Professional Builder headed to North Yorkshire to catch up with Wetherby Group.
It’s an increasingly rare treat these days to meet up with someone who recalls a close encounter or two with Professional Builder’s legendary original product tester, Charles Godfrey, who loved nothing more than getting hands on with fledgling businesses and putting their latest trade offerings to the test.
One such company that fitted the bill perfectly was Wetherby Building Products, whose founder, John Chalmers was in robust health and reflective mood when we paid a long overdue return visit to the company’s impressive new 15 acre manufacturing plant and HQ on the outskirts of Thirsk.
“[Charles was a] lovely man, really passionate about the building industry and was certainly instrumental through his report in helping bring our early Wethertex Render systems to the attention of plasterers. I recall he also had a fondness for a single malt which, as a born and bred Scotsman, I agree is certainly no bad thing,” says John.
By that time back in 1985, former RAF serviceman John had been going it alone for the best part of 10 years, starting out of his own garage in Wetherby.
“I was a time-served stonemason when I was called up for national service and stayed on for another 14 years, but by my mid-thirties I was getting a bit restless and wanted to do something on my own. With an interest in all things stone and always having a tool bag on hand, it seemed natural to get involved in some form of property renovation and improvement.
“At that time, stone cladding was very much in its infancy, and generally of pretty poor quality, so with my trade background, and new location in the heart of natural stone country, I sensed an opportunity to set up my own business. For weeks, I beavered away in the garage, experimenting with different mixes and moulds to produce something that would look the part. A small ad in a local newspaper resulted in a number of leads and very quickly I had a full order book, both manufacturing the product and installing it across the region.”
With a salesman and a team of tradesmen out on the road, it wasn’t long before John decided to take a back seat from the day-to-day contracting work and put his inquisitive mind to coming up with other ways of protecting and enhancing the exteriors of properties for longer.
“If I’m totally honest, stone cladding was really a means to an end. It got the business up and running but I knew we had to look at other products which would enable builders to offer alternative home renovation solutions.
“I was aware that across Europe, rendered properties were very popular and applied professionally, offered the dual benefits of good looks with added protection from the elements. I travelled to France a fair bit in the late seventies and eventually took on a licence with Goodyear to import the Pliolite resin-based textured coatings into the UK. In fact, it is still a fundamental ingredient within many of our present day products.
“As pioneers of polymer renders in this country we subsequently spent a lot of time working on formulations to make their application as easy as possible for the plastering and decorating trade. It was something Charles picked up on when he came to try our Wethertex render powders, commenting on its high quality and ease of use, by both roller and trowel.”
At the time, Charles predicted the company was clearly going places and he was more right than he could have known. Outgrowing the original site, the company moved to larger premises in Ripon in the early 90s to accommodate what was by now an extensive range of performance coatings including waterproofers and masonry paints.
“Competition by then was pretty fierce,” says John. “There were more and more companies getting involved in the building chemical market and it was important for us as a smaller independent family business to stay one step ahead. The experience and practical knowledge gained in those formative years certainly came to the fore. A lot of our competitors found it difficult to match our levels of innovation in renders, which by now incorporated different polymers, resins and even glass fibres.”
By 2005, with the business enjoying a cutting edge reputation and himself approaching retirement age, John took the decision to sell off a large chunk of the company to a leading construction brand. Whilst it provided well deserved financial security, there was no question of him looking to spend more time following his other lifetime passion – flying.
“My son Alex had been involved in the business since he was eight years old and I really didn’t want to head off into the sunset and leave him in something of a career limbo. I still felt there was unfinished business in terms of a new generation of renders in particular and Alex was equally passionate that the Wetherby legacy would continue into a third generation with his own family.
Alex takes up the story: “Having been brought up with building products, in all their forms, all my life, and having worked in every area of the factory and business, I shared my dad’s passion for innovation and I went away and investigated various formulations and products to develop a new range of renders fit for the demands of modern times. I went to Europe, where coloured renders appeared to be gaining a foothold and returned to Yorkshire to try and develop our own systems. I’m no chemist and I certainly got some interesting looks when I donned a white coat in the lab, but gradually, through consultation, practical experience and with other experts in their field, a new product range and a plan came together and in 2015 we were ready to launch LaRoc as part of the Wetherby group.”
He adds: “Ecorend is a range of coloured rendered systems which will guard against extreme weather conditions, frost and sun during the lifetime of the building. They are formulated using the most advanced raw materials and have been tested both in our own purpose-built testing lab and to European standards. They are designed to perform on all manner of substrates and offer a variety of different finishes. Basically there are two types of render on the market, through-coloured and thin coat with key factors like waterproofing, breathability, flexibility and time to apply.”
After over 10 years of progress and hard work full production began in 2018 following a four million pound investment in a new purpose-built facility which incorporates the first fully waterproof render bagging process in the UK. The branding is pretty eye catching, as well as being informative, and is backed up with instructive how-to guides and full technical support at the end of the line.
Alex explains: “In many respects, the launch of ecorend is the culmination of more than 45 years of pioneering work in the development of renders which, in the UK in particular, we believe still have tremendous untapped potential. To this end, we have secured an arrangement with a local training establishment to run two-day courses for anyone who wants to get more involved in the application of render.
“We have had a lot of interest from the new build sector where it’s easy to differentiate properties with a coloured render and, of course, in the domestic renovation market it’s a very cost-effective way of enhancing, protecting and insulating homes for the foreseeable future. We are also aware of a growing trend towards spray application on smaller projects and how this will impact the market going forward. In fact, we are confident we can double the business in the next five years with what we have in place now,” says Alex.
More immediately, in terms of product development, the company is keeping its powder dry, but 2019 will see a new render offering for a variety of different surfaces which promises to shake up traditional offerings and which will complement the launch of its Opti life silicone technology paints launched recently.
For the ex-RAF man who pretty much launched his business on a wing and a prayer more than 40 years ago, it seems the sky really is the limit for what this company can go on to achieve in the coming decades.