Industry in the Vale of Leven - Page 5

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Strathleven Industrial Estate

A site had been earmarked at Strathleven from early on, with a target availability date of 1947. The aim was to create 2,000 jobs by 1956. Strathleven Industrial Estate opened early - in December 1946, an early Christmas present for many of the people who were first to be employed there. By 1956 there were over 2,700 people employed there and about 4,000 at its peaks. It was rightly seen as an early great success.

Burroughs Adding Machines

Burroughs Adding Machines Ltd of Detroit Michigan was the first company to occupy a factory at Strathleven. Burroughs had been founded in 1886 by William Burroughs, who had invented an adding machine - he famously said that he thought that the total market for adding machines in the USA was 3,000. He was also the grandfather of the author William Burroughs, who became a member of the beat generation of writers and produced works such as The Naked Lunch, which are definitely not a suitable birthday present for a maiden aunt. He claimed that his inherited wealth from Burroughs funded his writing - a claim that upset the top management of Burroughs in the 1960's.

Although Burroughs had had a sales and service presence in the UK from the 1920's, they had never manufactured outside the US before. Similarly, the Vale had never had an American company manufacturing here. Opening the factory was, therefore, a new experience for both workers, and the management team which Burroughs sent across from Detroit.

One of the first innovations was that a number of new Vale managers were sent to Detroit for induction and training. They sailed on one of the Queens to New York, and travelled the 600 miles from New York to Detroit by train. This made a great impression in the Vale - transatlantic business travel by Valemen was most definitely new. Until then travel to the States was one way - you emigrated, to be seen again, if at all, only years later when you had made enough money to come home on holiday.

Burroughs made a whole range of mechanical and then electro-mechanical adding machines and cash registers at Strathleven, in a classic light engineering environment. A typical adding machine had well over 1,000 different parts, most of which were made and then assembled at Strathleven. It called not only for a wide range of engineering skills, which were a male preserve, but also assembly skills, which were a female preserve. The employee mix was about 50-50 for most of Burroughs time at Strathleven.

In the 1950's, Burroughs management back in the States correctly forecast the rise of the computer, which was bound to have a major impact in the office and banking equipment market, which were Burroughs main markets. In the late 1950's Burroughs acquired what was probably the smartest of the early computer manufacturers in the US, and from then on, top management's sales and marketing focus was increasingly on computers. This had no immediate impact on the manufacturing operations at Strathleven, but from that point on, they were of steadily lesser importance to Burroughs.

In the short term, Strathleven continued to grow. In the early 1950's it had about 1,400 workers, which grew to well over 2,000 by the early 1960's. By the mid 1960's, however, demand for electro-mechanical devices of the type made at Strathleven were on the decline. The rise of the mainframe computer, which did away with comptometer departments and automated most financial calculations throughout companies, was one factor.

The other was the emergence of the cheap electronic calculator from Japan. Between the two of them, there was no long-term future for the products made at Strathleven. Burroughs was well aware of this, but impending decimalisation in the UK on 15th December 1971 created a short-term rise in demand for new, “decimalised” adding machines and cash registers. Immediately after decimalisation, demand, and therefore Strathleven's output, plummeted.

Burroughs was well aware of the position that Strathleven was going to be in post-decimalisation, and had been considering what to do about it. It had other factories in Scotland, which made other products. Indeed, it seemed to operate on the basis of opening a new factory each time a new type of product was required, and there was no product over-lap between the factories.

Cumbernauld had been opened in the 1950's. It made the next products up the range from Strathleven - larger accounting machines whose manufacturing process was less line-based, and more flexible than Strathleven's. Cumbernauld's accounting machine production was replaced with computer banking terminal and then mini-computer production. New plants were opened in the late 1960's at Glenrothes and Livingston. All closed years ago.

The problem for Burroughs management was that they needed as much pre-decimalisation output from Strathleven as they could get, and they were not going to do anything, like introduce a new product-line, which might disrupt that. Also, they were under pressure from governments in other parts of the world, particularly in South America, to open up factories there. On top of all this, labour relations had substantially deteriorated at Strathleven. There had been a number of strikes, including a particularly long one, which closed the plant for weeks. Neither management nor the unions emerged from this with any credit, but it is perfectly clear, and was to many at the time, which side had more to lose.

