Yet it was the proliferation of such valued staff members at Barnsley-based Naylor Industries that helped its CEO realise that more needed to be done to nurture the next generation.
The family company, which makes clay and plastic pipes for the construction and infrastructure sectors, currently employs some 400 people, turns over more than £55m and exports to 65 countries. But when Edward Naylor took the reins upon the death of his father in 1993, it was losing money, and he saw that one of the keys to turning things around was in bringing in new talent.
“Every year we have long-service lunches for people who have clocked up 25 and 40 years, but we also had to innovate and drive the business forward,” he tells Yorkshire Vision.
“If the average age of employees is mid-50s, you’re not exactly making plans for the future, so really what we’ve tried to do since then is a) diversify and innovate, and b) bring along a new generation.”
The result was, firstly, a new plastic pipe division which now accounts for more than half the group’s turnover, and, secondly, a well-developed apprenticeship scheme, which has trained up 23 young employees over the last seven years – six of whom have progressed through the business.
One of these is Ryan Senior, a tool technician who completed a three-year polymer apprenticeship at Naylor and is now considered a “rising star”, destined for management.
Mr Naylor says: “We very recently bought an injection moulding machine from a supplier in China and we sent Ryan over to do the pre-inspection testing work. So he went over to China and ran this machine, debugged it and signed it off and it duly arrived and worked first time.
“So that’s a measure of how we as a business can benefit from having bright young people come into the business.
“Ryan found himself on an aeroplane to China as the Naylor man entrusted with a quarter-of-a-million-pound machine to sign off. So it’s a win for him because it broadens his horizons, and a win for us because we’ve had a good guy go out and check that the machine did what it said on the tin.”
He adds: “We spend a lot of money on training. Our main manufacturing site at Cawthorne is quite rural; there aren’t that many people living within a close radius. So we try to develop our own people. At any given point there are loads of people doing all sorts of training – practical, academic, whatever.”
In addition to the apprenticeship scheme, Naylor is sponsoring two management trainees through apprentice degree courses at Sheffield Hallam University.
The company also tries to find talent from less obvious sources. Jade Terry, for example, is a former Thomas Cook resort rep who, having trained at Naylor as a sales manager, recently won two national awards.
“She’s very bright and settled into the role very well,” says Mr Naylor. “We’re keen to develop people who are making their first step into work, but we’re equally keen to bring through our employees of all ages and all levels.”
Apprenticeships are becoming more common in the UK – participation rose by 6.2 per cent last year to 562,700 – and much of this growth can be attributed to the introduction in 2017 of the Apprenticeship Levy.
This is payable at a rate of 0.5 per cent of a company’s total wage bill, by all employers whose annual bill comes to more than £3m.
Despite its apparent success in boosting numbers of apprentices, it has come in for criticism from smaller companies that claim to see little or no benefit from it, and from larger businesses that see it simply as an unnecessary tax. Mr Naylor, though, is ambivalent.
“My view is that it’s neither good nor bad. We’re quite comfortable. It’s not getting us to do anything we wouldn’t do anyway,” he says.
“Our total wage bill is £11.4m and our apprenticeship levy is just over half a million pounds. We don’t want to be here today and gone tomorrow, so we would see training and development and apprenticeships as things we would want to spend money on anyway.”
Naylor currently has six apprentices – three training as engineers, one as a draughtsman, one as an accountant, and one as a health and safety coordinator.
But where the company has an issue is with diversity. It’s something Mr Naylor takes very seriously, but while three of the group’s nine directors and both of its management trainees are women, that pattern is not reflected among the apprentices.
“Generally, we do get a good calibre of applicants for apprenticeships – I don’t think we’ve had lots of vacancies at any point,” he says, “but we do struggle to get female applicants for engineering apprenticeships.
“There is a bit of an image problem. People imagine manufacturing’s all covered in muck, but actually in modern manufacturing there’s lots of robotics and IT programming and so on.
“People might think they want a shiny office and computer software; well, that’s fine, but you can do that in manufacturing, rather than joining the IT industry, for example.”
He adds: “We try not to discriminate positively or negatively, but 50 per cent of the population of the country is female and my view is that you need to reflect that at all levels of the job.”
As for the future, Mr Naylor is clear. Aside from wanting to hire a female engineer, he aims to do “more of the same”. “We’re developing a group of young, ambitious people and we need to keep them interested and maximise their potential,” he says.
“I’m 56 and I’m not going to be here forever, so I need someone to bang on my door and say ‘I’m going to take over the hot seat’!”