Independent household player Challs has been stealing share from some of the top names in fmcg. Sales director Kieran MacSweeney tells Alex Beckett how

Unilever. Reckitt Benckiser. SC Johnson. These are the names most would associate with the household cleaning market.

But a rising force is successfully combining germ killing with giant killing. Well, giant bashing, at least. Its name is Challs International.

In the past year sales of Challs' biggest brand, Buster plughole cleaner, have exploded, increasing by 32% in value to £4.3m with volumes up 35% [Nielsen 52w/e 2 October 2010]. That makes Buster the biggest plughole unblocker in the country, with a 2.6% share of the total multipurpose cleaner market, compared with the 1.2% slice of closest competitor Domestos Gel sink unblocker.

Not bad for a company set up in the back bedroom of former Mattel toys marketer Graham Burchell 20 years ago and now based on an Ipswich industrial estate. So just how has Challs propelled itself from obscurity to market leadership, despite the downturn and fierce competition?

"Obviously we've had a tough 18 months as a nation and we have seen people trading down in other categories," says sales director Kieran MacSweeney. "But in household, people will pay for quality products that deliver first time." So in just five years the company has quadrupled turnover to £6m.

The turnaround began in 2005 when Challs won funding from the Design Council, the former quango awarded charitable status in October. The cash was spent well, with Buster's dated bottles being given a slick new design resembling a macho deodorant more than something you would hide under the sink. The new look helped Challs go from a supplier whose bread and butter was own-label caustic soda and ammonia to one with listings at Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's.

In April, Challs claimed a laundry category first with Boost Your Wash a washing enhancer designed to work alongside traditional detergents. Two months later, it unveiled a powder-based bin deodoriser and insect repellent range called Bin Buddy. "From drawing board to shelf the launch process took just six months. Being a smaller company means we have that flexibility and speed," says MacSweeney.

Sales of both products have beaten expectations which, combined with Buster's success, prompted Challs to update its plant to the tune of £2.1m. The company spent £100,000 on a new sleeving machine alone, enabling more decorative designs than those afforded by adhesive labels. "Even Mr Muscle doesn't use one of them," grins MacSweeney.

But the likes of Mr Muscle will be eyeing Challs intently as the company hatches plans for more NPD and begins to roll out its products into export markets (it launched Buster into Denmark in January and now plans to enter China). In the next three years the plan is to double turnover.

MacSweeney says: "We punch above our weight but, as we continue to grow, we will be more on the radar for the likes of P&G, Reckitt Benckiser and SC Johnson. If they continue to lose market share they will want to do something about it."