The unions have traditionally carried the can for the closure of Strathleven, and in the sense that they allowed themselves to be put in the position where they could be blamed; they deserve to carry the can. Unfortunately, they also created an impression that the Vale was a difficult place in which to do business, which was quoted for years by potential employers as a reason for not coming to the Vale. It was so strong a perception that it even resisted the reality of the overwhelming success of Polaroid in the Vale.

Burroughs Strathleven factory was going to be run down, and probably closed, no matter what the unions did. The days of mass production of electro-mechanical devices were over, electronics was now king. After decimalisation Burroughs shed jobs on a regular basis, as demand in international markets dried up.

The one product, which could have been made at Strathleven, was the computer line printer, which in those days was the most important output device on the mainframe computers. It was the means by which payslips, invoices, bank statements, insurance policies, orders, production control slips - you name it, were printed. If you did not have a line printer, you might as well not have a computer. Also, it was still largely an electro-mechanical device, which could easily have been manufactured in a refurbished part of a slimmed-down Strathleven.

Probably a work force of about 400 would have been required. However, Burroughs decided in the early 1970's to place the manufacturing of the printers in Brazil where it already had a plant. Strathleven's days were over and it closed in the early 1970's.

The postscript to the Burroughs Brazilian move is that it turned out to be a very bad decision. The Brazilians were well aware of how important the line printer was to a computer user, and realised that Burroughs would quickly be under considerable customer pressure if there were any delays in delivering the line printers to customers. So the Brazilians duly placed obstacles, formally in the shape of export duties, to less formal ones, which were resolved on a personal basis. Delays were endemic, customers were fuming, and Burroughs felt real pressure.

In some case, the printers were sitting in fields and sheds around the plant, and when they eventually arrived late, dirty and rusted they needed total refurbishment before delivery to the customer. It cost Burroughs dear, and they very quietly moved printer production back to the US. Burroughs did not survive Strathleven by many years. In 1986, it merged with Sperry Corporation to become Unisys. As with many mergers, the sum of the two very quickly became less than the individual components. All of the old Burroughs plants in Europe, and most of them in America, are closed. Unisys hardly manufactures anything now, its main business being software development and systems integration.

Westclox (General Time)

Westclox was another early arrival at Strathleven. Westclox was not quite there on day one, but very shortly thereafter. As the name suggests, Westclox made clocks. It too was owned by an American Company, originally the Western Clock Co, which was taken over by General Time Corp. General Time, owned Westclox for the first 20 years, or so, of its time at Strathleven, and a good job they made of it too. In 1949 Westclox were making 10,000 clocks a week, while by 1950 1,000,000 clocks had been produced since it's opening.

Westclox factory in Scotland
Westclox factory in the late 1950s. (The grassy areas at the bottom of the picture are where the Polaroid plant was subsequently built in the early 1960s.

No home in the Vale was without at least one Westclox clockwork alarm, nor any raffle complete, without a clock as one of the prizes. Many of these clocks are still around, still working after 50 years, unlike their modern counter-parts, which are lucky to last 50 weeks. So successful was the Strathleven operation that in the mid 1950's Westclox had to expand into adjoining buildings, which were vacated by their earlier occupying companies Clutson & Kemp, and Everlastic.

Westclox added watches to what they made in the additional capacity. By the mid to late 1960's, employment levels at Westclox were around 1,100. Like most western manufacturers, by the 1970's, Westclox faced increasing, cheaper competition, mainly from Japan. IT was US-based management, which was dealing with this, not Westclox at Strathleven.

In 1968 General Time was bought out by Talley Industries, which was best known as a manufacturer of timing equipment, such as clocking-in units, to industry, although it did many other things. It had no overlap with the Strathleven product range, and apart from the general belt-tightening which goes on after a take-over, Strathleven was initially unaffected by the change of ownership. However, it was affected by the declining sales from the mid 1970's onwards, and the work force was reduced by periodic bouts of redundancy.

By 1988 Westclox's finances were such, that Talley was happy to accept a management buy-out for the Westclox part of the business. It emerged again as General Time, but with a management that would took radical steps to try to ensure their US survival. The decision was made in the US, to exit Strathleven, and there was nothing anyone at Strathleven could do about it. They sought an exit, which would cost them least, although to be fair to them, it did keep Strathleven going.

