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The first agents appointed

Our story begins in the 1700s, when colonial administrations employed agents to recruit people and procure and ship supplies to the colonies. Some agents had been authorised to manage British Treasury grants and they had become known (unofficially) as crown agents.

On 1 April 1833 the British government appointed the first Joint Agents General for Crown Colonies, George Baillie and Edward Barnard. Although appointed by the British Treasury‚ the Joint Agents General were accountable only to the governors of the 13 crown colonies that they served (a number that grew to 22 over the next two decades). They managed grants, raised capital, recruited personnel and shipped supplies for their clients.


New management and name

The original joint agents retired in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Their successors were modernisers and vigorously set about introducing new work systems, and reforming the ways in which services were paid for. The reforms quickly won the approval of their clients, the colonial governors and administrations. 

By 1863 the volume of business was roughly double what it had been when the original two agents were appointed 30 years earlier. The name of the Joint Agents General was changed to Crown Agents for the Colonies, in recognition of this broader client base, and gave the agents a title that had always been used – Crown Agents.
Crown Agents 1858


Building infrastructure

This was a time when trade and growth in the colonies began to demand better physical infrastructure; ports, roads and railways were being built everywhere from Nigeria to Hong Kong, and the Joint Agents were now managing dozens of large engineering projects.

They engaged engineers for the design work, procured and shipped the necessary materials and machinery, and project managed the work to its conclusion.

They also raised capital by floating loan bonds on the London securities market, work that continued for over a century; by the 1930s Crown Agents had raised over £450 million for its clients through more than 200 loans.
Crown Agents 1869


Pioneering women

In 1878, Crown Agents engaged its first 'Lady Clerk', making it a pioneer in the employment of women in offices.
Straits Settlements Doc Board


New clients

Crown Agents was now permitted to act for entities other than colonial administrations, and in 1905 the Straits Settlements Dock Board (forerunner of the Port of Singapore Authority) became the first of dozens of public bodies to choose to use Crown Agents' financial, procurement and project management services.


A home of our own

Expanding business meant Crown Agents had moved between rented properties several times during its first 70 years of business, and by 1912 it had outgrown its home once more.

This was a chance to build a new office designed to the business' exact requirements. The new building on Millbank near Parliament Square quickly became one of London's landmarks. Crown Agents remained there for the next 70 years before moving again, in 1986, to a suburban setting in Sutton, on London's southern fringe.


Historic ship

Crown Agents had been buying and delivering ships for several years, but in 1923 it received a particularly important commission - that of restoring the ship that had taken Scott and Shackleton on their first joint Antarctic expedition. After working as a cargo vessel, she had been laid up for several years.

On behalf of Britain's scientific Royal Society and the Colonial Office, Crown Agents bought the ship and had it refitted as an arctic research ship. Its new career was launched in 1925 with a voyage to the southern oceans to chart the migration patterns of whales.


Our first international office

During World War II it became increasingly difficult to source and ship the materials from Europe. To continue to supply its clients, Crown Agents established a buying office in Washington D.C. and sourced goods in the North American market.

In the next 70 years, many more international offices were set-up in clients' countries or centres of supply. Today, we have a presence in more than 40 countries and permanent staff working on the ground in 22 corporate offices in Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America, as well as in the UK, US and Japan.


Post war reconstruction

Reconstruction and development work in British dependencies after the war led to a greater than ever demand for Crown Agents' services, particularly in procurement and finance.

Almost everything was in short supply in Britain at this time and, having no government allocation of rationed materials, Crown Agents had to compete for goods with every other private sector buyer. Despite this, in 1946 Crown Agents' shipments from the UK alone amounted to 438,495 tonnes - 100,000 tonnes more than in 1938.


Our clients gain independence

More and more of our colonial clients were heading towards self-determination. The rules governing Crown Agents' client base were relaxed, allowing us to work for fully independent countries and post-mandate Iraq was the first client to take advantage of the new rules.

Our name was changed to The Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations.


We start training

Responding to the needs of our clients we started a programme of training courses in supply chain management. The first course covered stores and warehouse management, but procurement-related subjects were soon added. By the early 1970s the courses had earned accreditation from the UK Chartered Institute for Purchasing & Supply. We continue to train thousands of people each year, with a wide curriculum from leadership and project management to trade facilitation, financial management and banking.


Humanitarian relief

Britain supplied substantial humanitarian aid to victims of the Biafran war, Nigeria, and gave Crown Agents the job of buying and delivering it. The scale of the operation prompted Crown Agents to set up a department solely engaged in humanitarian relief work.


Consultancy and project management

Throughout the 1960s and 70s Crown Agents continued to provide its traditional procurement, financial and personnel-related services, but expanded into engineering consultancy, project management, credit finance and fund management. Freight services were brought in-house in 1975 by the acquisition of the commercial forwarder, Greenshields, Cowie & Co Ltd.


We become a statutory corporation

Through an act of parliament, Crown Agents became a statutory corporation reporting to and monitored by the minister for overseas development (as the title was then) acting on behalf of Britain's foreign secretary, who also appointed its board of directors.


