Down to earth

The name JCB is synonymous with the bright yellow excavators and lifters it manufactures. Chairman Sir Anthony Bamford tells Tim Rich a common sense approach to product design is vital to success

JCB may be founded on the earthy business of diggers and dumpers, but it has received more than 50 major design and business awards over the last 30 years, including this year’s Design Week Award for Product Design, and Silver in the Product Design section of the British Design and Art Direction Awards. The company stands as a shining example of what British manufacturing and engineering can do, given intelligent stewardship. It is also a demonstration of how design can be embraced to drive profits and reach new markets.

JCB is today led by Sir Anthony Bamford, who succeeded his father, Joseph Cyril Bamford CBE, as chairman and managing director in 1975. Mr JCB, as staff call Bamford senior, founded the company in 1945 having been fired from the family’s agricultural machinery business by his father. Sir Anthony, in his early 50s, has excelled in his role. According to The Sunday Times, a fortune of 1300m makes him and the Bamford family the equal eighth wealthiest in the UK.

Our conversation takes place in his industrial-size office, which looks across the lake and landscaped lawns surrounding JCB’s enormous main site in Rocester, Staffordshire. His accent is more Garrick Club than garage, but it is soon evident that he is every bit the engineer. From an early age he spent a lot of time with his father and, as a result, picked up a strong design and engineering sense. His career proper started in 1962 with a two-year apprenticeship at Massey Ferguson in France. He then joined the family business on the factory floor.

Bamford’s views on design are as practical and down to earth as one of the backhoe loaders thundering off the production line downstairs. “The whole thing about design, as far as I’m concerned, is that the product has to suit the customer’s needs. The customer might not even know what his needs are, which is where design comes in,” he says. “Product and design are indivisible, certainly in our case.” He later adds: “Our whole business is based on products, which I think is quite different to lots of other British businesses.”

Those products span three enormous markets: construction, agriculture and industry. JCB makes a range of powerful and exceptionally strong diggers, dumpers and lifters, most appearing in the company’s trademark bright yellow – although they’re happy to paint them whatever colour the client wants.

For those aficionados of plant machinery apt to stop by building sites or factories to watch the giant Tonka toys doing their stuff, we’re talking excavators, mini excavators, telescopic handlers, wheeled loaders, rough terrain forklifts and skid steers. Then there are the backhoe loaders (what most people refer to as “a JCB”, and 45 per cent of the company’s output); the Fastrac, an extraordinarily powerful tractor capable of reaching on-road speeds of 50mph (exceptionally useful for farmers with widely dispersed farms or fields); the JCB Robot Skid Steer, a revolutionary single arm vehicle that allows side access to the cab rather than an awkward and potentially dangerous clamber over the front bucket; and the Teletruk, the product that has tickled awards juries and could potentially redefine the gigantic forklift market by using a forward reach telescopic boom that reaches areas normal forklifts can’t.

The obsession with products at JCB is driven, along with engineers’ pride, by a commercial imperative. Its worldwide competitors, led by the giant $19bn (11.5bn) turnover Caterpillar, include four mega-companies with massive financial and industrial clout. In contrast, JCB, which is still privately owned by the Bamford family and has been grown without major acquisitions, recorded turnover in 1997 of 773.5m.

Bamford has no time for playing the little guy. “I am very motivated by the fact that you can go out of business… There has always been somebody around who is going to put us out of business. Some of them aren’t here today, but we are. As to people putting you out of business because they are giants, I’m not sure it works that way. There is always a place for people who are very good at what they do.” Hence JCB’s strategy of focusing on its key strengths in specific product categories and thus its ability to claim world leadership in certain sectors, including backhoe loaders and Loadalls.

