Copper-bottomed recipe for success

Copper-bottomed recipe for success

Lawton Tubes is a family-owned business in Coventry, whose impressive success in the UK and overseas is driven by a sense of Christian fairness. Ian Halstead reports.

It’s a world away from the secular values of today’s corporate Britain, but there was a time when religious beliefs, allied to perceptions of social justice, were the bedrock upon which many of our country’s enterprises were established.

The Quaker dynasties founded by Cadbury and Fry remain the most noted, but from the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until the First World War shattered the traditional social order, it was common for religion to impact on companies of all sizes through their owners and managers.

Not in a formal sense – although many Victorian entrepreneurs considered regular attendance at church or chapel a requirement, rather than an option – but as a guiding force which underpinned their decision-making.

Nowadays of course, the corporate community’s values are decided by legions of number-crunchers, their spreadsheets and sharp-suited advisers.

So it’s refreshing to feel a powerful sense that you’re meeting folk who can tell right fromwrong, and have absolutely no truck with the latter, when you visit Lawton Tubes’
offices and warehouse on Coventry’s Torrington Avenue.

As the UK’s leading independent manufacturer and distributor of copper tube, the company brands itself ‘the nation’s copper specialist’.

It’s a neat tag-line, and with annual turnover of around £100m from just 60 employees, business development director Robert Lawton is entitled to feel pleased at how he and two brothers run the fourth-generation family firm.

Not least as Lawton’s copper products were widely installed in the 2012 Olympic Stadium and the Athletes’ Village, and are still used by all the UK’s major high street supermarkets – and even by Harrods.

The firm now dispatches close to 1,500 tonnes of copper tube and coil a month, for myriad uses in engineering, plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, medical gas and refrigeration applications.

However, it’s the philosophy which has guided the family – from the day the business was founded in 1917 making copper and brass tubes for cars, ships and railways – which
gets most airing during our intriguing two-hour conversation.

Lawton’s musings are littered with such rarely-heard words as loyalty, integrity and fairness, and they’re said with passion and conviction. Would that his thoughts on the often-thorny subject of annual bonuses could be heard in the City’s boardrooms.

“No-one is paid commission, we don’t think it’s the right way to work, but everyone from the cleaner right up to the chairman gets a year-end bonus, pro-rata to their wages, according to how the business has done.”

Lawton has similar thoughts on how apprentices should be paid: “When we were looking to take on an apprentice, we were told we’d only needed to pay £2.80 an hour. We weren’t happy at that, so we doubled her starting wage, and now top it up to the national minimum.”

The sense of taking decisions because they were right and fair comes through clearly on other issues too, as does Lawton’s instinctive desire to be honest.

On how a family-owned firm should operate: “Last autumn, we wrote a Family Charter, so that all the family members and every relative knows what’s expected of them. The three of us expect to be here for another 20 years, but we’re planning for the next generation.”

On importing material from low-cost locations: “We had an opportunity to buy hand-polished accessories from India, at far less than they would have cost us to manufacture in the UK, but we knew from the price that they were made by child-labour.”

On the family’s investment strategy: “The previous generation put money into a trout farm in Scotland… but that didn’t work. At the moment though, we own an office block in Coventry and a factory in Birmingham, and that’s working very well.”

On loyalty to corporate advisers: “We used KPMG for a while, then they just got too big, so we changed to the Birmingham office of Haines Watts and we’ve now been working with one of their partners, Terri Halstead, for almost 15 years.”

On how his family likes to live: “My wife and I have three kids, and we’re all about traditional values. We have all our meals together, and at the weekends we do things together. I like golf, racket sports and the gym, but my life is my family.”

And on the Lawton clan’s way of life: “None of the family have divorced and we all still live in the area. No-one’s got a gambling habit or other addictions. We’re all Christians, we’re big on values, big on respect and big on trying to do things right.”

Robert is equally upfront when asked for his childhood dreams about where life might
take him.

“I remember telling my grandma in my teens that I wanted to be managing director of the business, and a millionaire, by the time I was 30… I didn’t achieve either though,” he says, with a droll sigh and a glance at the ceiling.