Crown Agents Bank established

In 1989 Crown Agents Financial Services Ltd was created as a subsidiary company to provide our financial services, and to act as bankers to Crown Agents, its other subsidiaries and clients. CAFSL was constituted as a bank, initially subject to regulation by the Bank of England, and later, when the UK regulatory system was changed, by Britain's Financial Services Authority.  In 2006 CAFSL's name was changed to Crown Agents Bank Ltd.


Public sector modernisation

We began advising our clients on public sector modernisation and revenue management, and soon became recognised as a leader in revenue reform and modernisation.

The first of many large customs assignments, we began what would be a 10 year project to modernise Mozambique's customs service.


Nuclear project management

Our project management skills are put to good use when we are asked to manage nuclear safety projects. We began work for the Japanese/Russian joint body responsible for a sea-going radioactive waste reprocessing facility in 1993 and managed a number of nuclear projects in the CIS until 2015.


Crown Agents is privatised

In 1997, 10 years after a change of status was first suggested, Crown Agents became a private limited company owned by non-profit-making foundation. The Crown Agents Foundation is the sole shareholder of Crown Agents and oversees our ethos and activities. Crown Agents allocates sums to the Foundation which the Foundation uses to further its social and developmental objectives.


Responding to disaster

On 8 October 2005, a 7.6 earthquake hit northern Pakistan and sent shockwaves across an area of 30,000 km². It killed more than 80,000 people, injured another 70,000, and left 2.5 million homeless. Within hours of the earthquake, the Operations Team of DFID's Conflict, Humanitarian and Security Department (CHASE OT, managed by Crown Agents) had set up an earthquake operations room and brought together coordinators, information officers, humanitarian advisors and logistics officers, as well as support staff in London and in Islamabad, to manage £58 million of British emergency assistance over the following months.


Awards for debt and health

We won the British Expertise Large Consultancy Firm of the Year award for our role in helping Nigeria towards achieving debt cancellation worth $18billion. This was largely due to the efforts of its new Debt Management Office (DMO) whose credible database and improved transparency, efficiency and professionalism in debt management provided vital technical support to negotiations with its creditors. We helped to establish the DMO six years earlier, and assisted it thereafter as it became a world-class debt management office. In 2008, we won Healthcare Project of the Year award for our work with the Zambian Government to restore its national health supply system through improvements to its central medical store, Medical Stores Limited. 


South Sudan and Zimbabwe

We supported the new nation of South Sudan with advice and capacity building in trade, customs, health, procurement and public financial management. We won ‘Development Project of the Year’ in the British Expertise awards for work on health worker retention in Zimbabwe. Dave Fish, head of DFID Zimbabwe, said: "DFID congratulates Crown Agents on this fantastic achievement. We are extremely pleased to be associated with this scheme, which has played such a pivotal role in preventing the health sector in Zimbabwe from collapse. The achievements of the scheme speak for themselves: vacancy rates have fallen for all cadres since 2008."


Expertise in food security and monitoring and evaluation

We acquired Weidemann Associates, a leading and well-respected international firm working in small business growth, food security and monitoring and evaluation. They have been successfully serving USAID and other donor agencies for the past 26 years.


Financial services businesses sold

Crown Agents Bank and Crown Agents Investment Management are sold to funds advised by Helios Investment Partners following completion of regulatory approval. Crown Agents will continue to offer the deep expertise and practical and high impact work our clients are used to in the areas of health, economic development, governance and state building, supply chain services and humanitarian response. Crown Agents, CAB and CAIM will collaborate to support existing clients and will act as a strategic business partner referring new customers and opportunities to each other, wherever possible.


Investigating frontier technologies

Our Foundation is exploring the game-changing potential of frontier technologies like drones, solar storage and blockchains. We kicked off our investigation with a panel discussion at the Royal Society of Arts in ​January. Speakers included Jonathan Ledgard, former Africa Editor at The Economist, Tamara Giltsoff, DFID’s Head of Innovation and our chair Marie Staunton. Over 5,000 people saw our #techforgood debate on Twitter and the panel discussion has since been viewed by almost 2,000 people online.    


Driving change for the people of Ukraine

We have been working with the Ministry of Healthcare to improve health outcomes in Ukraine since 2015. Our public procurement reform has achieved savings of over 40% on the government’s oncology budget and lowered the cost of lifesaving treatment. Our work in Ukraine has been featured in The Economist newspaper, on CNN’s Amanpour and was shortlisted in the 2017 CIPS awards for ‘Best Public Procurement’.


Award-winning solar work

In 2017 we won the 2017 Chartered Institutes of Procurements and Supply award for Best Not-For-Profit Project. The award was for our work delivering solar power to 25,000 people in Primary Healthcare Centres across Kaduna state, Nigeria.


Moving to our new London Blackfriars HQ

After over thirty years in Sutton, Crown Agents moved to Blackfriars in September 2017. This new UK headquarters at the Blue Fin building in central London provides the capacity and agility for us to continue to meet the needs of our clients in a fast-changing world. 

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