The death of the former "wheels and assemblies" MD, David Lanfear, seems a good time to note the decline and fall of another piece of Brit manufacturing.
Rubery Owen, which not so long ago employed 6,000 people in the heart of the Black Country, are still very much alive - in that post-industrial sense.
The last major manufacturing interest was sold in 1993 and since then the company has focussed its attention on 3 key strands – Property, Investment, and a number of independent operating subsidiaries. Yes, it’s smaller than it used to be in the late ‘60s and early ‘70’s, but it’s still innovating and it’s still active.
As we approach the 125th anniversary of the firms founding, we are investing heavily in our operating companies, and as the world faces different issues – climate change, social responsibility, the internet age etc – we hope that we are doing our bit to contribute, and see real opportunities to be at the forefront of the evolution of a new type of “British Industry” and “Industrial Revolution”.
"A new type of British Industry” denoting absence of same. As commenter Dearieme put it :
My wife made a new friend this year, the wife of a Visiting Scholar at Cambridge, a Chinese. After a few weeks here she had a good question. "I don't understand how this country is so rich", said she, "where are all your factories?"Still, I'm grateful to the company for recording their history here and here.
The ‘70’s were a difficult period – with the early ‘70’s came fuel crises and fluctuating fortunes particularly due to smaller numbers of cars being produced in the UK at a time when production in both France and Germany was expanding significantly, and though there was the occasional ‘highlight’, by the late 70’s things were difficult again as a result of considerable rationalisation in the UK Aerospace industry and well as the Materials Handling/Forklift Truck sector, allied to the continuing difficulties and disruption in the UK Automotive Industry – The Group was significantly exposed to all of these sectors, and suffered as a result.
In 1981 the Company took the momentous decision to close its main Darlaston factory, with over 6000 jobs having been lost during the course of the previous 5 years, and from that point on the company took the decision that it would pursue a strategy of ‘orderly exit’ from its traditional manufacturing and engineering businesses – successful and growing manufacturing businesses were sold to organisations with access to larger amounts of capital and therefore better placed to drive their growth, whilst other operations were rationalised or even closed.
The story of RO can really be viewed as a microcosm of the change in British Industry between the late ‘60s and early 90’s – for a whole variety of reasons, what the company used to do is no longer done in this country anymore. Our fortunes, as a supplier of components and other assemblies under long term contracts to manufacturers of finished goods, were largely in the hands of others and in many ways our hands were tied. The lessons that we have learnt have been valuable ones, and the fact that we are still here is testament to that! Indeed, many of our contemporaries, business that used to do what we used to do, are no longer around and in many ways the fact that we are still in existence is as much of an achievement as the original growth and expansion of the business.
UPDATE - to any aged Midlander, it's like a memorial list. Sankeys of Wellington in Shropshire, later taken over by GKN, Birmal at Smethwick, Terry's in Redditch, where Laban spent a Seventies summer stamping out hose-bands, Jenks and Cattell, Birmetals in Quinton, Wilmot Breeden in Brum.