Backhoe to the future

“We were sitting in the office the other day,” says a fellow passenger. “And we were wondering what industry does the UK have? You don’t own your cars anymore, planes, or anything. I mean, we just couldn’t think of anything.” Fast forward three weeks and I’m sitting in another car, it’s German, but we’re on […]

“We were sitting in the office the other day,” says a fellow passenger. “And we were wondering what industry does the UK have? You don’t own your cars anymore, planes, or anything. I mean, we just couldn’t think of anything.”

Fast forward three weeks and I’m sitting in another car, it’s German, but we’re on our way to one of the few companies that is undeniably a British “industry” success. JCB.

The headquarters for JCB are located in leafy Staffordshire. Once upon a time it was an area known for its pottery, today it’s the home of Alton Towers, the UK’s biggest theme park, and the production of JCB’s backhoes as well as its administrative and marketing hub.

In keeping with the theme park, erm, theme, JCB has also opened up its own attraction, the JCB Story, a tour as the name suggests through its history. Filled with lovingly restored machinery and a treasure trove of memrobilia, it takes visitors from a recreation of founder Joe Bamford’s first garage, its early tractors and backhoes, right through to JCB’s sterling global growth.

“Welcome to the JCB Story,” proclaims JCB’s Nigel Chell as we enter the museum-cum-showroom.

“There was a family called Bamford that started a business in 1874. Before that they were the town’s blacksmiths,” he begins. “Eventually this business came full circle in the 1980s when JCB bought their sites. They went out of business because they didn’t keep up with trends in farming mechanisation.”

The circle he refers to began when Joseph Cyril Bamford joined the family business in the 1930s. Precocious Joe was later fired by his uncle: “And hence he set up JCB,” Chell chuckles.

A recreation of Joe Bamford’s first workshop, a lock-up garage in Uttoxeter, is the first major stop on our tour. It’s built to scale says Chell, and easily dwarfed by the room, let alone the production plant that is tucked underneath us.

From there Bamford moved the business from Uttoxeter to some stables at a hall near to its modern headquarters. Chell shows me a black and white picture of Joe and his family taken at the stables.

“I found this photograph after Joe died, next to him is Mrs Bamford, the baby in her arms is Sir Anthony (Joe’s son, now the 66-year-old chairman of the company),” he says.

One of things that grabs you when you look at the picture are three words scrolled over the building.

“She (Mrs Bamford) had it in her collection and I loved it,” says Chell. “The sign is written in paint J C Bamford. It really shows the roots of the company.”

Among other photos of JCB’s early years is one of its first employees Bill Hearst.

“He was an apprentice at JCB aged 14 and he’s still living – about 78 I think – he did about 50 years of service with the company.”

Spending time with those that work at JCB you get the impression that they feel like they belong there.

A cynical journalist will always view this with suspicion but rarely have I met a company with so many people contented to measure their time in decades and not years.

Hearst it would appear was the first of many.

While happy people make for warm hearts and good PR, it is with the machines that JCB has been built. Having left the recreation of Bamford’s old workshop we start to see the progression of the machine design through the decades. One of the first machines is a tractor with a single loader arm, “We still use it today with the skid steers we manufacture,” Chell reflects.

More than any other, it is the backhoe which is JCB’s signature machine. The machine in the museum looks like it could still do a job.

“That’s the Mark 1 backhoe that was built in 1953,” he says.

Pointing to another early backhoe, Chell points out a machine was restored by some volunteers at the company.

Looking like an adapted tractor it dates from a time before JCB was still to settle into its familiar orange, the lick of paint added by the restorers  gives it a stunning look.

“I love the colour scheme,” says Chell. “The red and the yellow probably wouldn’t work today. You associate it with that era.”

As we move through the machines grow much more familiar, although some, including an angular -looking cab, are very much products of the time.

“I presume it was to add visibility with the backhoe, helping to drain off rain,” he says. “Even then they were thinking about visibility.”

One impressive display is a cabinet of hundreds of toy  versions of JCB machines which Chell says has been collated from its own archives and an ‘enthusiast on the backhoe line’. It’s a great way to see how lines of machines have been developed over time.

As well showing its machines, JCB also makes a point of displaying its line of aircraft dating back to the 1960s.

“It was a big part of us being able to grow our markets,” he says, “Being able to fly in and out of Europe within a day was a huge advantage at the time.”

Like the company, the JCB Story steps up its scope  after Joe Bamford retires in 1975.

“We move from where Joe Bamford is building the brands and working on product development, he then hands over to his son, Anthony. Up to that point it had all been about punching above our weight, really,” says Chell.

Part of the tour is set in what was the old design studio. Fascinatingly Joe Bamford made sure that his office was alongside (you can imagine the life-long engineer unerving designers as he peered over their drafts on his way to his office). The office is of its time wooden recesses, sturdy furniture, but most spectacularly it looks directly down onto the factory floor.

“This was Joe’s office originally,” Chell remarks. “Machines were being developed one side and being manufactured on the other. It was a complete window on the business.”

Under Sir Anthony, JCB has undergone a huge global expansion programme and now has 72 factories worldwide. A display gives an overview of its now global presence highlighting its major successes, including in India.

“It’s phenomenal,” he comments. “We’ve been there since 1979 and I think even Sir Anthony would say it was more by accident rather than by design that we’ve been so successful.”

The timing may have been fortuitous, but JCB has greatly benefited from its exciting chapter in the sub-continent.

“The Cat president was in the Financial Times last year and he said that JCB had whipped their asses in India,” he laughs.

While it is undoubtedly a corner-stone to its current standing as the top 12 construction company in the world, India is not the only country in which it is currently enjoying success. Like many others, the company is fixated by the potential of the Brazilian market.

“We are about to open a new excavator and backhoe factory near Sao Paulo in July for the South American market,” he explaines. “That market used to be so unstable, but it is stable enough to do direct business now.”

He continues: “And you have to manufacture otherwise you have to pay punative prices to import. There is a lot happening there.”

Its progress in the skid steer field has seen it grow a steady income out of the US market (where unlike in the UK, a backhoe is a backhoe not a JCB): “We are dedicated to skid steers on a highly engineered excavator. There is still a huge opportunity there.”

We’re nearing the end of our tour around JCB’s history and its future.

“The reaction to the tour is normally pretty special,” says Chell. “It does open the eyes of customers that may not yet be with us. As an employee it makes you proud to see where the company has come from. Hopefully that rubs off on the people that go round too.”

Unlike its European peers such as Germany and France, the UK failed to hold onto many of its industries in the post-war period. JCB however has bucked the trend and gone on to be one of the UK’s largest privately owned companies and one of the most recognisable brands in construction machinery.

But why was that? How did it succeed where others failed?

Having spent an afternoon with the company, getting a sense of the history, the pride in its workers, and the honed production, you get the impression that it’s never lost sight of where it’s come from. You also get the impression that it sure as heck knows where it’s going.

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