However, no visitor, supplier or potential customer should ever mistake the family’s beliefs for naïveté. Just as generations of Cadburys believed in social justice, but demonstrated equal devotion to building their brand through innovative advertising and marketing, there are no innocents in the Lawton boardroom.

Lawton and his two brothers, who are joint managing directors, all trained, qualified
and worked outside the family business, before they returned.

“I began just helping out in the factory to get pocket money,” he recalls, “because that’s the way the family was, and still is: we very much believe in old-school values.

“All of us went off to make our way in the world and to learn what it’s really like to make a living, and luckily, we all worked in different sectors, which proved very useful when we came back, although it was purely serendipity that it happened.

“I went to university to study third-party logistics, and did a year’s placement with a local firm, Lex Transfleet, as part of my degree. My time there made me as a person: I was a logistics analyst working on a mass of projects, from FTSE 100 companies right down to SMEs.

“Much of my work was creating simulations of how companies might become more efficient, which unfortunately often meant redundancies. At first, people were often hostile to me, but by the end of my time, I felt just as comfortable talking with the cleaners as I did to the directors.

“I ended up staying at Lex for eight years, then went to Leeds working for Stylo Shoes. That was an interesting place, there were no windows, so you didn’t see daylight from the moment you walked in until you left each day.

“At the same time, my brother Oliver went into sales and management positions, and our brother Giles worked on the production side of companies, so we all picked up skills which were complementary to each other, and also the right skillset for this business.”
Giles Lawton is now managing director (operations) and Oliver is managing director (commercial), and with Robert Lawton they’re aiming to run the business for another 20 years or so, before stepping aside.

However, that doesn’t mean every member of the management team must have been christened Lawton.

“We have embraced the chance to bring in outside managers,” admits Lawton. ”We’re very experienced in this sector, and financially secure, so we can cherry-pick people who we regard as the best in our industry.

“I think we’re setting down very solid foundations for the next generation, and thinking about the best ways to plan for long-term succession.

“Most of our office and sales staff are around their 40s, so we’re still a young business in terms of personnel. We pride ourselves on being quick to react as a company, and you have to when you’re working in a commodity market like copper.

”It’s OK having a strategy, but prices can spike or fall rapidly. It might be a geopolitical event, such as the uprising in Egypt, a random event, such as when the Chilean miners were trapped underground for two months, or currency movements, especially the euro and the US dollar.”

Between 2011 and 2012, there were repeated price fluctuations, and in one fortnight alone, the value of Lawton’s copper holdings crashed by £1 million.

“We carry an enormous amount of stock, so we can smooth the impact of price changes, but sometimes you’ve just got to focus on seeing the bigger picture and looking to the long-term,” says Lawton.

“Fortunately, our history really helps. Because we’ve got the best part of a century’s experience in the copper trade, no-one starts to panic when trading gets a little tough.”

Life in the fast track

David Cameron and Vince Cable regularly urge Britain’s manufacturers to look to new overseas customers, and it’s a message which certainly resonates with Lawton Tubes. For much of its history, the company prospered through long-term commercial relationships in its domestic markets, some lasting three decades and more.

However, the last six years have seen significant growth in exports: landing the business in the Sunday Times Fast-Track 200 index, and opening markets in the Middle East, South-East Asia and Australia.

“Copper tubes for medical gas equipment have been a strong seller pretty much anywhere the old British Empire used to be,” admits Robert Lawton.

Last November saw the firm take a stand at a major trade show in Dubai, after years of patient progress in the Gulf state.

“We’ve been looking for distributors and customers there since myself and my cousin first visited in 2007,” recalls Lawton.

“We were quite apprehensive, but we shouldn’t have been. It made us realise just how strong a brand Lawton is, and everyone seemed very pleased to see members of the family on the front-line. Dubai isn’t easy to break into, it took us two years just to get on the approved suppliers’ list.

“The fact that everything we manufacture complies with British and European quality standards is also proving a strong selling-point overseas.”

However, Lawton admits disappointment that, as the company looked towards foreign markets, the Government’s international trade resources focused overwhelmingly on assistance for SMEs.

“We turn over more than €50m a year so UK Trade & Enterprise considers us to be a medium-sized business, which rules us out of most of their support initiatives and export programmes,” he says.