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The company with traditional skills to keep the wheels of industry turning
Sean Nash, general manager of engineering company W B Lee & Co describes the business as “a 999 operation”.
“Wherever there are machines, we’re there,” he said.
The firm has developed a successful business as a niche operation providing a vital breakdown and refurbishment service to customers in a wide range of sectors. The keys to its continued success are a high degree of skills and the commitment and ability to provide a quick turnaround – more often than not within 24 hours.
W B Lee started in 1874 as a general engineering company working for Bradford’s thriving wool textile manufacturers. Today, its workshop, housed in a modern building off Thornton Road, is a hub of activity with around 20 skilled tradesmen working on gears and other machine parts for customers ranging from printers to theme parks.
Sean is proud of the fact that Lee’s workshop is traditional – what many people would expect an engineering shop to look like, rather than the homogenised plants full of computerised equipment.
Lee’s engineers work mainly at old-fashioned turning, cutting and milling machines which they set up manually according to the job. And every job is bespoke, demanding highly-skilled apprentice-trained craftsmen with the ability to fathom out how to restore a gear, worm wheel or other vital part whose damage means that production is being held up somewhere.
“To get to the level of skill we require needs, I reckon, about five years’ post-apprenticeship experience, so around ten years in all. And those skills are rare. We can hire bodies easily but its difficult to get people with the right degree of skill, We’ve just taken on a specialist transmission engineer who we’ve been trying to get for years.
“Because we’re a breakdown company there’s a lot of overtime and all our people are on very good wages,” said Sean.
Only last week, EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, warned that firms’ recruitment plans could be scuppered by the limited number of students taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics, coupled with the number of graduates lacking industry experience and manufacturing knowledge.
Andy Tuscher, EEF Yorkshire regional director, said: “With UK manufacturing continuing to expand and grow, access to the right skills in the right numbers is ever more important. Decisive steps must be taken if we do not want to see the manufacturing sector increasingly looking outside the UK for talent for fear of otherwise running out of steam.
“Boosting the pool of talented, skilled and employable young people in the UK is a win-win for the young people themselves, for manufacturers and the wider economy.”
Sean Nash was brought in by Lee’s then owner 16 years ago as sales manager with a brief to diversify its customer base as the textile work began to dry up.
He said: “When I came here we didn’t need to go far afield for work. There was Woolcombers, Whiteheads, City Combing and others still operating and the work poured in.
“But textiles went down very quickly within a few years. When Whiteheads went it cost us £164,000 a year at that time – not something you can recover overnight.
“It involved a lot of change and hard work but the company has been successfully repositioned and our services are in growing demand across the North of England and further afield. Increasingly, we’re becoming a national operation.
“Our teams regularly support some of the North’s biggest names in manufacturing. They’ve come to rely on us because we understand the meaning of urgency, value for money and quality. Also, when it comes to the health and safety issues around fabrication, we know what a professional response is all about – in or out of hours.”
An apprentice-trained engineer, who had worked at Boldy Power Transmission in Bradford, he used his contacts to bring in new work.
Now, W B Lee provides engineering and fabrication for companies in aerospace. automotive, food processing, packaging, paper converting, newspapers, cosmetics, toothpaste manufacturing and many more.
Local customers include Farmfoods, the food production arm of Morrisons, Prince’s Foods, Seabrook Crisps, BASF and Bulmer & Lumb, Nestle in Halifax and Tango in Cleckheaton and Pontefract. For the past ten years, W B Lee has been a division of Dransfield’s Engineering Services Ltd based near Manchester but operates largely as an independent business. In addition to its Bradford base, Lee’s also has five operating hubs in South Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Out of Dransfield’s group turnover of £6.5 million, Lee’s has revenues of nearly £2 million.
Its ability to take on jobs at short notice and turn them round quickly – together with companies’ reluctance to invest in new equipment – meant that Lee maintained its activity levels throughout the recession.
“We had a few blips but as we provide a vital service to keep companies’ production going – seen as their maintenance arm by many larger customers – we were able to ride out the recession. We’re now looking to expand our transmission operations which led us to hire the extra engineer,” said Sean.
He also intends to take on another apprentice to be trained as a transmission specialist, but is concerned about finding the right candidate.
“We had two apprentices but one went off to join the army and the other went back to college to study IT. Maybe they weren’t the right kind of lads for us – it takes a lot of commitment to become a fully-skilled engineer. It’s a far cry from being a CNC operator where the programmes are set up by draughtsmen and you’re basically pressing buttons and minding a machine.
“Our people can turn their hand to anything mechanical, as they don’t know what the next job will involve.
“Most engineering firms don’t want to be in our business as it’s expensive, labour-intensive and we have to carry a lot of material stock to provide a 24/7 service, which is dead money.
“But someone whose production is stopped due to a breakdown has to be able to rely on us to collect the part, analyse the job, do the work and deliver it promptly and at the right price,” said Sean.
End of an era as Sean goes
John (known as Sean) Daley has retired from W B Lee after 50 years’ service.
A skilled engineer, Sean, who lives in Bradford, worked on a wide range of call-outs and out-of-hours jobs.
General manager Sean Nash said: “He’s been a fantastic employee to work with and holds a good service record. Sean has been a great asset to the business and will be greatly missed. His retirement marks the end of an era at W B Lee.”
The firm has two other long-service employees – both former engineers – still working. Alan Heaton, 76, now works as a driver, while 70-year-old Tony Butterworth is employed in the office.