MADE IN SHEFFIELD: Brass Founders is ageing beautifully
Where there's Brass Founders there's muck, dust and flames - and bollards, benches and Walk of Fame plaques.
The Burngreave firm helps give Sheffield city centre its character, it made 100 pieces of ‘street furniture’ including the giant pebbles in Tudor Square and all the pavement-set plaques outside the town hall celebrating Sheffield heroes such as Jess Ennis.
The company, founded by the Buxton family in 1919, was bought by Europa Engineering in 2005. Today it employs 17, at Gower Works on Carlisle Street, casting products in brass, bronze, aluminium, cast iron and ‘white metal’, a mix of tin and lead.
Owner Paul Cheetham said: “It’s exciting, actually making something is a very rewarding aspect of this job. It’s a tough, harsh and traditional job done by Sheffield hard men.”
Brass is 80 per cent of business but it doesn’t come cheap, it is more than twice the price of steel. And the foundry business is in decline, partly due to mass-produced competition from China.
But bosses have turned the situation to their advantage.
In recent years Brass Founders has snapped up the assets, and in some cases people, of rivals that have gone bust including J Youle & Co of Rotherham in 2012, the foundry business of Thos Broadbent in Huddersfield and JT Barker and Sons in Leeds.
Combined with expertise in managing businesses in decline, and the backing of the wider Europa Engineering group, the firm is going strong.
Paul added: “We are focusing on bespoke, that’s how we will survive. One of these days we will be the last chip shop in town and we can charge what we like.
“People are busy fools a lot of the time. I have a good eye for that, not to make people redundant but to refocus them. Once people have gone and become a happy greeter at B&Q you can’t get them back.
“You have to bring heart to the business. People feed off that, employees like to feel you have the passion.”
As with so many Sheffield manufacturing firms a humble exterior gives no hint of the drama inside.
But the shop floor is a hive of activity where crucibles are heated with blow torches, as electric furnaces melt up to a tonne of brass. Nearby, Allan Robinson is pouring molten aluminium into sand moulds. And just yards away several men are using grinders to ‘fettle’ sharp edges off finished casts.
Managing director Paul Beckett, aged 30, said left a career in accountancy to become boss.
He said: “Even now, after two years, watching 800 kilos of molten brass being poured from a ladle into a mould, while the foundrymen speak their own language, is brilliant.”
Paul’s daughter Ella Cheetham, aged 18, is the group’s business development manager.
She said: “Among my friends there’s only me that wears steel toe cap boots.
“I’m the one per cent in my school who didn’t go to university, but working in an office doesn’t appeal. I think my friends are a little bit jealous.
“And I like driving round Sheffield thinking ‘we made that’.”
As well as weathering beautifully, brass has many useful properties.
It doesn’t rust, it’s anti-spark, anti-bacterial and anti-magnetic and used in mines, oil rigs, ships and hospitals.
A century old next year, Brass Founders is still busy burnishing its reputation.
HOW THE SHEFFIELD NAME ADDS PRESTIGE
Swiss watch, Sheffield steel - and engineering and manufacturing.
Some places become associated with making certain things by being really good at it for a long time.
Paul Cheetham, owner of Europa Engineering, of which Brass Founders is a member, says a ‘Made in Sheffield’ licence adds prestige.
He said: “Our Japanese customers have an impression of Sheffield from textbooks and feel like they are buying a quality product. Thanks to the Made in Sheffield organisation we can justify that prestige, a bit like buying a Swiss watch.
“It helps people make a choice between two similar products.”