Manufacturing isn’t a skill, it’s a culture. Culture needs its place to begin, to develop and to pass its learning and understandings from generation to generation. Such a place is Birmingham. Manufacturing remains a huge part of our local GDP. No company exemplifies this tradition more than J Hudson & Co. (ACME WHISTLES) Ltd.
Founded in 1870 it is just a few months away from its 150th birthday and to this day it remains the world market leader in the design and manufacture of whistles and audible warning signals. Take a look at the Rugby World Cup taking place in Japan this week and you will see Acme Thunderers on parade controlling the game. Used in every match they are currently exported to 119 countries.
When Joseph Hudson, the founder, invented the first police whistle which he made in his washroom that he had converted into a workshop , and took an order for 21,000 from the Metropolitan Police in London, he must have wondered how he was ever going to complete it. But in Victorian Birmingham with its tradesmen working from home, pressing out shapes, soldering, polishing and even plating in their front rooms he had his skilled workforce waiting. What he couldn’t make he wheelbarrowed from house to house in what is now the Jewellery Quarter and completed the order (alongside other orders for 250,000 whistles) in one year. Few places could have made this happen and a business to grow from a washroom and a wheelbarrow to a multimillion-pound organisation.
Often whole families worked at the factory, several had 3 generations working side by side. They lived locally and were proud that they played a part in the making of a world beating product made in a world beating manufacturing city----their city. Happiness was the art of making whistles. No doubt they had their moans about the boss or the work or their co-workers, but they were keen to see their loved ones secure a job there, could that define happiness.
Today the company remains true to its ethos of being a good corporate citizen rooted in a sense of place. Employment is limited to the 3 adjoining post codes; B19, B20 and B6. It is still local and whilst the nature of the local demographic has shifted, the manufacturing culture transcends the great diversity that now makes up the workforce.
JAVED BHAYAT may have time off every Friday to attend prayers at his Mosque but takes pride in soldering perfect joints. His attention to detail is needed now just as much as it was in his forebear’s time when there was no Mosque. Even the slightest pinhole in a soldered joint lowers the pressure in the whistle as the air escapes and stops it working. For Javed, the art of the perfect joint is happiness. “I am happy when I have completed a complete day’s soldering without a reject." said Javed.
ROB WHITEHOUSE from Great Barr watches his Bentley Press with a sharp tool setter’s eye. Misfeeds can wreck an expensive tool. His mother Sue works under his supervision pressing brass parts whilst his sister Ellen works in the packing department alongside Kamla Sandhu from the Punjab whose son, Johnny, controls internet sales in the general office. "I love working here, I love the firm, it has a family atmosphere that I have not found elsewhere" said Rob.
MR LAL finds happiness in turning precision parts for specialist dog whistles. When asked if he finds happiness in his work he said “yes, dogs hear very well and if there is a difference they can tell. I make all the parts identical, the dog doesn’t know if you buy a new whistle he thinks it is the same. I have done this for 40 years and like this work”
EILEEN BROWN first started here over 30 years ago but left to have a family. Now she is back. "I could have had lots of jobs, but I like making things. The assembly needs to be accurate. It suits me” she said. “When I left, I was sorry to leave the tradition and I’m pleased to be back.”
PAUL DUFFY said “its money I love not working". When asked if he found satisfaction from any part of his work he added, “the friendship in the workplace counts for a lot and is why you don’t mind being here, I can do a good polish and I like that”.
The ACME COMPANY is something of a local institution. World famous for a product that seems so inconsequential but is essential in so many areas from sport through health and safety to policing. 460 million whistles sold to date bears testament to this. It’s founder used to finance local charities such as the Blue Coat School, then an orphanage, built the Soho Road Working Man’s Club and used to drive by in his motorcar, a rare sight in those days, and give out sixpences, a fortune then, to local children in the street. Throughout its life, the company has carried on his tradition. Today it supports schools for handicapped children, offers apprenticeships and work experience all to local youngsters. It has a powerful sense of its history and sense of place. The happiness this set of values created 150 years ago lives on.
Joseph Hudson was a stickler for excellence, he personally insisted on blowing every whistle before it was allowed to leave the factory. Each one is individually tested in his tradition. Not mouth blown any more, an air line and a compressor now take on that role. The tradition he handed down is still there. Each department inspects and passes its own work and won’t let any section threaten quality by letting the side down. Management is light touch; the culture won’t let things slip.
Professor Nigel Slack, author of what is regarded as the bible on ‘operations’ for MBA students includes Acme Whistles in his book. He calls it the best example he has ever found of word of mouth manufacturing skills being passed from generation to generation. Only a love of what you do could lead to that and happiness.