Innovation is at the heart of Econ Engineering’s 50-year success, according to director Andrew Lupton, writes Lizzie Murphy.
IT was the coldest UK winter for more than 200 years that sowed the initial seeds for Econ Engineering’s first gritter.
The winter of 1962-63 saw temperatures plummeting as low as -22°C, bringing months of disruption including road closures and food shortages.
Farmer’s son Bill Lupton, a self-taught engineer who left school at the age of 14, had just created his first flail mower and was looking to grow his agricultural machinery business.
After establishing the business that exists today in Ripon in 1969, he turned his attention to salt spreaders at the start of the 1970s to plug a gap for the company in the winter months. The first Econ gritter was launched in 1971.
As Bill’s son, Andrew, takes me on a trip down memory lane during a tour of its Ripon headquarters, he remembers his late father, the inventor.
“He wanted to develop the gritters because he liked developing new machines and he needed something to sell in the winter,” says Econ’s sales director.
Lupton, who now runs the 50-year-old family business with his brother Jonathan, joined the business, which makes winter maintenance and road mending vehicles specifically designed to combat ice, snow and potholes on British roads, in 1990 following a stint at IBM at the start of his career.
“It worked quite well really because I worked at some big companies before I joined. Working with IBM gave me some big company experience and a good insight into how that size of organisation operated,” he says. “So I was able to bring some of that in when I joined. Jon left school at 17 to work for Econ and worked his way up from the bottom so he knew how the family business worked from the inside.”
The £32.5m turnover business employs 240 staff at its 24-hour Ripon headquarters and factory plus a handful of staff at its new Scottish depot.
The city’s largest employer produces 80 per cent of all the salt spreading vehicles used on the UK’s roads.
It sells and hires out vehicles to the councils and private sector highways contractors.
When the brothers took over the business, they were ambitious for the business’s future but their plans for the company clashed with their father’s vision.
Lupton’s sales brain collided with his father’s creative spirit on a number of occasions. “He hated salesman so he struggled with me,” he laughs. “All of his designs were absolutely brilliant so it was always the salesman’s fault if they didn’t sell.”
The brothers’ decision to move into the hire fleet market to combat the cuts in public spending at the turn of the 21st century, certainly didn’t go down well with their father.
When they decided to expand the initial small fleet it caused a rift that led to their father’s departure from the business in 2003 on his 65th birthday.
Lupton says research and development is key to the business. Econ typically spends about £250,000 to £400,000 on new product developments every year, guided by market demand.
Its current focus is on creating liquid de-icer sprayers for cycle paths. “Local authorities have established that if they’re treating the roads for cars, buses and taxis to a certain level, the need is to treat it in an equitable way for cyclists as well,” he says.
He adds: “The gap in the market is becoming more prevalent. Customers were saying they wanted to hire our gritter and winter maintenance fleet but they needed machines that are going to treat cycleways too so we had to add it to our portfolio.”
Econ has made four vehicles with the liquid spraying system so far, which are in operation in Bedfordshire, East Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire and London. “There are also a lot of guided bus routes and tramways so we see that as a market too,” Lupton adds.
Another application for the liquid de-icers is to protect structural steel on flyovers, viaducts and even Trafalgar Square in London.
Other recent developments include a 32-tonne combi-spin vehicle, which will be rolled out in Scotland. The gritter, which will be used in Scotland, can switch between the liquid de-icer, dry salt and pre-wet, a product which is designed for high-speed gritting.
Further ahead are plans to roll out more gritters with automated controls so drivers aren’t distracted by gritting when driving.
Last year, the company invested £1.3m in launching a new Scottish business in Alloa, near Stirling, called Econ Scotland, to service gritters and other vehicles for customers across the country.
A fleet of 117 Econ winter maintenance vehicles was deployed on a hire basis to 14 Scottish councils and two major trunk road contractors in October.
In addition it is creating another depot in Cardiff to maintain fleets from a number of large contracts in South Wales and recently invested £875,000 on a new laser cutter, which will be installed at Easter and is six times quicker than the previous machine.
On average, 300 trucks will come through the factory each year and it has a managed hire fleet of more than 800 vehicles at any one time.
“We build around 100 machines every year to put into the hire fleet,” says Lupton.
Trucks are kept in the hire fleet for a maximum of five years and then exported to places like Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
Econ makes the whole vehicle in Ripon apart from the bare chassis, which is shipped to the factory from either DAF in Lancashire or Mercedes in Germany.
The most expensive vehicle Econ makes is a £200,000 unibody gritter.
Bespoke vehicles can take up to 12 months to complete but Econ’s hire fleet is usually built in the quieter months of January, February and March. “We store them over the summer in preparation for September because we don’t want to be building high volume machines when we’re under pressure to build bespoke builds for customers,” he says.
Looking ahead, Lupton believes Econ has a bright future: “The next year’s set out in terms of manufacturing due to the contracts and build times of the vehicles. There are quite a few tenders out at the moment which is encouraging and the future is looking good at the moment.”
Title: Director of Econ Engineering
Date of birth: June 5, 1965
Education: Leicester Polytechnic
First job: IBM
Favourite holiday destination: Austria
Favourite song: The Letter, by Joe Cocker
Favourite film: Mississippi Burning
Last book read: I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes
Car driven: Porsche Panamera 4 E-Hybrid
Most proud of: My children – most of the time.