In recent times, the company’s culture of innovation has been turbo-charged by a profound reorganisation. This created a micro-JCB company for every one of the key product sectors, each with its own MD, chief engineer and design, marketing and production teams. Bamford says it was motivated by the need to promote a greater feeling of ownership among staff and by the need to get several inventive new products to market at the same time. Take the Teletruk: “I did a mock-up of that product 20 years ago. We got hold of an old truck in the factory, we cut it up, moved the cabin and played around with it. But for 20 years we did nothing with it. If we had had the individual businesses would we have done it quicker? Yes, I think we probably would.”

JCB’s use of in-house industrial designers throughout the company has been the focus of attention recently, but there is also a belief in embracing external experts. “If a man is a bloody good structural engineer, well it’s pretty good to be that,” says Bamford. “Why should he presume to think that he could design a seat? Why not go to an expert in seats?”

Reorganisation and dynamic management have brought impressive financial performance. Although 1997 profits were down to 80.3m from the 1996 level of 100.3m (the strong pound being the main cause), the overall growth trend at JCB is very much up.

The product range has tripled in size in five years, from a basic range of 30 products to 93. In 1997, 76 per cent of the company’s products were exported, and attention is now being given to creation of a major overseas manufacturing operation in the US, due to be operational by mid-1999. The US factory will join Escorts JCB, a joint manufacturing venture in India, as the company’s only manufacturing operations outside the UK.

Growth has also come in the form of brand extensions. There are toys and collectors’ models and Debenhams is selling a range of JCB-branded clothing in 53 stores. Bamford admires Caterpillar’s success in footwear and clothing and he’s excited by the JCB collections, but he’s not a natural when it comes to the mwa-mwa world of fashion. “Our people here are dedicated to selling yellow machines. When it comes to boots and T-shirts I guess most of them think it’s a bit of a nancy thing to do.” This is the engineer talking rather than the businessman. There are, however, a host of potential brand extensions that would sit more comfortably with JCB culture; industrial-strength DIY tools, for example.

This is the one blot on JCB’s otherwise immaculate business record; surely the company should be further advanced in maximising its brand equity? But then perhaps that is missing the point. Perhaps JCB is successful because it has refused to be distracted from its core skills?

Whatever, one project that certainly deserves attention now is the creation of a JCB museum. The company has hundreds of products from the last 53 years’ business. The public interest would be enormous, the educational effect on children generally ignorant of manufacturing is much needed and it would represent a living symbol of a British company’s ability to thrive in a tough worldwide market. “Yes, I think we’ll get round to it,” laughs Bamford, “but engineers are not that interested in what they did, they are interested in tomorrow. I used to go to see Mr Ferrari quite a lot. I used to buy old competition cars from him and he said ‘I don’t know why you’re interested in all this stuff; I’m interested in tomorrow’s Grand Prix and tomorrow’s production cars.’ I know my father has no sentiment for things he did years ago. His interest is in what we are doing tomorrow.”

Thanks to Bamford’s adroit leadership, that tomorrow looks exceptionally bright, and customer-led design will be playing a vital role. Product innovation has long had a powerful commercial function within JCB and, in the face of growth-hungry competitors, it is needed now more than ever. “We are not trying to do clever design just for the sake of it,” says Bamford. “We just want to do what’s best for our customers.” It sounds simple, but it’s common sense that many other British manufacturers fatally forgot.

JCB Company history

1945 Joseph Cyril Bamford makes a screw-tipping trailer with a 1 welding set; sells trailer at market for 41948 First JCB machine to use hydraulics

1953 New factory at Rocester operational

1964 First export to US

1975 JC Bamford retires, Sir Anthony Bamford takes over as chairman and managing director

1979 Escorts JCB created in India

1984 First Design Council Award, for the 3CX

1988 Wins Management Today’s Britain’s Best Factories award

1995 JCB Special Products division launched, focusing on small machines. Company now has nine subsidiaries and seven factories

1997 Company wins two Queen’s Awards for Export Achievement

1998 Awards from Design Week and D&AD for Teletruk take company’s awards list to well over 50. Turnover 773.5m. Plans announced for US factory. JCB Teletruk and JCB 165 Robot Skid Steer Loader selected by Design Council as Millennium Products.

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