ANYONE who believes British manufacturing is a spent force must pay a trip to Siddall & Hilton, which is aiming to become the employer of choice for local youngsters who are seeking a career with long-term prospects.
Founded in 1895, the company, which is the UK’s largest manufacturer of industrial welded steel mesh for high-security fencing, has just reeled in a record profit, despite turnover being squeezed by the pandemic.
The company’s 50 strong workforce processes around 20,000 tonnes of wire a year and it is well-placed to keep growing as the business world finally returns to something approaching normality.
Having led a consortium of existing management team members in a buyout two years ago, Ian Thurley, the chief executive, is now installing new machinery to help the firm in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, increase its market share.
He said: “Since the MBO we have gone from strength to strength. We have done pretty well during the pandemic, although we didn’t know which way was up for a while.
“We concentrated on the wellbeing of our employees and paused operations for a time, apart from keeping the warehouse open. We furloughed staff but also topped their wages up to 100 per cent of what they were earning before the pandemic.
“I kept people connected through weekly email updates and we gradually brought people back after a four week break.
“People came back with renewed vigour,’’ Mr Thurley recalled. “The business had been flying before we stopped production and they were keen to regain the momentum. We went on to have our strongest July in 10 years and our strongest August in four years. The demand has been so strong that we haven’t been able to keep up.
“The order book has remained resilient and there have been no issues with the supply chain.”
In common with many teenagers in the 1980s, Mr Thurley left school without a clear career path in sight. Traditional industries were in decline.
He said: “It was 1985 and jobs were thin on the ground so I decided to go to university and study accounting and finance at Leeds Business School. As part of my course I had a 15-month placement at Elida Gibbs, part of the Unilever Group, which was manufacturing toothpaste and shampoo at a new facility they had just opened on their site in Seacroft.”
This sparked a fascination with manufacturing and forced him to re-think his long term plans.
He said: “I decided I didn’t want to become an auditor, I would rather be involved in generating the numbers and driving businesses forward.”
Mr Thurley loves to see the outcome of manufacturing processes in everyday settings.
“On graduating in 1989 I went on to work at British Steel in Scunthorpe where I was fascinated to discover that their cast billet steel ended up in car wheels.
“I later worked at Bridon PLC in Doncaster – the firm that made the ropes for the Humber Bridge.”
Siddall & Hilton has always moved with the times. In the early 20th century, it started making wire products associated with the textile industry, and during wartime it made control wires for aircraft.
“It later moved into wire milk crates and coat hangers,’’ Mr Thurley said. “At one time, it was the largest coat hanger manufacturer in Europe.”
Following the MBO in 2019, the company decided to stop chasing volume because it was creating a price war that was becoming a race to the bottom.
It now focuses on a narrower range of products. You will never see products with the company’s name on it, because it concentrates on supplying welded mesh panels without a logo.
“Our customers turn that into fencing systems and guarding products,’’ Mr Thurley added: “There has been strong demand on the industrial mesh side of the business.
“What’s also driving us is demand for warehouse space, which is probably due to the growth in online shopping. Some of our mesh is incorporated into fall arrest systems to prevent accidents in high-bay warehouses.
He added: “We have continued to grow despite the increase in steel prices. The price of steel has gone up by 40 per cent since July, due in part to a shortage of steel in Europe. Once you turn a steel plant off it takes a long time to ramp it up again.
“We are recruiting 12 machine operators, some of whom will be apprentices, as part of an in-house training programme.”
This year’s EBITDA is set to be around £2.75m, up from £2.1m last year, on turnover of around £17.3m. Mr Thurley is acutely aware of the need to invest in talent of the future.
“Manufacturing has an aging workforce. We are reaching out to local universities, colleges and schools to show them what we can offer in terms of a career."
Mr Thurley is concerned that manufacturing is not being promoted as an attractive career choice in an increasingly digital world.
He said: “Our ambition is to become a world class mesh manufacturer and the local employer of choice.
“There will need to be further investment in the business and on the site, which includes part of an old Victorian dye works built on the banks of the River Calder. We are focused on generating cash so we will be able to do this. Our aim is to offer a challenging, fulfilling and rewarding employment experience
“You spend most of your life at work so it’s important you enjoy it. I want to ensure that the business is transformed so that it can look forward to another 125 years of providing secure and rewarding employment.”