FT Pipeline Systems features in the Sunday Times Hundred 2024

The following article featured in the Sunday Times Hundred list for 2024, 30 June 2024 – The fastest-growing companies in Britain. FT Pipeline Systems was 49th.

I had to sell the fridge to revive my father’s company

Thirty-four years ago Duncan Frazer sold everything he owned — including his house, car and even his fridge — in an attempt to breathe life into the business his father had launched shortly before he died. It was the right decision.

His father, Robert, had set up a successful plastics business, having realised the material’s potential when he was an engineer in the Second World War working with bouncing-bomb inventor Sir Barnes Wallis. His task had been to find a safer alternative to the glass used in the machine gun turrets on Wellington and Lancaster bombers. The plastic windows he helped develop saved gunners’ lives because they did not shatter into deadly shards when fired on by German fighter planes.

Many decades later, a friend of Robert’s working for the South Staffordshire Water Company told him about the large number of insurance claims from people tripping up on broken stopcock covers in the pavement. Replacing cracked or vandalised covers was a major job, as the lid and the housing were built as one unit. To change the lid meant closing off the road, digging up the housing and replacing the whole thing. Robert had retired, but invented a new cast iron lid with a lock that could simply be slotted into the old unit in just a few minutes.

In 1982 they founded Frazer & Tabberer in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Their plan was to pitch the device as a cheap, quick alternative to replacing an entire stop-tap box every time a box lid broke on a pavement. However, Robert Frazer died just two years later. His son inherited a 50 per cent stake, and soon decided to quit his job in the steel industry and take a chance on the idea.

Sunday Times Hundred

Pictured above: Bob Frazer, Duncan’s father, in 1982 – the same year in which he started FT Pipeline Systems

“The lid has a very clever locking mechanism made out of plastic — it was based on all the stuff about nylons and plastics my dad learnt right from the war,” says Frazer, now 64. “We were only turning over £500 a year and we were making these things in a garage … but I always believed that the idea was a good one. So in 1990 I gave [Tabberer] £10,000 for his share and said, ‘Right let’s see if we can make it work.’ ”

The venture was not an immediate success. Frazer spent four years pitching to water companies and establishing a supply chain, during which time he resorted to selling his home to pay invoices and keep operations going.

“First of all I sold the pictures on the wall, then the cooker, then the fridge — everything was in a bucket outside the back door,” he says. “I eventually had to sell the house and rent it back from the person I’d sold it to. But I always believed that one day it would work.”

The breakthrough came in 1994 when Frazer received a large order from the North West Water company. “They put an order in for 100 lids. I made them overnight in the garage. Then the next day the bloke said, ‘We need 600 more.’ And that was it.”

Frazer took the momentum and ran with it. Meanwhile, he had spotted another gap in the market, for corrosion-proof steel pipes and “e-joints” — parts that simplify the pipe-welding process. His hunch was right. Frazer & Tabberer partnered with manufacturers in Turkey and France and began selling steel pipes and his father’s device. In 2007 the business made The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 (the predecessor to The Sunday Times 100) with sales of £11.3 million.

Sunday Times Hundred

Pictured above: Duncan Frazer, right, with Horace Tabberer, centre, and a customer.

Then everything fell apart. “It was all going swimmingly up until 2009,” Frazer says. “But then we had a contract worth £8 million for a big steel water pipeline, where the contractor decided that he was only going to pay us £4 million. Our gross profit margin was around £400,000. I couldn’t cover the remaining £3.6 million, and so we had to go bust. I didn’t have a choice.”

Closing the company his father had started hit Frazer hard. Yet he still owned the intellectual property on the company’s products and was determined to rebuild. For the second time, the entrepreneur bet his house on the business, borrowing against the value of his (new) home to relaunch as FT Pipeline Systems just two weeks after Frazer & Tabberer went into liquidation in December 2009.

“It was hell really,” Frazer says. “Everybody was made redundant and I took them all on again two weeks later, and then over the next ten years I paid all my suppliers back. I didn’t have to, but I always thought that, to have a chance of making the company into a proper viable concern, I needed to retain my supply chain … It took ten years, but I finally paid everyone back in 2020.”

The efforts paid off. Frazer also learnt from the experience, deciding that FT Pipeline Systems would only ever work directly with water companies to avoid risking arrangements with other contractors. This move helped to convince high street banks to lend the new company money for projects, Frazer says. He also looked to diversify the business further.

Today, FT Pipeline Systems has four divisions and works with most leading UK utilities companies. In addition to the stop-tap box devices and steel water pipes, it supplies iron pipes and “dual containment” hoses that allow safe transport of dangerous chemicals around treatment plants. The business has also branched out to tap into the UK’s burgeoning hydrogen sector, making key strategic hires so that it can design and manufacture its own gas pressure control systems. Frazer said the company recently won several government contracts for hydrogen test projects launched as part of the UK’s net-zero strategy. Tests are already under way in a tarmac factory, a crematorium and a brickworks.

Despite expanding, the business went through a few “fallow years” immediately after Brexit and during the Covid pandemic lockdowns. Frazer said that demand for pipeline upgrades from water companies appeared to go “on the back burner”. However, since 2022 it has seen a surge in orders from under-fire utilities firms seeking to repair cracking systems. As a result, revenue soared to £32.2 million in the year to April 2024, with pre-tax profits of £1.3 million — growth that led to the company make this year’s Sunday Times 100 ranking.

“We’ve worked hard to build it back and I think we’ve done a good job,” Frazer says. “It’s great news to be on the list again.”

Frazer now expects higher levels of orders to continue coming as water firms look to fix Britain’s broken sewerage and overflow systems. “I think it will be like this until 2030,” Frazer says. “They want long-term solutions … our stuff never corrodes.”

Today, FT Pipeline Systems sells the device that Robert Frazer invented in 400 sizes. The business employs 38 people across four sites in the UK, and a further 28 people in France through a supply chain partner co-owned by the company.

Frazer hopes that these achievements do his father proud. “I’d like to think he’d be pleased,” he says. “He was a very genial person who worked hard and had the guts to open his own company … I’d like to think I’d got the guts from him to do that.

“I get a kick out of employing decent people on decent wages and making a difference in their lives, and this industry is a way to make that happen.”

CONTACT

FT Pipeline Systems Ltd
6B Eastern Park
Eastern Avenue
Lichfield
Staffordshire
WS13 7SY

Tel: 01543 416024
enquiries@ftpipelinesystems.co.uk

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