Keith Thompson

Member Article

40 years in the Express Lane

At the beginning of 1973, frustrated at work after 25 years with the same company, Keith Thompson put his family’s future on the line, remortgaged his home and launched his own business.

Within 12 months, Britain was working a three day week as a series of strikes brought down the Conservative government, which had introduced wage caps to stem runaway inflation.

But Keith Thompson’s company had survived, growing to employ five people. First year turnover reached £30,000, generated by the manufacture of jigs and tools for leading local industries such as Black and Decker, Eveready and Wilkinson Sword.

While those manufacturing businesses have long since gone from the region, the venture Keith launched – Express Engineering – is still going strong and is now just part of a portfolio of family run firms developed by his son Chris Thompson, which last year turned over in excess of £60 million and employed around 800 people.

Recalling those early days, Keith, now 83, said: “It was a struggle but we came through. I remember contacting the Department of Trade – with my customers’ backing – making the case that we were providing an essential service and should be allowed to work more. We were granted dispensation and we worked seven days a week while our competitors worked three.

“However, although we were busy, finding new work was always a challenge. My wife Olwyn, who was a medical secretary, would spend evenings and weekends providing administrative support so I could generate work. I could not have done it without her.

“Chris’ input has also been invaluable because he was the driving force behind our ability to adapt to new technologies and work in a rapidly changing market. In the early days all our customers were local. Since he took charge this has been turned completely on its head. Now they are spread all around the world. We have only really one local customer.”

Stand out moments for Keith, who relinquished control of the businesses to Chris in the early 1990s, include the opening of the Express Engineering factory in Kingsway by HRH Prince Charles in February 1988. He says: “It was a great day but I forgot to ask him to unveil the plaque. He had to remind me.”

At the end of that same year Express Engineering became the smallest ever business to win the British Quality Award – sharing the honour with Sony – and in 1990, Keith was awarded the MBE for services to British Industry.

The secret behind this success was, he says, simple. Ploughing every penny of profit back into the business for the first 20 years – particularly into new technologies, which have proved so crucial in winning new work. Still, the manufacturing companies in the Thompson portfolio invest around 25% of turnover in development.

Today Keith still pops in to visit the office quite regularly: “I enjoy seeing and meeting people in the business especially in this 40th anniversary year,” he added: “Most of our senior managers and directors began as apprentices and so we have been through a lot together. Reaching this milestone with such a healthy outlook for the future has given me a great deal of pleasure.”

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Paul Dobbie .

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