The formation of Imperial came about as a result from the threat of competition from The American Tobacco Company (ATC). This threat was spearheaded by ATC’s head, James Buchanan Duke. Duke went to England in 1901 with the hope of buying up several independent tobacco companies there. For the most part, he had little success in the quest for purchases, only obtaining Ogden’s Liverpool.
In response to Duke’s takeover attempt, thirteen family-run businesses, led by Wills, Players and Lamber & Butler, met in December 1901. At this meeting they formed The Imperial Tobacco Company (Great Britain and Ireland) Limited, and elected Sir William Henry Wills (who became Lord Winterstoke in 1906) as the chairman. Imperial continued to work as separate companies, trading under their own names and being responsible for their own sales and manufacture.
Through its ownership in Ogden’s Liverpool, ATC started reducing their prices and offering free gifts in the UK but with little success. Imperial conducted similar practices with much greater success. Imperial then decided to go to ATC to propose the possibility of a collaborative effort. An agreement was reached in September 1902. ATC gave Ogden’s Liverpool back to Imperial and Imperial limited their interests in the American market to only leaf buying. These actions resulted in the formation of the British American Tobacco Company (BAT), which lasted until 1911. At that point, ATC was split into four companies after an anti-trust decision. One of the companies kept the ATC name and also the right to continue selling several Imperial brands in the US. In addition, Imperial was free to export any of their other brands to the US market. In 1973 each company would regain control of its own brand names in the UK and Western Europe.
Imperial continued to grow during the next several decades. By 1960, the company began refocusing its mission in a more diversified manner. This focus was away from tobacco, and more toward the food, drink and leisure industries. By 1979, the organization had five divisions: Tobacco, Paper and Board, Food, Distributive Trade and General Trade. In 1981 the organization began a major reorganization, mainly due to the declining demand for tobacco products and the need for more cost-effectiveness. During the next two decades, Imperial established very efficient production practices and enjoyed growing success. Through further acquisitions and increasing markets, this growth has continued to today. The Imperial group currently sells products in more than 130 countries and has 58 plants employing approximately 42,000 people.
The records represented by this finding aid are from Imperial’s Rocky Mount, North Carolina branch. At one time, Imperial Tobacco Company also had branches in the North Carolina towns of Durham, Oxford, Greenville and Wilson. The original Rocky Mount plant was erected in 1903, and closed in the 1960s. The vacant building was renovated and opened as The Rocky Mount Arts Center in January 2006. Located in "Tobacco Town" off Dickinson Avenue, the Greenville plant was once the largest buyer of tobacco on the Greenville market for the export trade and consisted of a three-story structure, according to research by local historian Roger Kammerer. Most of the structure was built in the early 1900s. The company left Greenville in 1978, leaving behind the building covering two city blocks. There were plans of restoring the structure, but sadly, on April 17, 2008, the warehouse was gutted by fire. Following an investigation, the cause was ruled as arson. At the time of writing, no suspects have been charged, and plans are in effect to demolish the structure.
Sources: Imperial Tobacco website http://www.imperial-tobacco.com/ The Daily Reflector online newspaper http://www.reflector.com/
North Carolina Arts Council website http://ncarts.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/fellowship-recipient-exhibition-in-rocky-mount-this-week/