Vickers Oils started trading in Leeds in 1828 and remains a private, independent company. From beginnings in supplying oil for the woollen textile industry, the company added marine lubricants in the 1880 and built up an export business that now accounts for almost all its output.
The Vickers family has sought to allow its values and beliefs to steer the way it runs the business, which has meant prioritising decency, honesty and fairness over and above rapid profit seeking. Vickers Oils has developed valued products as well as enduring trust and respect with both workforce and customers, gaining a worldwide reputation in the process.
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In 1808, Mary Randall Vickers was left a widow with eight children to raise. She continued the family business or making pattens – wood and metal contraptions to put over ladies’ shoes to raise them above filthy streets.
Mary was soon persuaded to go into partnership with a maker of machines for the patten trade. They invested in a steam engine – a bold entrepreneurial move. However, Mary’s Methodist values of honesty, loyalty and kindness were not reciprocated and it was only when her son Benjamin Randall Vickers came to work with her that her fortunes changed. From 1819, “Mary Vickers & Son” was one of very few formal businesses headed by a woman.
After his mother’s death in 1826, a significant downturn in trade meant that Benjamin had to find new ways to earn a living. Starting in 1828, an agency for oils and soaps expanded into other products, though new lines were rarely a great commercial success. It was not until the late 1850’s that oil manufacturing and refining began, supplying both textile and leather manufacturers. His son, Benjamin Threlfall, joined the business, followed by his younger son, and the two generations worked together until the founder retired in the 1870s.
Olive oil had been the standard product to prepare wool for cloth manufacturing, but its tendency to spontaneously combust during hot weather was a distinct disadvantage. Now the brothers, growing in understanding of their trade and documenting their experimentation, turned to a safer oil derived from a by-product of candle-making. After they developed a test for combustibility, insurance companies specified that only oils passing this test were acceptable in the factories they insured, thus strengthening the market for these new products. ‘Heavy Wool Oil’ was a brand in production for decades.
A sea voyage to America in 1882 to sell this wool grease led Benjamin Threlfall to an insight about improving the lubrication of ships’ propellers: Vickers invented an oil that would work even in contact with sea water. The development of New Engine Oil (NEO) was the forerunner of todays world leading HYDROX BIO grades. This niche market has been retained an expanded.
In the early twentieth century, William Farrar, a third generation Vickers, entered the business. Assimilating his father’s copious technical notes, he eventually created a Technical Service Department, backed with laboratory expertise and including university research. The widely adopted ‘emulsion oiling’ of wool was a significant output. At last the firm was on a firmer commercial footing and in 1913 Vickers became a limited company.
Growing in technical expertise and reputation, Farrar was also a pioneer as an employer, bringing in exemplary reforms such as paid holidays and a canteen. Fully aware of the novelty of this was of thinking, and acting on what he considered to be divine guidance, he was also concerned to create jobs and develop the potential of his staff. He was repaid with dedicated service instead of the industrial unrest more typical of the times.
Farrar’s sons, John and David came into the business in the mid-20th century and build up international trade. From the 1960s, worldwide expansion in manufacturing man-made fibres gave Vickers opportunities to formulate oils for these new processes.
Peter, a fifth generation Vickers, resolved both to continue the firm’s traditions and make his own mark. In 2002, after nine years of experimentation, the world’s first biodegradable sterntube lubricants were marketed.
This globally successful firm still operates at Airedale Mills in Hunslet, Leeds, the first part of which was acquired in the 1870s. Eventually all elements of the business were consolidated here and periodic investments continue to enhance efficiency, working conditions and environmental performance. The latest upgrades to the site include measures to cut energy consumption and to use renewable energy. Stewardship of the family firm goes hand in hand with stewardship of the environment.
Committed to both this historic location and to the experienced workforce, Vickers has never considered relocating. As Peter’s grandfather said, “we have held to our principles which were never made secondary to immediate gain” (Vickers, 1954, p.23). It is somehow fitting that a firm specialising in lubricants should have a business style that prioritises smooth running in the long term.
The above text was written by Rachael Unsworth for her book entitled Leeds: Cradle of Innovation, published in 2018