Photo gallery: Norwich firm of steel forges new future during 120th anniversary year
- Credit: Archant © 2013
As it marks its 120th anniversary, metal fabricators F.W. Hall & Son is eyeing a new chapter in its manufacturing history. Business writer Ben Woods discovers more about the Norwich firm's expansion plans and its close relationship with EDP Top 100 company Oyster Marine.
It began its life more than a century ago as a vital part of Norwich's bustling brewery trade.
But in the years to follow, it chartered a wholly different path to success, crafting intricate products for the Broad's boat-building industry.
And as F.W. Hall & Son celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, the business has embarked on another new journey – with plans to move beyond the city.
Spearheaded by managing director and fourth generation owner Ian Hall, the firm is drawing up a blueprint that will cut its costs and extend its output by moving to a purpose-built industrial unit in Hoveton – bringing it closer to its main customer, Oyster Marine.
The proposed move has been triggered by an announcement that Oyster Marine, an EDP Top 100 firm, would be upping its production by 20pc next year, with an aim to build nine yachts instead of seven.
And for F.W. Hall & Son, this means a greater demand for its hand crafted stainless steel railings, ladders, steps and finishing, which adorn the white vessels that are snapped up by wealthy buyers the world over.
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But while the new premises would be 30pc bigger then its current headquarters on Barker Street, the move is more than a chance to gain some extra breathing space.
Currently, the business is facing the burden of high travel costs from driving backwards and forwards to Oyster Marine's Hoveton base to fit and refine its products.
And while the move has yet to be finalised, it's hoped that by bringing the operation a stone's throw away from Oyster Marine will trim back their travel costs and save cash.
'We are outgrowing the unit we are in at the moment, and this new building is 30pc bigger, which will accommodate us a lot better,' Mr Hall said.
'We want to maintain the work-flow production quality at the new premises – and improve it. We will have a separate shop and machine shop, which can drive forward the business, while making the best use of our resources.
'There will be cost savings on travel, because at the moment we are out on site at Oyster Marine every other day, either delivering or fitting.
'And being next door to our main customer will save us time, and they will get to see our end product a lot quicker.
'We will only be a couple of steps away from them. It will give them a greater understanding of what goes into our end of product.'
The skill and craftsmanship that it takes to transform characterless tubes into sumptuous curves of polished metal should not be understated.
Whereas many manufacturing firms rely on the multiple benefits brought on by automation, or cheaper labour services found overseas, Mr Hall is still heavily reliant on his 14-strong team to deliver his products from beginning to end.
For some, this might make him a traditionalist – but his main concern is quality.
He believes that the best results can only come from a workforce that knows the business inside and out – and the easiest way to achieve this is through apprenticeship schemes that allow staff to grow, he said.
It was the same way he entered the family business, before taking the reins from his father, Trevor, 10 years ago.
'It is always important to do every part of the business yourself, from sweeping the floor to running the workshop,' he said.
'But I found that there hasn't been a huge change in the way the business has been run in my time. It has always been hands on work, and I still like to do the drawings by hand, rather than using a computer.
'We are very busy at the moment, so it is all hands to the pump. I still get in the workshop when I can and get involved with the fabrication side – I still really enjoy it.' The connection between the Hall family and metal work began in 1893 when the business was founded by Frederick William Hall on Pitt Street in Norwich.
Back then, it worked with copper and capitalised on the wealth of work within the brewery industry. It manufactured and installed brewery vessels, fermenting vessels, mash tuns and pipe work, casting and machining its own fittings.
But as this sector slowed down, the business built on a growing appetite from the Norfolk Broads hire fleet industry.
F.W. Hall & Son provided an operation that would repair the boat's guard rails, before it went the extra mile and began fabricating its own stainless steel products.
What is clear from revisiting the firm's history is that its longevity has not come from resisting change.
It's the willingness to evolve, while keeping a careful eye on cash flow and the bottom line, which has allowed the firm to navigate the choppier waters brought on by the worsening economic picture seen in the more recent – and previous – recessions.
Today, Mr Hall is reluctant to reveal the company's turnover, but he is not shy to admit that its order books are full until 2015.
'We managed to survive the recession because we have been really careful with our cash flow. It was tough, but we have invested in revamping the website and resources,' he said.
'We are building for the future, and it is about being in the right place to take advantage of this work.'
So how will the future look for the 120-year-old manufacturing firm, which has become a mainstay on Barker Street, since it moved there in 1970?
It seems likely that the business will break with its long-standing position as a family-run business, with no clear successor earmarked to take over from Mr Hall when he retires.
But in the short term, he aims to make the potential move a successful one – no mean feat when the business intends to remain fully operational while shifting tools, materials and staff between the two locations.
And he may look to take on two more staff after the move, which will follow on from the recent appointment of Miles Watson as the office manager of the business.
'For me, the move is the final hurdle that I want to overcome,' Mr Hall added.
'It will see me out until my retirement.'