James Walker Group puts people at the heart of amazing engineering. Its engineering solutions range from critical oil-rig components to flange management; from noise and vibration damping on railway tracks worldwide to cricket balls. Much of the group’s industry-leading technology never gets seen – lying sub-sea, underground or embedded within essential infrastructure – but this Surrey-based company enjoys its proud heritage of resolving the challenges and underpinning the operations of its customers, and ultimately the needs of everyday global users. Peter Needham admits that he’s a very proud James Walker Group chairman and chief executive. ‘There’s no better job in the world, we have the most fantastic company’.
Self-funded, its operations are financially healthy. Peter Needham sleeps well and wakes invigorated at “the massive opportunities to take our products worldwide.” But, most of all, writes John Burbedge, you feel he is content because he knows his staff are happy and enjoying their work too.
The James Walker Group seems to have achieved a much-prized corporate model – modern product development, manufacturing and service operations allied with a ‘one team’ traditional family-business culture.
“When I joined 20-odd years ago I was told ‘There’s something special about this business’ and I have learned that’s true. It’s our people, products and culture.
“We have a unique heritage that traces the evolution of our current business to the entrepreneurial engineering spirit of our founders. We continue to put people at the heart of amazing engineering,” he explains. The company’s values and ethos – enshrined within just 15 words – are central to the way it does business, within both its external and internal relationships.“
James Walker’s culture appears supportive, empowering, motivational and noticeably friendly – from an active head office reception area offering cakes to support charitable fundraising through to its company AGMs: “Ours have the atmosphere of family reunions.”
Employee engagement is highlighted by the internal development of innovative products, high-performance manufacturing and customer satisfaction standards – and by longevity of company service. “I am honoured to regularly attend presentations where 40 years service is recognised.”
“One of our greatest challenges is keeping the business modern while retaining our people values.”
Effective communication is cascaded throughout the company; senior managers ‘walk the talk’ (Every year, Peter Needham visits almost all the company’s locations worldwide).
With engineering graduates scarce, James Walker has developed practical educational relationships with the academic world, and also has its own internal training department upskilling and honing staff abilities. “We build technology and technologists.”
Although ‘change for better’ is one of the five corporate values*, James Walker’s change tends to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Even so, highly developed e-commerce systems and logistics operations today help the company’s customers to receive top 21st century service.
Equally, the company’s operations continue to evolve to assist its customers’ objectives and to tackle new markets such as the Middle East and bio-pharm sector.
Retention of IP and standards through selective patents remains crucial, as does decision-making about the use of low-cost manufacturing and niche engineering facilities, research and customer service budgets within the James Walker family of companies. EU austerity, reduced gas and oil exploration, and international currency difficulties have also all provided recent challenges.
Over the years, staff pride and interest in pioneering world-leading materials technology and sealing product development using elastomers, polymers, metals, composites and plastics, has obviously driven the company’s success.
“Others can put ingredients into a cake tin, but do they know the recipe and how to bake a special cake?” says James Walker’s ninth chairman since the 1880s. A recent customer testimonial described the Group as “understanding the DNA of sealing.”
That mastery of materials technology and sealing products enables great potential diversity for the company’s B2B offering – but is a twin-edged sword. Diversification can overstretch a company, although it’s helpful when markets shrink.
Wisely, James Walker trades predominantly to its strengths in the rail transportation industry and the supply of high performance sealing products for the oil and gas, power, marine, and metallurgical sectors. Long-forged industry reputation and relationships plus long-term contracts help ensure stability.
“We are a small player in a massive marketplace,” Peter Needham says, rather too modestly. The James Walker Group is actually a big player in its specialist fields. It’s only the size of its potential global market that makes the company look small.
* The James Walker Group’s corporate values – captured in 15 key words:
- Build great relationships
- Know your stuff
- Make a difference
- Get things done
- Change for better
TV 250 SPOTLIGHT
TV 250 Number 17: James Walker Group
Scale: £200 million approx turnover, 100% B2B
Scope: Global manufacturing organisation, specialising in materials engineering technology applications, notably high-performance sealing products and rail fixing systems
Staff: 2,140; Thames Valley 50
HQ: Lion House, Woking, where the company relocated in 1925
Locations: UK (11 production, engineering, distribution and customer support sites); 40 across continental Europe, Australasia, South Africa, and the Americas
Founded: 1882 in London by James Walker