General Time transferred ownership to Turnkey in 1988. The new company positioned itself as a manufacturing outsourcer. Sub-contracted work was brought in to keep people employed - keyboards were made for IBM for a long time. Turnkey continued as sub contractors and providers of outsourced and in-sourced labour. Strathleven workers, many now part-time or temporary, not only worked on sub-contracted work, they were bussed to work in customers' factories. While the job satisfaction might not have been the same, nor the wages as good, some jobs were preserved until around 2002, when the outsource challenge proved too much. The plant is now largely derelict.

Wiseman's started at Strathleven in 1949 - 50 and stayed for about 20 years. They manufactured glasses and industrial lenses and employed about 200 people.

Everlastic have already been mentioned. They were one of the first occupants at Strathleven, arriving about 1949, and leaving about 1955. They were an English textile company, who manufactured woman's fashion items including bras and bikinis - perhaps they were a little ahead of their time. They were never a major employer, with perhaps about 100 workers. They left just in time to make a building available for expansion by Westclox.

An ex-Everlastic employee, who stayed on in the Vale after Everlastic closed, started Wellowear at that time. Wellowear made plastic baby pants, which were an innovation at the time. It started initially in a building in Levenbank Works, and when it was demolished, Wellowear moved to a building in the Torpedo factory, adjacent to the Heather Avenue. The operation employed between 30 and 50 people, mostly women, and when it had to move out of the Torpedo factory premises to make way for the site's redevelopment, Wellowear relocated to the Lomond Industrial Estate.

The last major arrival at Strathleven, and indeed the last major arrival in the Vale, was probably the biggest and the best. Edwin Land had started Polaroid as far back as 1937 in Boston. Before he devised the instant camera in 1947, he had already devised, for wartime pilot use, what became Polaroid sunglasses. By 1950 instant cameras were on sale in the US, and Polaroid was well on its way to becoming a major star of the post-war international corporate scene. It incorporated in the UK in 1962, and opened its doors, on a very modest scale, shortly thereafter at Strathleven.

The most obvious sign of Polaroid's arrival at Strathleven was that pretty soon everyone in the Vale was wearing sunglasses. And that symbolised the position that Polaroid quickly established in the Vale. It became an integral part of the community in a very positive, modern way - providing support and leadership on a whole raft of projects and activities.

The Polaroid approach was aspirational - they helped people to make things happen, that otherwise wouldn't have happened, rather than taking over and doing it for them. This was the approach which Polaroid management took in running its business. Employees were team-based and were involved in setting goals. They therefore felt ownership in achievement of the goals, and this led to a successful manufacturing operation virtually from the outset.

It was supported by market-leading management and manufacturing processes. Polaroid was rightly regarded as a good place to work, people were invariably well treated and very well paid. For many years, it was a spectacular success as evidenced by the range of products, which Polaroid introduced into Strathleven: sunglasses, cameras and film. The standards and style were set from early on by the site directors. Rob McLean was the site director during the formative years at Strathleven, when it had explosive growth and was establishing the Polaroid way of doing things, which stood them in good stead for 30 years.

The work force grew throughout the late 1960's, the 1970's and 1980's to a peak of about 2,000. Sister plants were opened in Enschede in Holland and in Ireland, to which Strathleven employees were periodically seconded. As the hectic period of growth levelled out, and Strathleven became a more mature plant, Rob McLean went off to head-up Polaroid's entry into the potentially huge Chinese market.

Polaroid continued to perform strongly under McLean's successors such as Tom Tait and Derek Taylor. Its pioneering work in employee relations continued apace. In particular Polaroid was very strong on health and fitness. It opened a gym in part of the old Strathleven canteen. It promoted a number of programs in the community on that theme. A double decker bus was bought and staffed to carry the health message to the public. Polaroid is the major sponsor of a series of 10K road races, which take place each June over various courses in west Dunbartonshire.

At the Loch Lomond Rowing Regatta, which they sponsored for many years, Polaroid employees pioneered corporate rowing, which involved them having a crash course in learning to row, forming themselves into crews and then racing each other. This idea caught on elsewhere in the UK, and is now an established feature of many regattas.

Polaroid Corporation's first major hiccup was in 1977 when it introduced Polavision, an instant movie camera and its Japanese camera rivals were announcing film systems, on virtually the same day as the videocassette movie camera. The cassette based systems used renewable cassettes with a tried and proven recording system. They were cheaper and produced better quality pictures. They won hands down. Polavision never left the starting blocks. All of the manufactured stock of both films and cameras were sold as one job lot, and that was that for the product.

