (MMC) was busier than ever and hired 22 year old Mackay as a shipping assistant. Mackay’s advancement through the company was impressive, he became a partner in the Bombay office in 1878 at age 26.
Mackay had not only risen within his own company; he was a very influential figure and is known to have been largely responsible for helping India to resolve its currency problems and for the adoption of monetary system the Gold Standard. He was appointed as a member of the Council of India and also served as the Vice-President of the Suez Canal Company as well as Chairman of P&O and Director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.
Choosing the title “Baron Inchcape of Strathnaver”, he was made a baron his services to the industry and nation in 1911. Inchcape is a reef, also known as Bell Rock and lies 11 miles off the coast of MacKay’s birthplace. In order to warn of the reef below, that had already claimed 100 lives at the time, the construction of Bells Rock Lighthouse was completed there in 1811 by Robert Stevenson. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, it still stands there today and is the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouses, continuing to save lives. Its durability is likely due to the incredible standard of the masonry work upon which the lighthouse was constructed that remains unreplaced or adapted, even over 200 years later. This prominent landmark of MacKay’s birthplace and of the shipping industry was well known to him since childhood and his sailing voyages with his father. It is understandable that he would wish to commemorate it when becoming a baron. He was further honoured in 1929 when he became Earl of Inchcape.
By 1914 he was the only surviving senior partner of the company and the family continued their business pursuits around the world. It was the 3rd Earl of Inchcape, MacKay’s grandson, Kenneth James William Mackay that consolidated the family businesses under the one name of Inchcape & Co Limited in 1958.
Inchcape wasn’t much involved in the motor industry until the early 70s, when in 1972 they acquired Dodwell & Company and Mann Egerton & Company Ltd in 1973. Dodwell & Company added extensive shipping and motor trading in the Far East and Mann Egerton & Company brought them into their motor-distribution business. Mann Egerton began by selling cars by de Dion, Daimler and Renault and later in the 70s distributing British Leyland Cars as well as a range of luxury brands. Inchcape bought into the Japanese car distribution business with their acquisition of Joska Bourgeois in 1979.
The company reincorporated in 1981 to become Inchcape PLC and continued their acquisitions throughout the 80s in other areas such as petrol, textile and inspection companies. Despite these new and existing ventures, by 1989, the motors segment of Inchcape was their most profitable with 53.6% of group profits and making up two-thirds of group turnover.
The next decade saw the company experience its two most difficult years since its creation. Some of the company’s key markets were suffering due to dampened consumer spending, particularly in both Western Europe and Hong Kong in 1994-1995. Several divestments began to be made under a new management team which paved the way for the company to focus solely on worldwide car distribution. It was the Asian economic crisis in 1998 that put the final nail in the coffin to their other areas of business including their roots, saying farewell to their global shipping business by divesting from Inchcape Shipping Services. It was then that the decision was made to hedge all their bets on the most profitable part of their dealings and go all in on the motor industry which was announced in 1998.
Inchcape has a remarkable history dating back almost two centuries, with its beginnings hardly resembling the company we know today. Although they only deal in automotive area now, it is still a company with a presence the world over. In England alone the company operates over 100 dealerships from Sunderland to as far south as Exeter and has a workforce of over five thousand employees.
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