Drawn together - profile of Alloy Wire International

7 min read

A key supply chain link between spring and fastener manufacturers is wire drawing. This traditional process takes hot-rolled rod and reduces it to the correct size.

Along the way, the process determines the material's tensile strength and hardness. One of the few remaining specialists of this art in the UK is Alloy Wire International but, as Will Dalrymple finds out in conversation with managing director Mark Venables, the company is no mere throwback to a bygone age.

January 2021 marked the beginning of a new chapter for West Midlands wire drawing company Alloy Wire International. The company, which celebrates 75 years of trading this year, announced it had appointed a new board of directors, internally promoting three employees: Adam Shaw as finance director, Tom Mander as managing director designate; Andrew Du Plessis as technical director.

But what is particularly unusual is that the newest directors are not taking over just yet, explains managing director Mark Venables. At the time, he said: “In Tom, Andrew and Adam we have three experienced professionals who are hungry to carry on the AWI journey and have fantastic skills in their specialist areas of sales, business strategy, finance and technical and quality. They will continue to learn from the three existing directors, and also be encouraged to bring their own ideas and vision to the table.”

Speaking last month, Venables explains some of the background to the decision: “I’m not going anywhere; I’ve still got a lot to give this business. It’s so important to have a succession plan. We’ve always done that, put the next person in place and trained them up for one to three years before they take the role.”

Venables himself was hired in 2010, and only took over the company when the previous MD, Bill Graham, retired in 2013. Unusually again, Graham is still with the business, working as chairman, and his final retirement will cue Venables’s move into that role.

What’s clear from all of this is that while the company may be forward-thinking, it is rooted in its history, and doesn’t mind doing things differently to the rest. All of that began with Bill Graham, as Venables picks up the story. Alloy Wire was set up after the war to sell electrical resistance wire for heaters. Graham, an engineer who had apprenticed in the metals business, joined the firm in 1972 as a management trainee. Four years later, when founder John Stockdale was looking to retire, the employee who had been expected to take up the MD role didn’t, so Graham took over the business.

A TURNING POINT

In those days, Alloy Wire’s production was high-volume and the company employed about 50 people. Keen to follow market opportunities, Graham began travelling overseas more and more, particularly in Asia, chasing export opportunities. The company faced a turning point in the late 1980s, as Venables explains: “Worldwide, we were getting orders for alloy wire in high volume, but he could see it was getting harder to compete. Graham decided to change strategy, and instead of producing electrical resistance wire, he started buying new, more expensive nickel-based alloys known as ‘high performance’ or ‘exotic’ alloys.

Venables continues: “They have good high-temperature and corrosive environment performance. He [Graham] didn’t know what the market level was out there, but he had such a knowledge of the market that worldwide this was the way that things were moving. Instead of going for volume, he went for small quantities.”

And this remains the company’s approach to the market: quantities from 3m to 3t, in some 60 alloys, including, still, electrical resistance wire, but also much more exotic materials, such as hastelloys, waspalloys and inconels. (Ironically some of these were first developed at Special Metals in Hereford, where Stockdale worked as mill manager until he left to set up Alloy Wire).

The average order quantity is 15kg, says Venables, mostly for Tier 2 and Tier 3 companies that turn the wire into finished components across industry, including nuclear, aerospace, oil and gas, automotive and electronics. Venables learned last year that Alloy Wire supplies material that is used for springs in ventilators operated by the NHS. Other applications for its wire include interdental brushes, springs for nuclear reactors and Nespresso coffee machines. Its straight lengths of wire, made in Yorkshire, supply the model railway industry.

Many of the company’s 5,000 customer base – 900 of which are active in any given year – are R&D departments of blue-chip companies that want to experiment with small quantities. “Then they come back for a larger batch of 15-50kg, and try that, and we’re in the game until manufacturing reaches production levels, and then they go to a volume manufacturer to get a cheaper price. They are constantly evolving, and recognise the impact we can have on quality and flexibility, and short lead times.”

Export is more than half of business; it sells in 70 countries through exclusive local partners, many of which were set up by Graham. Its Indian agent, for example, Amit Banerjee of Kolkata, has been working with Alloy Wire for 41 years. Agents are commission-only, but are credited for both direct sales and in-country sales.

Alloy Wire draws wire to any size from 0.025mm to 21mm, predominantly converted from hot-rolled rod. For most sizes, it uses a dry drawing process with a soap-based lubricant (pictured), but the process can be oil-based for wire thinner than 1.2mm.

