Ipswich: Plant hire specialist Watson & Hillhouse builds on strong foundations

IPSWICH-based piling equipment specialist Watson & Hillhouse recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. DUNCAN BRODIE went to see founder Robin Watson to talk about the company’s approach as a relatively small player up against some much larger competitors.

SPECIALIST plant hire company Watson & Hillhouse was launched in Ipswich 40 years ago, since when it has supplied equipment to assist in the construction of a such major local landmarks as the Orwell Bridge and Sizewell B power station.

But the Ipswich-based company, which is now involved in both the sale and hire of piling equipment such as hydraulic hammers, is anything but local in its outlook, having supplied equipment to every continent on the planet.

Company founder Robin Watson, who is now chairman and chief executive, began his career as a trainee with the famous Leiston engineering company Garretts in 1959. (He retains an association with the town and its engineering tradition as a trustee of the Long Shop Museum).

From Garretts, he joined British Steel Piling (BSP) at Great Blakenham, near Ipswich, (a UK pioneer in the use of sheet piling) as an engineering buyer before moving into plant management with BSP’s hire business.

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That side of the business was then sold by BSP to Tilbury and it was after this point that Mr Watson decided, in 1972, to branch out on his own.

John Hillhouse, a contact within the trade who Mr Watson had first met at a company open day, said he would back him in setting up a business of his own and they tossed a coin to decide whose name should appear first in the company’s title.

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Mr Watson began operating from a caravan, and then from a portable cabin. Much of his early business involved supplying diesel hammers for projects in the north of Scotland, which involved a fitter travelling 800 miles to carry out services.

However, Watson & House slowly established a national and then an international reputation. Mr Watson says this has been based on the quality of its service, its technical expertise and the offer of more specialist equipment rather than simply on price, so enabling it to compete with rather larger rivals.

Having begun purely as a hire business, it later moved into sales and last year it reached a significant milestone when the value of overseas business overtook turnover in the UK for the first time.

”We have now sold equipment to every continent and, I should think, to very nearly every country,” said Mr Watson.

Its equipment fleet represents an investment of more than �10million, with its policy of continual replacement making plant available for sale second-hand alongside its hire and new equipment sales businesses.

Today, hydraulic hammers and vibrators to drive steel piling, typically used in major infrastructure and flood defence projects, are the company’s main lines, with on-site maintenance being offered anywhere in the world.

Its service is backed by an extensive store of spares, to supply its constant workload of repair and reconditioning. “Manufacturers sometimes come to us for parts instead of us going to them,” he adds.

The company currently employs 27 people, most based at its headquarters in White House Road, Ipswich, plus four at a second depot at Warrington.

Facilities at the Ipswich site include its own piling test bed to determine the suitability of equipment for a particular application. A feature of the test bed is that it is virtually vibration-proof, which was necessary in order to avoid disturbing the clean room activities of former neighbour BT&D, a telecoms equipment joint venture between BT and Dupont. (This business later became part of Hewlett-Packard and was then spun-out as part of Agilent Technologies before becoming a casualty of the dot.com crash.)

The workforce total at Watson & Hillhouse includes recently recruited new apprentice which, says Mr Watson, continues a long commitment to training.

“It has been the life blood of the business over the years,” he says. “We have trained dozens over the years, one or two at a time, and most have stayed with us. Some have moved on but most are with us still.

“A lot of our guys have been with us 25 years plus. We bring people in from outside occasionally but it is good not to have to keep changing personnel.”

In September this year, the company celebrated its 40th anniversary with a coach outing for staff and partners to London, including a boat trip along the Thames.

The past 40 years have seen considerable technical change in piling, says Mr Watson, a feature of which has been a decline in the proportion of British-made equipment in its fleet of equipoment, from more than 80 at one to to around 10% today. “It is quite sad how manufacturing has declined in the UK,” he observes.

However, he remains upbeat so far as the outlook for Watson & Hillhouse is concerned, being confident that the company’s reputation and offer is such that it will continue to benefit from major infrastructure projects at home and abroad.

He particularly likes the sound of the Mayor of London’s “Boris Island” plan for a new hub airport in the Thames estuary, but a decision of the direction of UK aviation policy is likely to take a while.

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