Angloco has been building fire and rescue vehicles for more than five decades and is shifting gears under the leadership of the next generation.
In a quiet corner of West Yorkshire stands one of the oldest fire and rescue vehicle manufacturers in the country, producing specially kitted-out vehicles for emergency services at home and abroad.
Angloco was originally established in 1965 by a transport group as a workshop to maintain its fleet.
However, after eight years the business was making significant losses and was all set to be wound up when founder Tony McGuirk approached Bill Brown.
“My dad was at the time the sales and marketing director for a large vehicle group called the Hestair Group,” says Alistair Brown, managing director of Angloco.
Mr McGuirk promised to give Bill Brown shares in the business in return for turning the business around. That’s where the Brown family’s involvement in the business began and Angoloco became what it is today – a fire and rescue vehicle manufacturer. The Brown family acquired the whole of the business in 1986 after Mr McGuirk’s death in the early 80s. Alistair Brown took over two years ago as managing director of the business that his mum and dad still own.
The Batley-based firm, which employs 96 staff, is in the midst of a huge transformation under his leadership.
“Historically we’ve concentrated on the very special end of the market,” Mr Brown says. “Literally we’d have one or two vehicles of a design at a time for special applications.”
Angloco is now positioned to do longer runs of standard fire engines as well as specially adapted ones for the likes of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Earlier this year, the firm opened a 12,000 sq ft factory opposite its 30,000 sq ft headquarters to allow it to carry out more serial production. It’s a move that is likely to see the company’s turnover double from around £12.5m to £25m over the next year.
In fact, the only thing that is likely to hold back the firm’s expansion is a lack of access to talent.
“It is tough finding skilled people,” says Mr Brown. “Unemployment is at a historically low figure at the moment. That’s a great thing, but it does mean that as companies you’ve got to fight harder to persuade people to come and join you.”
A key part of the business is the art of coachbuilding, but it’s a “dying art”, says Mr Brown. Angloco has large numbers of people who have been working on the shopfloor at the company for 20-25 years.
“It is a significant problem to find skilled people that we can drop in,” says Mr Brown. “Of course, we do have to train people and that’s a limitation on our rate of growth.”
Part of the solution is to insert more design work at the front end of operations so that it’s “more about assembly rather than fabrication,’’ Mr Brown says.
By the end of the year, Angloco hopes to have at least 100 staff with an additional 15 joining after that.
The long process of selling
The gestation period to sell a fire and rescue vehicle can be up to five years. This can lead to slow periods in the market.
That’s the reason why Angloco has decided to re-enter longer production runs for the domestic market, as well as continuing to exploit export opportunities.
Mr Brown says: “Our biggest customer at the moment is the UK Ministry of Defence via outsourcing company Capita.
“We are providing the bulk of the new fleet of vehicles. They’ll be owned by the MoD but they’ll be provided by Capita and supported by us at a totally fixed cost for the life of the contract, which is 12 years.”
The contract will see Angloco deliver 83 fire engines to the MoD. The firm is currently in the process of building the first vehicle, which will roll off the production line next spring.
‘Lumpy’ export market
The export market is currently “lumpy”, says Mr Brown, partly due to the nature of the long sales process and partly down to the fall in oil prices.
He adds: “One of the things that particularly affected our exports was we were doing a lot to the Middle East and the Middle East has put off a lot of buying decisions over the last few years because of the fall in the value of oil.”
The recovery in oil prices is likely to take time to filter through, just as the impact of such market fluctuations are felt some time after the event.
Opportunities on broad horizon
Despite the fluctuations in the export market, Mr Brown still feels there are “great opportunities” internationally. Brazil is a market it’s not looked at but Angloco may do so in the future.
If there is a downturn in the UK market then exports would be “critical” for Angloco, says Mr Brown.
Alistair Brown is putting his own stamp on the business after taking over from his father, who is retired.
“We’re the UK’s oldest manufacturer of fire fighting vehicles,” he says. “Our long-term vision is not to do anything to jeopardise that legacy, so that in another 25 or 50 years, we’re still here and we’re still a successful business in the UK.
“In the short term it is very much about increasing our production capacity here in Yorkshire. We’ve still got further to go on that journey.
“Then in the medium term it is about finding new export markets for us to enter so that we can continue to have a diverse mix of both UK and export sales.”
Turning up the pressure
Given that it was his father who turned the business around and into what it is today, does Alistair Brown feel the pressure?
“Absolutely, I feel it,” he says. “I was quite tickled the year I took over. We were closing up for Christmas and we had the traditional pint over the road.
“Plenty of the guys from the shopfloor came forward and said, ‘Don’t mess this up. This is Bill’s company. Please promise you’re going to take good care of it.’
“I like to think that’s what I am doing. While I’m changing the company and while it is a rapid period of growth, it is largely to my father’s overall plan, albeit at a faster rate of growth than he might have imagined.”
‘The sense of family is just fantastic’
It was fitting that Angloco’s new factory was opened by local MP Tracy Brabin. Ms Brabin succeed the late Jo Cox as MP for Batley and Spen, and the last business that Ms Cox ever visited on that fateful day before she was murdered in 2016 was Angloco.
Speaking to staff at the unveiling of the new factory, Ms Brabin said: “It’s always a great experience visiting Angloco – I love coming here. The sense of family, as well as the level of skill in the team, is just fantastic.
“The expansion is amazing, and I’ll be talking about this success with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fire Services in Westminster. I’m super proud of what you do, and you’re a real credit to the Batley and Spen area.”
In addition to its two bases in Batley, Angloco also has a subsidiary company in Poland called Mist-Tech, which has four employees.
Mist-Tech produces special firefighting equipment, enabling firefighters to produce much smaller droplets of water. Mr Brown says it’s “difficult” to see how Brexit would negatively impact Angloco and its subsidiary. “The process of acquiring Mist-Tech and setting up a company in Poland, which was pre-Brexit, was very painful,” he adds.
“Considering how easy it is to set up companies in countries which we don’t have free trade agreements with, it’s difficult to see how it’s going to get any worse than it is at the moment. That was a very painful and involved process.”