Breaking the mould

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If straight talking is a virtue, Mark Harwood deserves the status of a saint.

He talks about the many highs – and occasional lows – the plastics injection moulding specialist and toolmaker Barkley Plastics has been through in its 55-year-old history, but when we turn to what lies ahead, the boss and owner of the family firm is in no mood to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.

“Am I optimistic about the future? Well, I would be if the national living wage wasn’t always creeping up. It hammers us, as it has a knock-on effect throughout the factory.

“And we’ve also got the repercussions of being located in a proposed clean air zone. These two factors are going to present serious challenges so if you ask me if I am confident for the future, I am not going to lie – it’s going to be tough.”

This exchange is just a snippet of our chat in the firm’s offices in Highgate and this was the only negative tint to a largely positive discussion about Barkley Plastics, a firmly established and highly respected name amidst the Birmingham manufacturing fraternity.

We are accompanied by Mark’s son and the firm’s business development manager, Matt, who joined the family operation 10 years ago this year. The two Harwoods, along with fellow director Peter Tedd, preside over a company which is turning over £7 million – “we’ve been at that level for a while,” admits Matt – and manufactures from 40 hi-tech moulding machines which produce millions of units for the automotive and consumer goods industries.

An average of £200,000 a year is invested in updating the machines (they are never more than 15 years old) and staff levels have risen steadily through the years. In many respects, not much of the original formula has changed since the company was formed in the 1960s – “same precision tools, same lasting high quality,” says Mark. Much of this revolves around the automotive industry with the majority of parts they produce ending up in Nissan, Mini and JLR vehicles.

This continues the legacy started by making Jaguar E-Type lenses, the light covers on the back of the cars, more than 50 years ago. Flashing beacons and interior components are still made for many car makers, not to mention door handles for JLR and rear lamp items for Nissan.

A speciality is light guides, which are installed in many new cars to create ambient lighting. “We are producing exterior and interior lighting units for the 300,000-plus Qashqais made each year and around the same number of steering column components for Mini,” confirms Matt. “Furthermore, we are doing a lot of retail and medical-related tooling and moulding at the moment. Items to help with deep vein thrombosis, and components for Vileda mops and cleaning products are two such examples. “We also provide Honeywell with various electrical security items. We are capable of making almost anything for any industry but the automotive sector has always been and remains our biggest market.”

Barkley Plastics is in many ways an old-fashioned Birmingham manufacturing powerhouse. People continue to assemble and inspect the components off the machines provided by state-of-the-art robots and staff clock in and out of their shift as they always have. And the mood on the factory floor is good, with apprentices being shown the ropes by experienced hands and many of the machines in full throttle. There are 126 members of staff on the payroll, and men and women over a wide age range operate the machines and assembly stations.

Even most of the flooring we walk over was made by the firm – PVC tiles called Plasfloor. “We are primarily a sub-contractor making our customers’ products but we do diversify into our own innovations,” explains Matt. It is accurate to point out that the thriving operation we see today in this corner of Birmingham can be attributed to an advert in the local paper back in the early 1960s. It was then, in 1963, that Mark’s father, Maurice Harwood, along with three others, answered an appeal placed by local entrepreneur John Barkley for local tool makers.

Mark takes up the story. “The three of them were doing a lot of moonlighting while working at Lucas. John Barkley, who didn’t know anything about engineering but saw a bright future for plastics, put out the ad for tool makers. They knew how to do that. “The company was incorporated in 1965 and at the time was based in Hallam Street in Balsall Heath.

“My dad and the other three were told that a milling machine, a grinder and other bits of equipment were needed so they started making their own tools. Wheels for shopping trolleys of the sort used by the elderly were the first items made.

“A couple of years after the company was incorporated, John Barkley passed away so my father and his three colleagues from Lucas got together and bought Mrs Barkley out; they kept the same name because it was at the top of the telephone directory. The firm upsized to our premises here in 1968.”

Many incarnations and investment decisions later, Barkley Plastics now boasts an 85,000 sq ft facility full of plastic injection moulding machinery that is working 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, while the dedicated tool room is also flourishing with a series of new projects in the pipeline. The factory has seen some famous products go through its shop floor, including the iconic 70s Homepride Flour Men, the Big Yellow Teapot for bluebird toys, paintball products, skateboard wheels and parts for the Raleigh bike.

Barkley Plastics’ five decades in business have certainly been eventful, covering the automotive boom of the 1970s and MG Rover going under to the global recession of 2009 and the subsequent reshoring phenomenon. In the 1980s the company set up another factory in Nechells which was purpose built to make more of the same products to come out of Highgate. “Unfortunately, overheads were killing it,” remembers Mark, who joined the firm in 1978. “It only lasted about 10 years and then we brought over all the machines and expanded the Highgate part of the business.”

Another milestone in Barkley’s history has been its involvement in the Midlands Assembly Network, a group of nine sub-contract manufacturers that work together to win work at home and abroad. The company was a founder member of the unique collective and has benefitted hugely from sharing best practice, learning about new processes and collaborating on apprentice training programmes. Barkley is now owned in its entirety by the Harwood family. Maurice had bought his partners out and after he passed away, Mark and his mother became the shareholders.

Mark, who is 58, aims to “semi retire” when he is 60. “I am trying to build a team for the next five years as part of a succession plan,” he says. “Matt and other team members will be directors and Peter will become managing director. I will chair the company.” Which brings us back to those dark clouds – statutory wage increases and the tax demands for operating in a clean air zone, whilst trying to remain competitive to a demanding customer base. As far as Brexit is concerned “there’s no point discussing it because no one knows what’s going to happen.”

He adds: “We’re still getting lots of work in and we’re still investing for the future. Defence is a sector we are looking at very closely.” As far as Barkley is concerned, Mark is happy to deflect the fact that plastics is something of a dirty word with the ocean-polluting issue at the forefront of the environmental agenda. “What we produce is not disposable packaging. This is very much a focus. In fact, we are developing new bio-degradable plastics and we are actually working with a company to produce ecofriendly packaging for dishwasher tablets.” And what else does the future hold? “We are looking to develop more cutting-edge engineering over the next five years. We have developed specialist processes which very few moulders in the UK, let alone in the Midlands, have.”

Suddenly the future is looking bright again. Barkley Plastics has evolved with demands before and it looks set do so again.