Oday Abbosh was washing his hands in a public bathroom in New York, when he had an idea. “I noticed that the folded paper towel only soaked up moisture in the centre, meaning around 20% of the sheet was simply being wasted.” The same often happens with kitchen towels, “the four dry corners are left flapping around.” The answer, surely, was to switch from square to circular sheets. 

While Abbosh – lean, with closely-cropped hair and bursting with energy – thought he was onto something, he was too busy servicing media and tech clients to give it much attention. The only way was to formally retire, in 2012, from his globe-trotting role as Accenture’s head of analytics in Europe, Middle East, Africa and Latin America.  

He brought in product design firm Acumen Design Associates to develop a circular kitchen towel concept, which became Ora. The designers suggested giving each round sheet two pleats to create a party hat shape, and stacking them on top of a conical base. That gives Ora advantages over conventional kitchen towels, Abbosh believes: it’s easy to grab a sheet with just one hand, rather than needing two to tear along perforations; each stack holds twice as much paper as traditional kitchen rolls; Ora’s shape means it can be stacked with the conical base of one fitting snugly on top of another, so it takes up less space than two-roll packs (with their hollow tubes) in warehouses and on shop shelves, and 30% fewer trucks are needed to deliver it; and it also uses 20% less plastic packaging. 

However, new ideas often demand new tooling. Abbosh raised more than £20m equity to build a bespoke manufacturing facility to make his product. Until last year, the tooling was based in Italy because “the machine builder is in Italy, and we wanted to be close to the people who built it, for debugging,” he says. 

‘ There’s a ton of stuff from my previous world that I can bring’ 

But, in the last year, Abbosh’s company, Better All Round, has bought Staples Disposables for an undisclosed sum. Based in the Lincolnshire countryside, the 40-year-old business makes own-label bathroom, kitchen and facial tissue products. That operation has now been joined by Ora’s machinery. “Most of Ora’s customers are UK-based (such as Tesco and Asda) and we want to be close to the point of retail sale,” he explains. The new set-up, which goes by the new name of Consuma Paper Products, employs 240 staff. 

Paper towel production

This is now where he spends much of his time, developing Ora products and shaking up Staples. “I’m hoping to bring innovation and different practices, and to build this business up. There’s a ton of stuff from my previous world that I can bring. Historically, it was run on gut feelings. Now we’re getting a balance between gut feelings and data,” he adds, as we walk past an office whose walls are covered with graphs and figures. 

Abbosh’s ambition is to double Consuma’s £26m annual turnover over the next three to five years. A big part of that growth strategy is to sell into nearby European markets. Because, as quaint as it looks, Ora seems to be catching on. According to The Grocer’s Top Products 2018 report, Ora was one of the few kitchen towel brands to see rises in volume and value, of 18.3% and 11.5% respectively. 

‘ With manufacturing there’s a huge kick from making something people use every day’  

Now, Ora’s napkins are going into UK restaurants, coffee shops and more supermarkets. And last November, the napkins launched in 94 Wegmans supermarkets on the US’s East Coast. But that’s not sustainable long-term because of the cost of shipping from the UK. “At some point, we’ll have to put kit on the ground,” says Abbosh. This will involve striking “partnerships with third party businesses which will manufacture under licence.” Diversification is also in the air, and this year new by-products such as pet bedding will be made from waste materials. 

There’s nothing unusual in management consultants jumping ship, but Abbosh is a rare breed to go from glamorous media and tech worlds onto the factory floor. “I had a fantastic 25 years in consulting,” he says, “but with manufacturing there’s a huge kick from making a product that people use every day. There’s something very special about walking into a supermarket and knowing where that product was made and who made it.”

Take-out: Even a product that hasn’t changed in living memory can be reinvented for the better.