Tim Wickham talks to Stuart Turner’s managing director Mark Williams about more than a century of growth by the water solutions company and its plans for the future.
Henley-on-Thames is home to an important part of the UK’s engineering heritage. But it’s quite easy to miss. Hidden behind an antiquated archway off the picture postcard town’s popular market square Stuart Turner’s modern office and factory unobtrusively assembles high quality water pumps and water pressure and flow boosting solutions for all kinds of domestic, residential and commercial applications.
Stuart Turner has been synonymous with pumps since the eponymous engineer began the company in 1906. Its fascinating history began with steam, gas and petrol engines for driving electricity generating plants, small tools and boats.
There was once even a Stuart Stellar motorcycle. Explorer Earnest Shackleton switched on a Stuart engine for electrical power on the Endeavour during his ill-fated 1914 Antarctic expedition. Fast-forward to the 1970s and the company invented the centrifugal power shower pump. Its Monsoon and Showermate brands dominate the premium end of the market.
The foundry may have gone and manufacturing is now outsourced, but the busy assembly lines in Henley output 10,000 pumps a month. Many of the 100-strong workforce are local. One exception is Williams, who was brought up and cut his engineering teeth in the Midlands. As a manager, he ran divisions for several large multinational manufacturers, including Armitage Shanks and Union Locks.
In 2008 the company invited him to replace Adrian Mettem, who retired after 43 years, the past 26 years as managing director. “I was looking for something where I would be in control of the destiny of what I’m doing. The company was at a point where it needed fresh blood,” said Williams. “They’d constantly re-engineered products so they were very high quality and had a great reputation, but the business needed to move forward.”
Williams arrived as the global recession hit. Ironically, it was a timely opportunity to shake up the company. While turnover initially dipped, increased profitability proved there were efficiencies to be made. A key move was to fill gaps in the shower pump market by extending the range. Within 18 months of Williams’ arrival, an entry-level shower pump had been launched and immediately racked up annual sales of 40,000 units.
The company also looked at new revenue streams. “We opened new channels, including online, which works if everyone can make a margin. It can be a difficult balancing act,” said Williams.
Turnover of £12.8m in 2008 rose to £22m in the year to September 2016 and £24m for 2017. “We’re growing at about 7-8% a year, which for an established manufacturing company is nice, steady growth,” Williams noted.
Stuart Turner is extending its export footprint beyond Bahrain and Qatar to the rest of the Middle East and Africa. Exports now account for about 25% of sales. “Overseas buyers love the quality and the British connection. There’s big potential with exports,” said Williams.
Brexit and a weak sterling have so far had little effect on the business. “We both buy components and sell products in both euros and dollars, so we benefit from some natural hedging. Our exposure to exchange rates isn’t massive considering our turnover,” he said.
Last August, the company’s shareholders agreed to sell their holdings in a management buy-out led by Williams. Williams and five other directors combined with mid-market private equity firm Lloyds Development capital now own the company out right, with Williams being the largest individual director shareholder,
“It was a very difficult decision for the 300 or so shareholders many of whom have had a long family association with the company, but the company couldn’t carry on as it was. In 10 or 15 years’ time most of our core market is likely to be in decline. We needed a capital injection to move into new markets, grow organically and make acquisitions,” said Williams.
Stuart Turner has a strong desire to keep tradition going in the royal regatta town. “Henley is part of our heritage. We are perceived as a high-quality engineering company and Henley’s status as an internationally known town fits nicely with our brand,” he said.