Debates about how a satisfying work-life balance might be achieved have spawned an army of ‘self-help’ gurus, a flotilla of websites and sufficient books, CDs and lecture notes to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing.
The darkest irony of such guidance, of course, is that those who would really benefit most have no time to study it.
However, even on first meeting, there’s no doubt the Wooldridge brothers have devised such an equitable division between business life and relaxation as to make anyone – bar perhaps Richard Branson or Bill Gates – turn a fetching shade of green.
The first sign comes even before the conversation begins, in the old Sealine plant just off the huge ring-road roundabout which forms Kidderminster’s largest landmark. Peter Wooldridge, the managing director of Quantum Mouldings, hands across a business card which looks pretty much like any other.
However, the one carried by Peter’s brother, finance director Mark Wooldridge, doubles as a colourful advertisement for Barrusclet, a splendiferous and sprawling gîte midway between Toulouse and Bordeaux, which he and his wife Gill rescued from decay and dereliction seven years back. They now spend serious chunks of their time living in an adjacent property, supplementing their income by renting the restored farmhouse to holidaying Brits and others.
Fabulous France is the name Mark has given to the farmhouse’s website, and it’s easy to see the appeal of life among medieval villages, rolling vineyards and azure skies … particularly from inside a half-renovated factory, set amid industrial Black Country sprawl, on a chilly morn. “Mark is officially part-time, so although he lives in the UK, he often goes over to France. He also manages the family’s property portfolio,” says Peter, with an impressive absence of sibling rivalry.
He’s the youngest of a trio – only joining the business in 1990, five years after it was founded by Mark and third brother Harvey Wooldridge to design and manufacture sleek, and blisteringly fast, sports cars made from glass-fibre – so he’s still full-time.
However, like his brothers, Peter well understands the need to mix work with play. A keen mountain-biker and tennis player, he’d spent much of the previous day on a ‘mud run’ with his daughter.
Harvey was the company’s star designer and mould-maker, who dreamed up the first Quantum model in his final year at university, but he’s long gone from the company.
“He retired in his late-30s, lives in Spain and spends most of his time wind-surfing,” says Mark, who still drives a Quantum designed by his brother three decades back, which neatly demolishes unspoken thoughts that cars moulded from glass-fibre might not last.
Ironically, given that Quantum’s business model is still based on glass-fibre products, the founders never intended to make it, but were persuaded otherwise by the inconsistent level of work from their original sub-contractors.
“We got into glass-fibre by accident,” admits Peter. “We used two local companies, but the products, and the customer service, were so poor that we decided to make our own. We soon got a reputation for having the best gel-coat finish in the industry. The quality was so high that there was no need to paint the surface after it came out of the mould.”
It’s a timely explanation, because anyone who strolled through the former Sealine factory being readied for its new life might think the panels being turned out with such care had been given a coat or two of gloss varnish.
More than 1,000 Quantum cars were produced by the brothers at their Stourbridge factory until that business was sold in 2001, allowing them to focus on the commercial division now known as Quantum Mouldings.
“The sports car company is still going,” says Peter, with evident and understandable pride, “and there are at least 1,000 people in the Quantum Owners Club. We’d been designing and manufacturing products for commercial uses from 1992 though, so it was well-established long before the sale. Kit-cars were still popular then, but that market has waned because production cars are so much better than 20 years ago. Nothing rusts nowadays, and manufacturing techniques are so reliable.”
Quantum does still make low-volume runs for niche automotive firms, and one of its bodies (for the Ultima GTR) still holds the world speed record for a production car. “From nought to 100mph and back to standstill in 9.3 seconds,” says Peter.
Quantum’s expertise in automotive design and production led the brothers to focus on an array of glass-fibre products for vehicle manufacturers, including caravans, trailers and hard tops for pick-up trucks. Just as the two remaining siblings have a bond which allows them to tease each other, without a hint of intent, the commercial relationships their business has built have also prospered.
