Global demand sees William Cook plan £5m site investment

William Cook Holdings is investing £5m in its Leeds site and plans to create up to 150 skilled jobs across the group this year.

The family-owned steel castings firm expects turnover to rise by 20 per cent to £60m by next March.

Andrew Cook, the chairman, said the new investment will increase capacity in volume and breadth and also enhance the group’s ability to recycle materials.

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He plans to expand the workforce from 700 to 850 with new jobs for welders, machinists, pattern makers, engineers, moulders and finishing operators at his three sites in Sheffield and Leeds.

Mr Cook said the growth is being driven by high demand from the international oil and gas, transport and construction markets as the global economy bounces back after the financial crisis and customers return to producers in the developed world. The low value of the pound is also helping.

He said that the company continues to “move with the times” by investing in people and machinery to produce world-class factories.

Mr Cook was less confident about the outlook for the UK economy. “Britain plc? The jury is out,” he said.

The company made a trading profit of £6m on sales of £50m in the year ending March 2011, a significant improvement on £40m sales in 2010, although it remained profitable throughout the downturn, said Mr Cook.

William Cook has a long and colourful history, which dates back to the 19th century when its eponymous founder, the great, great grandfather of Andrew Cook, established a factory in Glasgow.

The company’s Yorkshire roots can be traced to 1883 when it opened a steel castings factory in Sheffield.

Mr Cook, 61, took control of the business from his father in acrimonious circumstances in 1981.

He said: “We had a row and one of us had to leave. There was no other solution. People probably say ‘he sacked his father’. [But] it is not unusual for a 62-year-old to hand over to a 30-year-old son.

“It is unfortunate that the handover took place in a such a bad atmosphere and also frankly that the company was in such poor condition when I took it on.

“But that’s water under the bridge; he’s been dead four years and it’s ancient history now. We made our peace before he died.”

Mr Cook intends to work until he is 70, when he will have a clearer idea about succession plans.

He has four children but is unsure whether they will decide to follow him into the family firm.

He said: “I’m certainly not going to force them into it. There’s a negative to a business like this – it just rules your life.

“I don’t necessarily want my children to waste their lives against their will. There are bigger seas to swim outside in the world than the steel castings industry. But you never know.

“I certainly consider it a duty to my staff and to my family to keep this game going as long as I can. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on it.

“It’s a very important niche company in British industry.”

Aside from the family taking on the business, other options include a management buyout or break-up of the group, although he was not keen on the latter.

Mr Cook said: “This has only really become a family business in the last 10 years.

“My late father floated it in 1956 and I finally bought it back and bought out my venture capital shareholder in 2004.

“So you are looking at somebody who’s in charge of a first generation family business, in its second incarnation.”

When he joined, annual sales were £3m. They later rose to £140m.

Mr Cook said: “I reduced the size of business to a size I was comfortable with using my management technique, which generally is extremely hands-on and does not suffer fools gladly and insists on close attention to detail.”

Mr Cook fought off a hostile takeover bid from Triplex Lloyds, the Midlands-based engineering group in 1996.

Seen as ‘a bit of a wild card’

In his own words, Andrew Cook said he is perceived as “a bit of a wild card and maverick”. The Sheffield-born industrialist is thought to be the Conservative Party’s biggest financial supporter in Yorkshire, donating around £750,000 and free flights to David Cameron while the Tories were in opposition.

Mr Cook hit the headlines last year after it emerged he lobbied the coalition Government against Labour’s £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters.

He is not the only member of his family to have attracted controversy; his sister Angela Knight is chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association.

Mr Cook said: “She has the job from hell. She’s tasked with defending the banks, which is an extremely difficult task and I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves for it.

“It’s common knowledge they behaved recklessly and they have got off virtually scot-free. I am disappointed that some of the top brass of the major banks that went bust aren’t actually doing time.

“That would send a very good signal to bank boards that allowed billions of their shareholders’ money to be wasted and required billions of taxpayers’ money to save the wholesale collapse of the banking system and now not only have got off scot-free but are also actually getting other highly-paid jobs.”

On the subject of Sheffield Forgemasters, Mr Cook said he has no regrets over the affair, other than being pilloried “as the man that wrecked the loan”. He insisted the loan was politically motivated and should never have been granted. Mr Cook said: “Sheffield Forgemasters is to some a sacred cow, to others a long-term dog in this city.”

He said the company suffered from under-investment and was loss-making in the past.

In any event, Mr Cook questioned whether the £80m loan would be enough to allow the company to compete with international market leaders.

He said: “My solution to Sheffield Forgemasters is if you want to keep it going in this country, in Sheffield, and bring it up to scratch is actually to merge it into one of the global majors because it would then provide a footprint in Britain for making the stuff for which there is a capacity shortage.

“But that capacity shortage is diminishing now as other big component makers in Japan, China, Korea, Germany, Spain and other countries invest. They would willingly buy Sheffield Forgemasters and invest in it.”

He said that he offered to invest £10m in Forgemasters three years ago in return for equity and a seat on the board, but was turned down. Last month, Sheffield Forgemasters announced that it was delaying its nuclear expansion project, dismissing speculation that it would return to the Government to ask for support from the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund.

In general terms, Mr Cook said the Government’s role in driving growth is “to create an environment that’s favourable for private enterprise”.

He added: “I believe the principal way that should be done is by low tax – not by grant or by active policy meddling and not by economic engineering. I believe in low taxes so profitable firms can thrive.”

Mr Cook called for all direct taxation to be capped at 20 per cent. Asked where he was domiciled, he said: “I’m UK domiciled. I’m a UK taxpayer. I have a home in the Channel Islands and I have another home in Switzerland and I spent a certain amount of time in both.

“I pay taxes in both countries but I’m taxed by the inland revenue as a UK resident and it’s very expensive. This is where my ties are and this is where my obligations are.”

Mr Cook has strong views on Sheffield and believes his forthright opinions have upset some in his home city.

He said: “I’m my own man. That’s why I speak my own mind and that’s the way I’m made. I think a lot of people admire me tremendously; I think a lot of people dislike me. That’s inevitable.

“The Sheffield establishment is extremely irritated or worse that I still have my name over the shop because nobody else has. The establishment having given up long ago in steel. I have seen them come and go.”

He claims to have been offered the role of Master Cutler of the Company of Cutlers, but his list of conditions led to his nomination being rejected by members.

He wanted the term of office to be extended from one to three years to do something significant with the office; the basic objectives of the company – the welfare and betterment of Sheffield’s manufacturing companies – had to be “dusted off” and put back to the top of the agenda and the entertainment budget had to be cut by 90 per cent. His terms were not accepted, he said.

Mr Cook predicted that the wider manufacturing sector would have “a fairly good run” over the next couple of years.

He added: “People say manufacturing will bring us back. There’s only so much. If you have only got a 30-seater plane left in your fleet and you have got 3,000 people who want to go on it, it takes a while.”

Mr Cook said the UK economy would be very dependent on financial services and the City of London for the foreseeable future and added that the wider economy was “fragile”.