For HMG Paints, innovation is everything, as John Falder explains to Suzy Jackson.
On my wall,” begins John Falder, “there’s a certificate of incorporation for this company: 4th October 1930. “It’s a bit old, and a bit faded, and a bit yellowed, but it’s quite an important thing because it equals the people in the business. It’s not some legal definition; it’s the people.
HMG Paints are the UK’s largest independent paint manufacturer; a manufacturer of surface coatings with over 80 years’ experience of creating innovative and market leading products, all backed up with outstanding technical support.
“Surface coatings are the greatest seen man-made object,” John proclaims, and I have to stop and think about that for a while… what does that mean? “Look in any direction,” he replies, “and tell me what you see? Look at the ceiling; those tiles are painted. Light tubes, they’re coated inside and outside. The walls are painted. The carpet and the furniture; the black leather chair you’re sat on…?” Well, it didn’t come off a black cow!
“We’re involved in what everything looks like, what it feels like, and what it appears to be.”
They’re an innovative business, as they operate in niche surface coatings areas – protecting, performing, and decorating. “We’re based in Manchester because the people of HMG are based in Manchester, and live locally, and so our heart-and-headquarters is Manchester. We can’t be anywhere different!”
“We’ve always been involved in surface coatings; that’s bigger than paint,” he says. Surface coatings do include paints, alongside drying oils and varnishes, synthetic clear coatings, and other products whose primary function is to protect the surface of an object from the environment – and in doing so, often enhances its appearance, and can offer texture.
“If someone got you an expensive scarf for Christmas that feels fabulously soft, and you run it through the washing machine and it comes out feeling like a crisp packet… that’s all part of this industry.”
John describes innovation as ‘everything’. “Nothing stays the same,” he says, “and that’s the key to innovation. It’s a permanent sense of dissatisfaction with the way that things are, and a quest to find a way to make them better.”
“Practically, at its most fundamental, innovation is a way of being; a way of thinking. And it’s a way of looking at everything you do, whether it’s a product, a system, a process, and looking at it from a slightly odd standpoint. Not ‘how clever are we?’, but the opposite: how can we substantially improve, develop, change, alter what we do and the way we operate?
“Innovation is a way of life, really.”
There are massive changes afoot within the coatings world; they cite the tremendous range of opportunities for environmentally sustainable products. HMG already has a portfolio of waterborne and solvent free products, but that doesn’t mean there’s not still a lot to do.
“We are undertaking the formulation and manufacture of a range of revolutionary waterborne colourants. These colourants are solvent free, extraordinarily safe to the level that they can be used in toy paints, craft paints as well as decorative materials. Existing products supplied into the sector are based on materials that are harmful to the environment. Our new products under development are easy to use, totally environmentally sustainable, VOC free, don’t contain any resin, with outstanding compatibility across a massive portfolio of products.”
There’s a myriad of examples within HMG Paints, and the industry overall. John continues with an example: We’re involved in a lot of automotive colour styling. That work, you might think, would involve colour – but we make blue paint without any blue pigment. We make green paint without any green pigment. We’re using interference pigments and interference layers, creating the same effect as a butterfly’s wing, to create totally unique styling situations for automotive and the future of objects that don’t exist yet.”
That’s impressive, of course, but it does beg the question… why?
“It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t have any blue in it; that’s a by-product,” John says. “It makes it very interesting, doesn’t it?” A by-product is an interesting way of referring to it; but essentially, this is innovation trying to solve problems before they even arise. “It’s associated with innovative colours and designs that have never been possible before; a range of colours and effects that haven’t been possible before. It has applications in cosmetics, in security devices – anti tamper – in automotive, and general colour styling.”
It’s the transformative effect of colours, designs and finishes than haven’t been achievable before. “With a lot of the automotive colour styling work, we are our customer’s ‘best kept secret’ because we work with them entirely confidentially – but that’s a good thing! What they want to do is innovate to stay ahead; to create the most desirable things so you and I spend money on them!”
HMG Paints is a local business, Manchester born and bred. “Manchester is our home. We have been here since our inception in 1930, and we employ locally. We sit at the heart of our local community.”
With some 200 staff, they also have depots in Andover and London, and a small joint venture in central Southern India, and many other relationships across the globe. “It’s a very small planet,” he says, though he wasn’t such a huge fan of the 15-hour flight he had to take to Argentina for work purposes quite recently
HMG’s manufacturing facility in Collyhurst is built on the original 1773 site of Little Greene Dye Works. This factory was one of the country’s most ancient coatings manufacturing sites, producing coloured paints and dye solutions for domestic and industrial use. And the name now lives on: “A number of years ago I was the co-founder of the Little Greene Paint Company, and we now own the Paint and Paper Library too. Little Greene is also about innovation; a combination of the traditional, and the knowledge of what looks right, but with a more modern twist on it.
Primarily HMG is industrial, whereas spin-offs like Little Greene are decorative. “We have around 200 people here at HMG, and we have many generations of families in the business. We have some 60 sets of people who are related to one another, and 14 families who are third generation employees of the business.”
John has been involved in the business for approximately 62 years, he says, aged… approximately 62. Now managing director, his official start date with the firm was at the tender age of 6, and whilst he points out you couldn’t get away with such now, he’s very proud of the work they do with a local Academy, allowing them to bring 14- and 15-year-olds into the business – exceptionally difficult though it may be. “We have big links with our local schools and colleges,” he says, and with a multi-generational workforce that is part of what makes everything work so well.
“We’re absolutely hypermodern or positively prehistoric,” he says, “in that people start their careers here but never leave! Our average length of service is just over 15 years. People also don’t generally retire in a conventional sense, they ‘evolve out’ by working less days per week/per year. That means the oldies are teaching the youngies!”
And that is of itself unusual, but it breaks the perception that young people innovate more. “It’s all of the lessons of history combined with all of the technological knowledge, and enthusiasm of youth. It’s not age-barred, not age-limited; it’s only limited by imagination.”
And the family business connection applies to John, too. “There are quite a number of other family members involved in the business. My son, and my niece, and to a lesser extent my younger brother. He’s the secretary general of a paint organisation called NOVA,” he says. NOVA Paint Club is a global collaboration of speciality paints and coatings businesses.
The 12 member companies have a combined turnover of more than US $4.5bn, employing more than 13,000 employees across 73 manufacturing sites worldwide.
“Our objective has always been to make the next generation 10-15 years better than we were at the same age. They know more than we do, they’re better equipped than we were, so hopefully the younger people in the business have all the advantages they need to create the greatest paint company the world has ever known.”
To do that, to developing those staff to achieve that stretching goal, it’s important that they invest. And they do. “We make huge investment relative to our size each year to create a better future. The future of our business is dependent on our innovation and training, and creating products that our customers see as most appropriate to ensure the future success.
“We have great customers, and it’s being able to work with those customers in terms of posing great questions about what innovation is needed. It’s our customers, its ourselves, it’s our suppliers – and it’s our people.
“We foster a culture of innovation largely through huge levels of communication, particularly informal communication. We always want to see a better way of doing everything we do. We want to make better products, we want to make better solutions to problems, we want to make life simpler and better for our customers, we want to make products that last longer, we want to make product that is easier to use. It’s in our DNA!
“We are genuinely blessed as a business – by our company, our people, our customers and our suppliers. So, we’re in a good place, and that good place will allow the next generation and the one after them to continue to improve upon where we are today.”