WITH 2014 marking its 50th anniversary, thriving local kitchenware firm Lakeland unveiled a huge £10 million extension to its Kendal distribution centre last month. The latest move for the family-owned business increased its storage capacity by 50 per cent and, according to managing director Sam Rayner, allowed it to stay true to its namesake and remain in the Lake District. KATIE DICKINSON looks at how Lakeland went from three brothers helping their father to being an industry giant around the world.

AS it celebrates its 50th year, the Lakeland 'family' now has just under 1,800 members, but the original family number just five.

In the 1960s, current managing director Sam Rayner and his brothers Martin and Julian started helping dad Alan by counting polythene bags during their school holidays for pocket money.

While selling animal feed from farm to farm, Alan bought chickens to sell at Kendal market – and because they were smartly presented in plastic bags, the Rayners’ dressed birds outsold the other smallholders.

The demand for plastic bags soared as more farmers began to freeze poultry, with Alan driving his Morris 1000 van to the factory near London to pick up supplies.

Lakeland Poultry Packers was formed and run from the Rayners’ Windermere home, with mum Dorothy doing the mail order dispatch.

The family moved house in 1964 and Alan and Dorothy still ran the mail-order business from the garage while continuing to run a successful hotel business.

It then became Lakeland Plastics as it expanded its range and began supplying freezer bags and accessories all over the country – as well as haystack covers, silage sheeting and the innovative ‘Lammacs’ plastic coats designed to protect newborn lambs from the elements.

The Rayners next took the business on the road to visit agricultural shows around the country, eventually taking four trailers to all the major events.

Sam remembers: “Life on the road was hard, but always eventful – from having to be winched off a humpback bridge to being stopped by flashing blue lights when a policeman driving a car wanted a catalogue for his wife.”

As the younger Rayners’ own families grew, they began to join the firm and Sam’s wife Judy caused considerable alarm at the bank after one show when cashiers discovered that her pram contained more than their first born.

“Peeling back the covers, she revealed the entire takings in cash – needless to say the manager was immediately summoned and the money transferred to a more secure location," Sam recalls.

It was around that time that the business outgrew the garage and an old warehouse in Alexandra Road, Windermere, became a parcel-packing area and small shop.

In the 1970s, Lakeland took the new craze for home freezing to heart and began selling the ‘Freezeasy’ pack – a ‘starter pack’ for new freezer owners.

Alan retired in 1974 and Sam, returning from voluntary service in Uganda aged 21, took over the running of the business alongside Martin, 23, and Julian, who was 16 and still at school.

Lakeland’s first foray into kitchenware came with its ‘Everything For Home Cooking’ catalogue – its success meant that the demand for cooking equipment outweighed everything else and the agricultural side was scaled back.

Once again, the business needed a bigger location and set up its first offices in the station master’s house at the disused Windermere station.

In the 1980s Lakeland Plastics progressed to more substantial catalogues and inherited its first computer, entering the digital age.

As the firm grew further it secured a piece of land next to its Windermere premises and was finally able to have a purpose-built facility.

The 1980s also saw its first venture into the high street with a tiny shop in Eastgate Row, Chester.

Lakeland Plastics became Lakeland Limited in the mid-90s as its range expanded further into home storage and cleaning products.

And as it outgrew the Windermere premises, a new distribution centre was built in Kendal, which became ‘the heart of the business’.

This was also the time when the retail side of the business began to take off, with stores popping up on high streets up and down the country.

As the millennium approached, Lakeland took the first steps towards its own website – initially set up so customers could join the mailing list, although today it is a huge part of the business.

The extension to the Kendal distribution centre has allowed Lakeland to send out thousands of orders a day and enabled the Windermere site to be transformed into its flagship store – more than double the size of the old shop and one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Lake District.

These days, Lakeland is approaching having 70 stores up and down the country. It also made its first move overseas in 2010, opening a shop in Dubai.

It now has stores in more than seven countries, including two new additions in India. The company is also planning a further three in the Middle East.

Although mail order is still going strong, the business has seen a shift towards internet shopping with more people than ever choosing to order online.

Looking back on the past 50 years Sam Rayner reflects that retaining family ownership has been key, but so has the way it operates.

“As a family environment – when I say ‘family’ I don’t just mean the Rayners, we’re a family not ‘the family’, he said.

“What’s also been important is retaining the business in the Lake District – having it in our name but operating out of Bognor Regis wouldn’t seem right.”

Above all, Mr Rayner said he has aimed to stick to his father Alan’s philosophy of ‘always look after the customer and the business will look after itself’.