Dale Lister is managing director of a firm that will restore your faith in an export-led recovery. He spoke to Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.
IT’S always nice to be told that you’ve chosen an industry with a future.
Back in 1977, Dale Lister might have been forgiven for thinking that he’d made a terrible mistake. On his first day in a foundry business, the 16-year-old Mr Lister attended a college lecture which should have filled him with dread.
“One of the lecturers, who had been in the industry for many years, asked why we wanted to get involved in an industry that was dead and buried,’’ he recalled.
Thirty seven years later, he’s MD of a Yorkshire manufacturing firm that could give us all reasons to smile.
Apart from working with the automotive industry, John Winter & Co also supplies a large number of products to dental laboratories. This might seem an unusual area of growth for a traditional foundry firm, but it illustrates a simple truth. Only firms that diversify and focus on quality will survive.
Many British foundries were wiped out by the crippling recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. Others buckled when the credit crunch struck.
Halifax-based John Winter has flourished in the face of adversity. It has doubled its exports since the financial crisis of 2008 by focusing on markets that weren’t paralysed by the banking crisis. As a result, sales have increased by 25 per cent to more than £8m and it supplies 40 countries.
If you’re seeking an export-led recovery, then firms like John Winter, which employs around 40 staff, are providing it. It’s built up a network of agents and distribution channels across Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, and it also manufactures in the US. While the automotive industry continues to be the driving force behind the business, it also works with agents in the engineering, construction, defence, aerospace and packaging industries. So much for a sector that was “dead and buried”. “We have been pretty resilient through tough times,’’ said Mr Lister.
Since the late 1970s, the sector has undergone revolutionary changes. Mr Lister said: “During the recession of the early 1980s, a lot of the manufacturing work moved from the UK to Germany. The key thing was to diversify and we have been pretty good at that.
“It’s a better industry than it was then – being more niche and added value. The global tsunami which happened after the financial crisis of 2008 added to this process.
“There was a theory that a lot of the work traditionally associated with UK manufacturing went to eastern Europe. Some of it did. In truth, a lot of it went further east. Today we’re seeing a reversal of that. The business is coming back to the UK because of the quality. UK foundry engineering is held in high esteem, particularly in Asia.”
John Winter, which is family-owned, can trace its roots in the foundry industry back to 1912. It had family connections with a foundry supply company known as Spermolin, which was heavily involved in supplying oil binders to make armaments during the Second World War.
John Winter, which was founded in 1963, has achieved growth in more peaceful times. Mr Lister joined the foundry industry as a school leaver in the Royal Jubilee year of 1977. It was a very different industrial age, with confrontations such as the Grunwick dispute casting a cloud over Britain’s industrial relations policies. The UK’s manufacturing sector wasn’t as slick or as efficient as it is today.
In the years since, a sophisticated, niche industry has grown up around dental care and John Winter has been smart enough to cash in on it. “There are something like 2,000 dental labs in the UK; often they are very small businesses,” said Mr Lister. “We supply 70 to 80 per cent of labs in the UK, so there is still scope for growth.
“I’ve always believed that the automotive industry is a strong indicator of the state of the world economy. Globally, the automotive sector tends to drive economies.
“It’s one of the most interesting industries to be involved in, because you learn something new every day. The technology that’s involved in producing castings continues to be innovative. A lot of it is being driven by the need to reduce overall costs, weight and emissions.
“We’re able to reach a global market from a little place between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax. For any export business to succeed, the most important thing is to have the right working partner. It’s all about long-term relationships; whether it’s the US, Asia, the Middle East or Europe.
“Since I became MD in 1999, I’ve expanded the sales force. On the foundry side, a lot of the competition moved out of the UK and moved to Europe – we saw that as an opportunity.
“On the dental side of the business, we have invested in a new training room which will help us develop new business through our technical sales team. We have also invested in our people.
“We are very fortunate that we don’t have a big turnaround in staff, and as such, this ensures we have excellent and consistent relationships with our customers. At the moment, 25 per cent of the business is exporting, and this percentage is increasing, while 30 per cent of the turnover comes from dental.
“In the next five years, I expect turnover to increase by another 25 per cent and growth will be across all areas.”