Lawton Tubes

‘Recession’ can be a synonym for ‘disaster’ within the manufacturing industry, with the closures, cutbacks, and redundancies it inevitably brings. But while most of the sector was reeling amid the economic chaos of the early 1980s, a fledgling Wardtec – now a division of industry-leading copper tube specialist Lawton Tubes – was taking shape in the back of a Birmingham garage, as MD Anthony Ward relates…

My father was a very clever design engineer with a broad background including aeronautical design, agricultural machinery, and motorcycle manufacture. He was unfortunate to get made redundant in the recession of the early 80s. There weren’t the safeguards back then that a lot of people have now when they lose their job; his back was against the wall.

In 1982, he took the brave decision to start up a business rather than become employed again, in one of the worst economic times the country has ever seen!

Wardtec didn’t start with all the razzmatazz some companies have when they launch. It started off tiny, with a husband and wife working tirelessly together in the back of the garage, taking on any bits of assembly work that needed doing.

When I think back, I don’t know how they managed to be so resilient. But my father and mother both had fantastic work ethics. They were very together, and their resilience showed through.

Onwards and upwards

It was a steady path upwards, but it certainly wasn’t an overnight success. The business went from doing small assembly work to renting a corner of a factory in the middle of Birmingham. I remember helping my dad there, building old machines up into something to try and make them do the job. This was before CNC and CAD/CAM software – it really was a task!

I trained as a vehicle design engineer – engineering and design is my passion; it’s in my blood. I had a good career, I worked hard, and I enjoyed what I did, but after I finished all my training, I got the desire to plough my own furrow and decided to join Dad. Wardtec was still a very fledgeling company at the time and I wanted to take a chance, to help him make something of it. It ended up being the right choice.

My father always had this constant push forward – and he had a lot of charisma. He was well respected in the industry that he’d worked in. His reputation as a person preceded him, so right from the beginning, people trusted in him and his business, which was a big factor in its success. If you gave my dad an order, he’d move hell and highwater to deliver it – an ethos that’s stayed with the company.

He was also open to taking a risk. When the time came, in 1989, he chose to borrow the money to buy a plot of land and build his own factory rather than rent one. Since then, we’ve extended the original building three times, the last one incorporated a full suite of offices. It’s about investing in yourself – and if you’re willing to do that, other people take what you’re doing seriously.

Next generation

One of my sisters had also joined the company before I did. We were growing steadily, including the acquisition of one of our competitors along the way. Unfortunately, not long after this acquisition, my father died from an unexpected and aggressive illness. Suddenly both my sister and I became Directors of the company, with my sister looking after the finance and administration while my focus was on the engineering and manufacturing side.

Wardtec is a manufacturing company, with engineering at its core. Engineering is what I know, and I’ve always run the company from that perspective. Doing the right job, correctly, and delivering it on time to the terms and conditions that have been agreed.

After a lot of hard work, we’ve found our niche making specialist fittings for the specialist water storage market. That’s what we’re known for, and we’ve built a very good reputation in that industry. There’s no magic or mystery to it. Customers want integrity and a safe pair of hands. We aim to make it as easy as possible for the customer, always endeavouring to make products the best they can be, so our customers come back for more.

Some of our customers have been with us for decades. When you have customers and staff who’ve been with you for over 10 years, that’s two things you know you’re doing right. But the challenges we’ve faced along the way have made sure we don’t get stuck in a comfort zone.

Agility in adversity

The financial crisis in 2008 energised the business – almost like starting again. It was the catalyst that got Wardtec into the stainless-steel fittings market, which was a real gamechanger for us. Now, 80% of the fittings we supply are stainless-steel. If we hadn’t moved into that market, it could have been a very different story for Wardtec.

Following on from that, I decided to take the business in a radical new direction. You have to operate on a bigger stage these days, and you’ve got to be competitive. We couldn’t have done that if we’d stayed as a pure manufacturer. So, we embraced the Far East manufacturing global import and export markets and dovetailed it with our in-house manufacturing. It hasn’t been easy – no business is ever easy, but it was the right decision and it’s proved to be a great success.

Covid was another reminder you need to be able to think on your feet in this industry. Taking apart the financial working of the business meant we came up with a plan to ride it out without significant impact – and then things went from one extreme to the other. Business was off the charts, and we had to turn everything back on at 150%!

Specialist projects

Most of what we produce are essential items. No matter what’s going on in the world, people still want hot water and central heating. Occasionally, we supply components to a customer who recognises we’re an engineering company with the ability to take an idea from a conversation right through to a finished product.

It’s led us onto some unusual projects, like tooling, and other weird and wonderful things for motorsport companies, which is a passion of mine. It’s interesting working on specialist projects, because it pushes us forward and everybody within the business learns something. It energises people into thinking about stuff differently and using more CAD/CAM software than we normally would. That renewed energy then feeds back into the high-quality products we produce for our core OE manufacturing customers.

Meeting demand

Wardtec has all the advantages of a small company, which is fast reaction time and the ability to be involved on a very one-to-one basis. But we also have the professionalism of a large entity. We really started to embrace the CNC culture 20 years ago, and we’ve now got latest generation multi-spindle multi-axis gantry loaded systems, and VMCs backed up by full CAD/CAM systems. So, we’ve evolved with the industry. The product types we produce now just would not be possible without CNC technology.

Whilst manufacturing is probably only 20% of what we do, the other 80% is procured items globally. Our Far East supply partners also embrace the latest high-tech CNC technology. Knowing how to make something from a technical perspective means we know how to purchase it correctly and build relationships with our partners on a technical level.

Wardtec joins Lawton Tubes

Lawton Tubes has been a Wardtec supplier since the year dot. The two companies have always had a good rapport and we know each other well. They’re a family company too – and Lawton’s approach to investment and growth is the same as ours. We share the same values and quality-focus. When you’re a manufacturing engineering company, it’s all about the details and getting everything 100% right. If it’s not right, it’s not going out the door. That’s important.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to join the Lawton Tubes family, because it’s a good fit. Although we started out doing copper products, 80% of what we now do is now stainless steel. You might be thinking that’s in conflict with Lawton as a copper tube supplier, but in fact, while many specialist fittings we make aren’t produced in copper, they do link closely through the industry sectors we jointly supply.

What it now means for our customers is access to an even broader range of high-quality products and specialist fittings with the potential to source their whole inventory from a single supplier, which has huge cost-and time-saving benefits.

I’m very passionate about Wardtec and I want it to succeed and be profitable long into the future. Lawton Tubes have a policy of growth and they’re people-focused, which rang all the right bells for me. We’re all very different personalities, but we’re on the same page. Wardtec was on strong foundations before, but now with Lawton Tubes, those foundations are even stronger.

Find out more about Wardtec here.