Forging into the future

Founded in 1883, Henry Williams Limited is one of Britain’s oldest railway-based companies. However, it is diversification and bold investment in spite of the growing economic crisis, rather than the rich heritage left by its pioneering founder, that is helping the company remain an industry leader 125 years on. Dave Horsley reports

In 1911, industrial pioneer Henry Williams paced the floor of his engineering works in Darlington, overseeing the manufacture of switch levers, points, cranks and joints that would help make Britain’s railways the envy of the world.

Nearly a century later, Howard Dilley paces the same workshop floor, his ears protected from the thundering beat of a forge hammer, newly installed at a cost of £600,000. It is a ritual he may repeat two or three times that day.

Henry Williams Limited has been a major engineering supplier to the UK’s railway network since 1883 and has been based in Darlington – the historical home of the railways – for the past 98.

It’s aforementioned founder developed the first spring-loaded switch lever for railway points at a small works in Polmadie, Glasgow. Previously, all switches had been held in position by a weighted lever, but vibrations from the track often caused the weighted lever to jump.

Having made his mark on a rapidly expanding industry, Henry Williams went on to invent the two-way switch lever, thus further improving the mechanism’s safety qualities. These, and his subsequent inventions, may not be claimed to have driven the development of the railways, but they certainly kept it on the rails.

In 1920, the company opened its first overseas manufacturing facility in Calcutta and was instrumental in the development of the Indian railway, employing more than 4,000 people by 1946, when this arm of the company was sold to GKN.

125 years on, Henry Williams Ltd remains heavily involved in the design, manufacture and installation of railway infrastructure – it recently completed a £1.4m upgrade of the rail system serving the Ferrybridge ‘C’ Power Station, in Knottingley, West Yorkshire – but it has grown and diversified into a versatile and multi-skilled engineering business.

“To be honest, I don’t like playing the heritage card too much because it can be as much a burden as a help,” says Mr Dilley, whose family company bought the company from Henry Williams’ ancestors in 1989.

“Heritage is useful in that it demonstrates that we are a blue-chip supplier to the railway industry of pedigree and long-standing and, of course, it gives us grandfather rights to many of our most important products,” says the executive chairman, who this year celebrates his own milestone – 20 years at the helm of the company.

“Today, the strength of Henry Williams is not what our predecessors did a century ago, but the fact we have modernised and re-equipped the business, and developed new technology, so that we remain at the forefront of our industry.”

The newly installed forge hammer, a German-made Banning pneumatically-powered drop hammer capable of shaping steel with four-tonne blows, has increased production speeds by over 30%. It is the latest in a succession of major investments in its Dodsworth Street premises which over the last 3 years have come to nearly £2 million

As part of the project a new 1MW transformer and substation were installed to power the new hammer, and 100 cubic metres of reinforced concrete was laid to withstand its shuddering blows. The hammer itself is equipped with anti-vibration springs, which help to reduce long-distance noise and to extend both its life and those of its components.

In previous years other major expenditure has included a complete refurbishment of its main upset forge, a new robotic welder, a sophisticated CNC turret punch, and an additional Mazak milling machine for die making.

Henry Williams Ltd is part of the Con Mech Group, the company started by Mr Dilley’s father, Robert, just after the Second World War. When the Con Mech acquired the Darlington company, in March 1989, it was reliant on the railways for more than 90% of its work, supplying railway forgings and sheet metal enclosures, and , electrical equipment such as complete signalling and level crossing systems, and mimic panels.

Today, that dependence on the railways ranges between 60% and 70%, as the company has sought to diversify in related fields, most effectively in the manufacture of control and signalling equipment for Britain’s roads, including tunnel maintenance, parapets, pedestrian guardrails and bridge windshields.

A three-year Highways Agency contract for the supply of cabinets to house roadside electronic equipment helped the business achieve total turnover of nearly £10million Ferrybridge was among its biggest rail contracts, but it also supplied six REBs (Relocatable Equipment Buildings), each costing more than £70, 000, as part of a major upgrade of unmanned crossings along the 25-mile Colchester to Clacton line, in Essex, a contract which has led to further orders.

Its 100-strong workforce is currently waiting for news on tenders for three tunnel projects and rail infrastructure renewal work.

Says Mr Dilley: “In 1989, when we paid £1 ½ m for the fixed assets, stock and goodwill of Henry Williams Ltd, I had a number of hopes for the business – two of which were spectacularly wrong, Firstly, I thought Labour would win the 1992 General Election and secondly, that a new Labour government, when elected, would spend a lot more money on the railways. Even then, the infrastructure was in dire need of upgrade, but neither a Labour victory nor the rail investment happened.

“Privatisation made the industry very stagnant, notably during John Major’s second term from 1992 to 1996. They were difficult years for Henry Williams Ltd, scratching around for renewal-based work, and it was not until 1999 that we began to see significant increases in spending on Britain’s railways.

“We have a strong balance sheet, our net borrowing is zero, we have increased our production capabilities through investment and, while the economic gloom lies heavily on every industry, I am far from despondent about the immediate future.”

Engineering is in Mr Dilley’s blood. He gained a degree in mechanical sciences, but says his career path suffered an early setback when Harold Wilson famously cancelled the TSR-2 (tactical strike and reconnaissance) aircraft project. He switched to accountancy, spent 14 years with various companies, including Albright & Wilson and Unilever, finishing up as finance director of shipping company Ellerman City Liners. He then spent a further 5 years with Ellermans as trade director for Africa and the Middle East and, was part of the management buyout team that bought the shipping line from the Barclay brothers. When Ellerman’s was sold on to Cunard he moved on to run the family business.

“When I come to Darlington, I always like to walk through the forge and workshops. I may do so several times during the day. I don’t do this to try to catch people out; I am genuinely interested in what is happening there. I like the noise of industry and to breathe in the atmosphere. It is also essential to manage the company properly for me to really understand what is going on at every part of the site. Each time I walk through, I can guarantee that I’ll see something different. And if there’s a problem with a machine, I’ll usually get the best answer as to what is going on by talking to the person who operates it.”

Now 62, Mr Dilley brushes aside any suggestion that retirement is on even the distant horizon. Until injury a few years ago forced a change he was a keen roadrunner (he has four London Marathons to his name) and nowadays enjoys mountain biking and swimming.

“I certainly don’t want to stay beyond my sell-by date,” he laughs, the glint in his eye challenging the very inference. “I do, however, envisage being retired by 70 and I believe a management buyout would be a good way forward for the company. It is certainly something I would encourage.”

In the meantime, he hopes that the present-day incumbents can take a leaf out of Henry Williams’ book and contribute a new chapter to the company’s contribution to Britain’s railway heritage.

Article first published in the Northern Echo