Johnston Sweepers, for example, has been the world’s largest manufacturer of machines which sweep, clean and tidy roads and streets almost since dust was invented, and Quantum has supplied the Surrey-based group with panels since 1999. Likewise, Brian James Trailers of Daventry has been one of the biggest brands in its sector for 35 years, and its relationship with the Wooldridges goes back nearly 15 years.
“We met them for the first time at the Autosport Show in 2001, when Peter was driving a yellow H4 Quantum, and they must have been impressed because we’ve been working with them since,” recalls Mark. “Over the years, we’ve probably had £5m of orders from Brian James, still our biggest customer.”
However, when the global slump hit the UK economy, and the automotive and vehicle industries suffered especially badly, the brothers realised they had to diversify to survive – and goodness me, they certainly did.
“Turnover halved during the recession, but we didn’t lay anyone off,” says Mark. “We were up for any work we could get. We did 32 pods for the London Eye, and an intermediary helped us win work for the Toy Story and Ratatouille displays at Disneyland Paris.”
The brothers, and the talented craftsmen among their 35 employees, even designed products as diverse as the floors for golf-putting trainers, and parking meter surrounds. Among their quirkiest items was a 20-strong herd of hippos for the West Midlands Safari Park, and characters for Sponge Bob’s ‘Splash Bash’ ride at Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach.
“When you do your research, you discover that GRP [glass-reinforced plastic] is used in almost every business sector, and for a bewildering number of uses,” says Peter. “In the past, almost all our work came via word of mouth, but now our main source of business is our website, so SEO [search engine optimisation] work is important.”
Mark says: “We also work very closely with our customers. If someone comes with an idea, but they’re not quite sure how it might look or work, our designers will guide them through the whole process.”
Business is clearly a very personal matter to the brothers, and their ability to develop relationships is as evident inside the factory as on their order books. Every employee who passes is greeted by their first-name, and the response is genuinely warm. Remarkably too, in an era where change is often seen as an imperative, Quantum has had the same bank – and banker – for more than a decade.
“We’ve been working with Dave Roberts at NatWest in Wolverhampton all that time, and he’s been great. He was very supportive when it was tough, and we’ve built up a great relationship, so we’ve never thought of going elsewhere,” says Mark. “We needed a mortgage to buy the Sealine factory. We reckoned we’d need to spend £1m on the property and £200,000 split between the cost of the move, building offices and capital expenditure on new plant and machinery.”
The affable camaraderie of the brothers can’t camouflage the business nous which has kept the company afloat for almost 30 years though, and they were astutely aware that grant support would be critical in such a major investment programme.
They identified the potential of the Green Bridge Supply Chain Programme, funded by the European Regional Development Fund for growing SMEs.
“The reason for the move was to have space for expansion, and to be able to take on more people for our current workload,” says Peter. “Green Bridge was ideal, as you got £10,000 for each job created, and we knew we’d be recruiting at least ten people in the short-term.
It took a good week to fill in the application form, but after that it was a pretty slick process by the council in Birmingham. We worked with them to make sure they had everything they needed, and it worked – we got the maximum grant of £100,000.
It also helped our application because we are looking to enter new ‘green’ business sectors, such as the manufacture of electric vehicles and renewable energy. Glass-fibre would be ideal for turbine blades, for use onshore or offshore, for example.”
Quantum’s business plan also envisages major revenue growth, as Mark explains with conviction: “We’re expecting 25% annual growth, which we know is sustainable because we’ve done it before. We did £1.6m last year, we’ll do £2m this year and we’re confident we’ll do £2.5m the year after.
From this site, we could do £5m a year, and we’ve got 20,000sq ft of space on another site and four acres of land, so there’s plenty of potential. We’ve brought in Steve Galbraith, as operations director, and we’ve got a good strong team here to deliver our targets.”
There is just one itsy-bitsy cloud on an otherwise flawless Quantum horizon: “We’ve always had a family atmosphere,” says Mark, “and great relationships with everyone who works here. When you’ve got 25 or 30 people, you remember first-names, their families and everything. When you start employing 30 or 40 though, it gets harder, and if we had 50 people, it might get quite difficult.”