November 18, 2012 7:22 pm

Falkirk keeps iron in fire of metals trade

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On a tour of his company’s sprawling iron castings factory, Gavin Ballantine points out some of the 250,000 moulds that it keeps in stock to use in new production. “We can make a huge variety of items and deliver to order and I think this gives us a very valuable edge on a lot of our competitors,” he says.

Mr Ballantine, 28, is a director of Ballantine Bo’ness, based in Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth about halfway between Edinburgh and Stirling and a 20-minute drive from the old industrial town of Falkirk.

Ballantine is one of a handful of metalworking companies in the Falkirk area, which until the 1970s was among the UK’s biggest centres for metal castings and foundry work.

With many of the companies that were prominent in the region in this field having foundered on the back of burgeoning competition from low-cost countries, plus the demise of local industries such as shipbuilding, it has been left to survivors such as Ballantine to keep the area’s industrial traditions alive.

“There was an exodus of this sort of manufacturing [iron castings] out of Britain starting in the 1980s,” says Mr Ballantine, who runs the company in conjunction with his father, 65-year-old Ian Ballantine, managing director.

“Now I think there’s more interest in what we are doing from customers based in Britain. They are starting to appreciate that companies such as ours can do much better in areas such as quality and delivery compared with comparable businesses based in countries like China.”

The company has been owned by Mr Ballantine’s family since it started in the 1820s. He is the seventh generation of the family to be involved in management.

Waterloo cannon
maker still firing

One of the biggest metals businesses in the district was Carron Company, founded in 1759 in Falkirk as an iron foundry, writes Peter Marsh.

In the 1800s, it employed 5,000 people, making domestic items such as flat irons, cast iron baths, cookers and most famously the “Carronade” cannons used by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

Today the Carron name lives on in the form of Falkirk-based Carron Phoenix, formed after the former Carron business went into receivership in 1982.

Carron Phoenix – since 1990 part of the Swiss-based Franke Artemis kitchens group – continues to manufacture sinks, taps and waste disposal products but with some production based now in east Europe and Asia.

With expected sales this year of about £3m and 82 employees, the company bases all its production in the same factory where it started. It derives about a third of its revenues from specialised castings used in railways. The rest comes from architectural and engineering industries.

Another member of the small band of metals companies in the region is Machan Engineering, based in Denny, near Falkirk. It was started in 1983 by Bill McLennan, now 71, a foundry worker who lost his job when Carron (see box) collapsed in the previous year.

Machan remains owned by Mr McLennan, and his family and is now run by Lisa McDonald, his daughter, who has worked in the business for 20 years.

It is best known for being among the few companies in Britain making the distinctive red pillar boxes for Royal Mail. It also makes a range of street furniture, including bollards, seating and rubbish bins. Ms McDonald says people are “thrilled and amazed” when they find out that pillar boxes are still made by her company in Scotland.

As for the next few years, she says: “The cutbacks in construction and in spending by local government which are big providers of street furniture, . . . have obviously not helped us. But we are seeing more orders and inquiries from a range of companies and local authorities which appreciate we can offer them a bespoke service.”

Machan – which employs 11 people and is likely to have sales this year of just under £1m – offers bollard designs in 50 basic shapes and sizes.

Machan does not make castings in its own premises – having opted to concentrate on the finishing work required to turn these raw metal shapes into the final product. It buys its saw castings from two local businesses – one of them being Ballantine and the other Specialised Castings, another producer of iron castings and also based in Denny.

Specialised Castings is owned and run by Steve Waring, a 62-year-old foundry veteran who started work in this industry at the age of 16 in his home town of Halifax, West Yorkshire.

Mr Waring started his company in 2001 after having organised a buyout of Falcon Catering, a foundry based near Falkirk that shut down that same year after orders had dried upand work drifted away to other countries. “At the time people said I was mad to set up a manufacturing company in the UK in a traditional industry such as castings,” says Mr Waring – whose company employs 30 people and is likely to have sales this year of about £2m. “But my ideas for the business have more or less worked out the way I planned.”

He says current business conditions “are not easy” but that he is confident his company will play its part in continuing the Falkirk region’s metalworking traditions for time to come.

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