Managing all of these operations in two factories, Brierley Hill in the Black Country and in Batley, West Yorkshire, is an agile staff of 30. “We might do anything from 5-10 set-ups on each machine each day,” says Venables. “Everyone doesn’t just do one job. They are trained to multi-task. We are constantly moving people around, and they are committed to that. In effect, they set the machine, and it starts running; it is laser-controlled, so they know the process is okay, and then they go to set up another. That’s where we get our flexibility.”

That’s not all. The company is employee-owned, and most of the staff are shareholders. That means that there’s a uniform bonus structure, and a sense of camaraderie. Venables explains: “That comes back to Bill Graham and his history: he was treated badly as an apprentice. He didn’t like the ‘them and us’ culture between management and workers. He vowed if he were ever in charge, he would do it differently.”

That he did, as Venables explains. Now, “there is no separation between workers. Workers in the office wear the same clothes as the shop floor. Bill didn’t want a difference. The guys in the factory wear a dark blue shirt or a polo shirt. We [in the office] wear the same to match. It’s that culture that we have that makes it special; it makes it so that everyone is together. We look after people. We pay for BUPA; they all have private medical care, because without the staff, we haven’t got anything. Their loyalty and the way we are all together makes us special.”

RECENT HISTORY

When Venables took over in 2013 through an MBO, Bill Graham’s mandate to him was to professionalise the company, without losing its culture and values. And he has done so, notching up some significant successes along the way. First, turnover more than doubled from £5m to £11m from 2008 to 2021. That growth has come from a combination of UK and export business, the latter benefiting from new agents in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan deliberately put in place after the 2016 Brexit decision. “We really went for other areas around the world,” recalls Venables.

And that was done without swelling the workforce, which Venables puts down to experienced shop floor staff on one hand and investments in new machines and technology on the other. For example, having been receiving more requests for finer wires, it invested in a wet drawing machine two years ago that was delivered late 2020, and is now considering buying another similar machine.

Alloy Wire aims to despatch orders in two weeks (and even faster with an expedited service offering), even though supply lead times have increased from three months previously to anything from four to eight months. It has recently increased stockholding levels to 220t (nearly doubled from 120t in 2017). In addition, the prices of raw materials and alloys are rising, so much so that in some cases Venables is having to quote for long-term orders blind, without knowing what supply price Alloy Wire might have to pay in the future.

Another key enabler to orders has been supplier quality standards, the first of which was AS9100 for aerospace in 2013. That was followed by ISO9001 for management, ISO14001 for environmental performance and then 45001 for health and safety. Last year it won ISO 13485 for medical applications. Venables says: “What we are finding is that as more technical enquiries are coming through, the people requesting wouldn’t give us an enquiry without them. What standards have allowed us to do is open doors to get enquiries, and now we’re winning them.”

TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

Going along with increasing sophistication of its operations is greater technical savvy, he observes. “We’ll have long discussions with engineers that are developing something. We’re offering them solutions to enable them to make their products, but without it being made in a certain tensile range or hardness or a critical diameter with a tolerance, they can’t do it.”

The company’s heritage and skills in wire drawing aren’t all it uses to back up product claims; instead, it has invested in materials testing facilities: not only equipment, but also skills. “With the kind of components we’re supplying, we can’t mess about. With this in mind, we have spent £100,000 on new equipment to include six lab furnaces, plus microscopes (down to 1,000x) and macro imaging equipment, complementing a wide array of mechanical testing equipment.

In fact, so interested is the company in testing that when customers occasionally ask for a third-party test, it will run its own internal tests to make sure they are accurate.

In the past, over-reliance on sub-contractors has slowed the company down, but, with the additional equipment, turnaround times for test results are being reduced.

The knowledge base at AWI is very important, with a blend of “on-the-job” and theory-based learning helping boost staff expertise. To reinforce this, it has recently taken on another member of staff who is a materials science graduate from Sheffield University.

“With this experience and knowledge in our specific product line, we sometimes find that we know more about testing than the actual test houses, because they haven’t experienced the range of materials or products that we have. In short, testing is a massive part of the business in securing orders.”

Ironically, the unusual market conditions have strengthened demand for one of the least advanced materials: stainless steel. Venables thinks that is because it is becoming more difficult to get stainless alloys. He observes: “Some alloys are quite rare; not many people have got them, which puts us in a strong position.”