With the help of Jon Phillips, Head of Product Management at Baxi, Professional Builder tracks the 150 year fortunes of a former railway wagon manufacturer to its present status as one of the foremost names in domestic and commercial heating.
There must be something quite literally in the water in the Lancashire town of Preston. Not content with having the world’s most famous plumber as one of their own, the locals have recently been celebrating the birthday of what is generally considered to be UK’ s most enduring heating company.
It’s somewhat forgotten in this age of multi-millionaire sportsmen, but long before he was wowing football fans with his wing wizardry, Tom Finney was a time-served apprentice with his family’s plumbing business, and could often be found with blowtorch in hand long into his record breaking career on the football pitch with Preston North End and England.
Little did he know then, but by the 1990’s the shirt he wore to such dazzling effect on more than 500 occasions would bear the name of a company which perfectly combined those two great passions.
Like Tom, Richard Baxendale was very much a local man of his time and in 1866 he began manufacturing railway wagons and their wood, iron steel and brass components. He set up shop with partner Joseph Heald in the appropriately named Steely Lane, Chorley south of Preston.
Within a decade, Baxendale and Heald had supplied 30,000 wagons. However, in 1873 Britain was hit by a protracted, crippling depression and railway companies were forced to lay off staff. As a result, the railway business stalled over time and the Baxendale/Heald partnership was dissolved by mutual consent in 1879.
But Baxendale was nothing if not determined. By 1881 he was back in business, manufacturing brass and iron castings at the Albert Street foundry, the former Atlas works in Chorley.
By now the company was trading as Richard Baxendale and Sons; Engineers and Millwrights and Machinists. The company began manufacturing cast iron ranges, as ironically, the wide scale introduction of the railways meant the costs of transporting heavy goods were dramatically reduced.
In 1898, at the age of 73, Richard retired and handed the business on to his sons, George and Thomas. However, by the outbreak of World War I all three had tragically died and the business passed to George’s two sons, Richard and John.
The first product to bear the Baxi name – an underfloor draught system for solid fuel heating called the “Patent Fire” – was launched in 1935, although it had curious beginnings.
One day, John Baxendale watched his maid struggling to clean out ashes from the fireplace with an ash spoon in the form of a salamander, and that prompted him to design a simpler kind of grate that would be easy to clean and maintain.
He came up with a revolutionary idea for that grate in which the burning could be regulated with a controlled draught to keep the fire burning continuously and efficiently.
The fire took its combustion air from underneath the floor space, or from outside the house, the amount admitted being controlled by a lever. This clever arrangement resulted in more reactive burning, which allowed all the fuel to be burned to dust.
That in turn meant the high capacity, easily removable ash box only had to be cleaned once a week. On top of this, by drawing its air supply from under the floorboards, the grate on the Baxi Patent Fire could be positioned at floor level for easier, more convenient cleaning.
During the Second World War, Richard Baxendale and Sons fulfilled munitions contracts for the Ministry of Supply, produced parts for Leyland Motors, and became a limited company.
John Baxendale’s son Philip was appointed general manager in 1949 and took over at an auspicious time – the consumer boom of the mid-fifties, based around a strong housing sector. Demand for the underfloor draught fire was exceptionally strong and, by 1955, Baxi had become a household name in heating.
However the Clean Air Act, which became law in 1956, heralded a decline in solid fuel and the heating sector responded in the early 60s by developing more innovative gas products.
In fact, Philip’s company pioneered the first warm air central heating system in 1963. As it celebrated its centenary in 1966, the company launched the Baxi Bermuda, described as a conventional living room gas fire, with a back boiler small enough to fit the average heath, yet with an output sufficient to heat several radiators.
This ground-breaking product took the market by storm. So much so that the workforce rocketed from 55 in 1949 to more than 700 by 1970.
Philip Baxendale sold the business to the workforce at a fraction of its worth in 1983, thus creating the largest partnership of its kind in the country. Taking the company into employee trust ownership was designed to enable employees to share in wealth creation, participation and fulfilment from working in the company of their fellow owners.
By 1988 the majority of Baxi business was in boilers and space heating, although it continued to manufacture fireplaces. A year later the Baxi Solo was unveiled, a wall hung cast iron boiler that could be lifted by one man during installation.
In October 1999, Baxi went on the acquisition trail, buying the heating division of Blue Circle and Potterton, Myson Radiators, Chapee in France and Valor Fires. Heatrae Sadia and Santon joined Baxi from Newmond in 2001.
The business saw another major reorganisation when Baxi group merged with Remeha and De Dietrich to form BDR Thermea in 2010, one of the largest boiler manufacturers in the world.
The Introduction of the EcoBlue range in 2014 was a landmark in production innovation. The range of wall hung boilers was designed based on feedback from installers and end users across the country as to what they wanted from a boiler. Numerous field trials ensured the EcoBlue was both highly reliable and efficient.
Today, Baxi – which employs almost 1,600 people in the UK – continues to build on its long and distinguished history.
It has a factory in Preston, close to where the company began 150 years ago, with its own aluminium foundry and paint shop and manufactures more than seven million components each year, both for boilers it manufactures for the UK market and its sister companies in Europe.
Having been awarded the Queens Award for enterprise in innovation in 2012 for the Ecogen Micro-CHP boiler, Baxi continues to innovate with more efficient tailored products in a pipeline which looks set to continue flowing profusely for the next 150 years!
For more information visit Baxi’s website.