It was not quite the end of it for the top management in Boston, however. Polaroid lost a lot of money on the project, the shares collapsed in value, and this was the beginning of the end of the stock market's love affair with Polaroid. It has been estimated that Edwin Land himself lost $660 million in the value of his shares. The question investors wanted answered was “why did you not see the reusable cassette camera coming? Better still, why didn't you make one?” Investors' faith in Polaroid's product innovation was badly shaken.

A patents victory over Kodak, which saw Kodak leave the instant camera market, gave Polaroid's management some temporary respite. It's fair to say that none of this had an impact on Strathleven, which continued to work flat out. However, by the 1990's like every other manufacturer, Polaroid had begun to transfer some manufacturing to cheaper labour areas in South America and the Far East.

The first reductions were made to the Strathleven workforce by natural wastage and very generous voluntary redundancy schemes. At the same time, digital cameras made their first appearance on the market. You might have thought, that having been caught cold with Polavision, Polaroid product developers would never be caught out at the very core of their business again. Even 15 or so years later it still seems amazing that Polaroid management did not foresee the impact of digital photography on their business. It was well enough known that digital photography was on its way. You'd have though that Polaroid could have been in at the beginning with its own digital camera program.

It clutched at that straw after the event, by which time its fate was sealed. By the late 1990's, Polaroid was in deep trouble. Demand for instant cameras and their films was in free fall, with only industrial film putting up some resistance for a short time. Major lay-offs were taking place regularly at Strathleven, and each time the severance package was noticeably less generous than the last.

In 2001 Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in the US, and the directors did it in a way that caused uproar. They were paid millions in severance, while shareholders got nothing. Years later the discontent rumbles on, and it's likely that the Polaroid Bankruptcy, as it's now referred to in investor and legal circles, will be a reference point for years to come.

None of that helped anyone at Strathleven of course. By the early 2000's, numbers were down to about 750 and voluntary redundancies had been replaced by compulsory redundancies on meagre packages. In 2006, current employment levels at Strathleven were down to about 350, and that figure included staff at a multi-lingual call centre that were moved down from Glasgow a few years ago. In 2005 Flextronics of the US acquired Polaroid's manufacturing operations, so Strathleven's fate lies with them.

In 2007 camera manufacture ceased and Polaroid was bought over by the Stylemark corporation. All that is now left on the Strathleven site is the sunglasses lens manufacturing business now known as Polaroid Eyewear. Currently there are about 100 employees.

2006 sees about 400 manufacturing jobs of all sorts still in the Vale, and that's probably erring on the high side. The last time the figure was as low as that was about 1780 - over 220 years ago. To make matters worse, no other sector has emerged to create a noticeable number of jobs to at least offset the loss of 5-6,000 manufacturing jobs, certainly not the much-hyped service sector.

The world changes the whole time, and there's no better illustration of that than manufacturing industry. The markets in which the Vale manufactures operated, were either won by countries with far lower costs bases which the Vale never going to compete, or disappeared completely because the products became obsolete. Most unusually, all of the corporate entities, which manufactured in the Vale no longer exist. Some of the brand names are still around, but the companies no longer operate. There could not be a bigger change than that. But so what? Manufacturing prospers elsewhere in Europe.

As the Vale textile factories are finally cleared and turned into houses, and the buildings at Strathleven become indoor football pitches we should ask, is the Polaroid factory in Ireland still lying empty? No surprises, it isn't. The Irish Development Agency got a replacement tenant for Polaroid. So why are there no replacement tenants in the Vale, and why do we persist in saying that the future lies in the service industries? No doubt, the service industries may have a part to play, but so too does manufacturing. Problem is, nobody seems to be trying to find out what it is.

Update 1: In 2007 the Dumbarton based Diamond Power manufacturing operation moved from their Glasgow road premises to the site of the old Polaroid camera manufacturing division. While this did not bring any new manufacturing jobs to the area it did consolidate the existing jobs and reinforced Diamond Power's commitment to this area.

Update 2: In 2016 the Polaroid Lens Manufacturing unit announced that it was to close ending a 50 year association with the Vale of Leven. It is understood that the closure will take place in 2017.



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