Hull-based Arco, a giant in the world of safety for 140 years

Alan Johnson MP with Thomas Martin at the opening of Arco’s product assurance laboratory at the Hull National Distribution Centre in 2014
-Credit: (Image: Hull News & Pictures)


Sitting in Arco’s state of the-art offices on Hull’s Fruit Market, looking out at the Humber estuary on one side and the city centre skyline on the other, it is amazing to think the company started life as a small rubber manufacturer in Victorian London.

It was known as Arthur Stanley Morrison & Co, a moonlighting operation set up by two directors of the Leyland and Birmingham Rubber Co. Among the products it made and sold were the solid rubber tennis balls used at Wimbledon.

Today, Arco is the UK’s leading safety provider, employing around 1,500 people across the UK, including more than 800 in Hull, with a turnover of around £300m. And while it is no longer in the rubber ball business, Arco’s relationship with Wimbledon continues to this day - this summer, Arco’s working-at-height experts will be working on fall protection systems on the roofs of the courts at the All England Club, helping ensure the safety of maintenance workers.

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The company’s 140-year story is one of resilience, adaptability, and an unwavering commitment to keeping people safe at work. After those humble beginnings in London, seeing an opportunity to sell to the Humber port industry, in 1898 Arthur Stanley Morrison & Co moved to Hull, setting up shop in Queen Street.

In 1907, Tom Martin was brought in to turn around the fortunes of the struggling business. It was renamed the Asbestos and Rubber Company, and the Martin family would continue to guide its growth for the next century and beyond.

Today, Thomas Martin, great-grandson of Tom, is non-executive chairman of the family-owned company. He recently won a lifetime achievement award for his commitment to health and safety over four decades.

He said: “Looking back over the past 140 years, it's clear the ability to adapt and innovate has always been key to Arco’s success. Our journey has been marked by resilience and a commitment to quality, as well as a strong connection to Hull.”

While “Arco” was registered as a trademark around the beginning of the First World War, it would be almost 70 years before the company officially adopted this shortened version of its name. During the Second World War, Arco’s King Edward Street shop was bombed, and all records were destroyed. However, the company bounced back, setting up in Waterhouse Lane and embarking on a post-war period of diversification, expansion and innovation.

In the 1960s, Arco moved to Waverley Street, where it would remain for six decades. Sales soon reached £1m as the company shifted focus towards safety, workwear and personal protective equipment (PPE), while continuing with other activities, including sports retail. A pivotal moment came in the mid-1970s with the introduction of Health and Safety at Work Act.

Over the ensuing decades, Arco dedicated itself to becoming a leader in workplace safety. Mr Martin said: "The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 heralded a huge shift in the safety industry.

Arco's offices in Blackfriargate, Hull
Arco's offices in Blackfriargate, Hull -Credit:Hull News & Pictures

“It raised the standards of workplace safety and ingrained a culture of health and safety across all sectors. Arco embraced this evolution, continuously expanding our expertise and offerings to meet and exceed these standards."

In 1980, the company became simply “Arco”, a name now synonymous with safety. By the late 20th century, Arco had sold its Arco Intersport shops, while broadening its portfolio to include safety services and training.

A series of acquisitions led to the creation of Arco Professional Safety Services, which provides consultancy, training, services and equipment to manage high-risk scenarios, such as working at height and in confined spaces. The new millennium also saw Arco step up its distribution of safety products across the UK.

In 2000, it opened the vast National Distribution Centre (NDC) at the side of the A63. A £30m extension to the NDC opened in 2020 and, at 425,000sq ft, it now holds up to 40,000 pallets and services up to 10,000 orders a day.

Throughout the 2000s, Arco expanded its international footprint, opening a sourcing office in China aimed at enhancing the quality, ethics and sustainability of its supply chain. Arco has also led the industry on best practice, pushing for regulatory changes and championing safety expertise.

During the Ebola outbreak in 2015, Arco was the leading PPE partner in the UK's humanitarian response. Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic saw Arco stepping up to secure additional PPE for frontline workers, while advising Government bodies on PPE regulations and standards.

Locally, Arco continues to be an important part of Hull life, notably providing the iconic blue, pink and purple uniforms worn by the UK City of Culture volunteers. Recent years have seen more big changes.

The Waverley Street building was demolished to make way for the A63 Castle Street upgrade and, in 2021, Arco moved to its new Fruit Market headquarters, a stone’s throw from where that first Hull shop stood back in 1898. While Arco is still owned by the Martins, the fourth-generation family members now hold non-executive director positions on the board, with Thomas as chairman. The first of the fifth generation entered the business almost three years ago.

So what does the future hold for Arco? Guy Bruce was appointed as chief executive in December 2022, launching an ambitious transformation plan called Destination 2030.

Stage one, Fix the Foundations, is well under way, and the company is now moving into stage two, known as Build for Growth. This month, at the 2024 Arco staff conference, Guy and his senior leadership team shared their bold plans to invest £17m in growth over the next 12 months.

The 2,352 solar panels Arco installed on the roof of its National Distribution Centre in Hull
The 2,352 solar panels Arco installed on the roof of its National Distribution Centre in Hull -Credit:arco.co.uk

Mr Bruce said: “Celebrating our 140-year anniversary is not just about looking back, but also looking forward. We have this incredible heritage and expertise that sets us apart from our competitors, but at the same time we are focused on development, growth and innovation.

“There is a lot of work going on to position the business for next decade. Over the next year or so, we will be making multi-million-pound investments in products and services, in digital excellence, in training and in systems to make us more efficient, while providing the best possible service for our customers. Stay tuned!”

In short, it’s about the being best of both – the old and the new. But always being the UK’s Experts in Safety.