March 10, 2013 10:59 pm

Personal touch is key for lockmaker

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Assa Abloy Chubb key©Chris Batson

Willenhall may now be best-known as the headquarters of the Poundland chain of discount stores. But the town in the Black Country region of the West Midlands was once more closely associated with another industry – lock making.

Today at the old Josiah Parkes works, you can still see people hand assembling the tiny pins and springs that make the security mechanism for the traditional cylinder door lock.

It is the sort of task you might think was long ago outsourced to cheaper suppliers abroad.

But Assa Abloy, the Swedish group that owns the factory, is today the UK market leader in door security systems with a 15 per cent share ahead of Ingersoll-Rand, the US company, and Dorma, a family-owned German manufacturer.

While it has relocated much standard lock production to its overseas units, the Union locks factory in Willenhall still employs about 600 people and had sales last year of £70m focusing on made-to-order business such as master key systems for prestigious buildings.

Its clients include the Tower of London and the new Shard skyscraper.

This kind of success matters at a time when the UK coalition government is hoping to rebalance the economy away from London and the financial services sector.

And John Bryson, an economics professor at Birmingham University and an expert on manufacturing, says the survival of industries such as lock making in the West Midlands offers lessons for all low-technology manufacturers in the UK.

“Lock making is still possible if it’s based on individual commissions that require specialisation, design and face-to-face contact with the client,” he says. “A London bank installing a security system is not going to want to deal with a Chinese manufacturer thousands of miles away.”

Willenhall, which once had the nickname Humpshire because of the bad posture locals developed bent over their work benches, was the centre of UK lock making from the industrial revolution when more than 350 workshops supplied the far reaches of the British empire with every type of security device.

Today, there are only a few factories still operating in the Black Country. Ingersoll-Rand has an operation in Walsall, having entered the market in 1997 by buying NT Legge, successor to J Legge, a famous Willenhall brand.

Henry Squire & Sons, the Wolverhampton-based padlock maker is still a family-run business after eight generations.

There have been start-ups. Guardian Lock and Engineering company in Willenhall, which trades under the name Imperial Locks, employs about 70 people.

It recently completed an order to supply gold-plated tubular door latches for the penthouses at One Hyde Park.

Assa Abloy’s arrival on the UK market in 2000 followed its acquisition of the Union, Chubb and Yale brands from Williams Holdings, the industrial conglomerate founded by Midlands-born financier Sir Nigel Rudd.

At the time there were still an estimated 4,000 people involved in lock making across the region.

Paul Browne, Assa Abloy’s product development manager, recalls one street in Willenhall had three factories – Yale, Legge and CE Marshall.

All have since closed. “One is a Morrison supermarket, another a car park. That’s what happens when you don’t innovate,” he says

Cheap imports have taken their toll and today account for more than two-thirds of the UK lock market.

But in recent years, Assa Abloy has started repatriating some of the products it once made abroad such as the steel mounts for multi-point locks – of which it makes 30,000 a week at the Willenhall factory.

Lee Philp, chief operations officer, says that in order to compete Assa Abloy has had to rearrange its supply chain, reducing stock and engaging in what he calls “late configuring” of product assembly to meet clients’ requirements.

“We no longer do volume but variety,” says Tony Brittle, the operations manager for the architectural hardware line who has worked at the factory for 42 years, having joined as a 15-year-old apprentice.

Innovation has been critical, with Assa Abloy UK deriving about a quarter of revenues from new products, including the sale of smart access control products largely developed by the parent company in Scandinavia and Germany.

In the UK it has grown through acquisition with sales up from £110m in 2009 to £170m in 2012.

And it makes not only door locks but windows too, with the acquisition of Securistyle in Cheltenham, which makes hardware including specialist window hinges for high-rise office buildings and is selling strongly in China.

“We think it’s got a strategic fit,” says John Middleton, who runs Assa Abloy’s UK, Middle East and Africa operations from Willenhall. “We currently do everything around a door but the statistics show that in any building there are probably five windows for every door.”

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