Investment bankers with a passion for manufacturing are rare.
But such is William McGrath, the 51-year-old chief executive of one of the West Midlands’ oldest manufacturers, Aga Rangemaster.
An Oxford history graduate, he trained as an accountant and worked for a time in the City before moving into industry.
He now runs a £237 million business that traces its history back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution and whose products – they include the Rayburn, Stanley and Fired Earth brands – are synonyms for comfortable, cosy middle class living.
The group’s two main factories, at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire and Leamington Spa, are maintaining a tradition that began in 1709 when Abraham Darby first used coke to smelt iron ore but which have absorbed lessons from the most up-to-date practices of the car industry.
As we talked in the reception area at the Rangemaster factory in Leamington, the site of the Eagle Foundry founded in 1833, William showed me a surviving example of the company’s “Kitchener” range that won a Gold Medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Minutes later he told me Aga Rangemaster had learned many of the lessons of the 21st Century car industry.
Not least, the importance of basing its cookers and ranges on a high quality chassis, or cooking cavity, upon which a large number of additional features can be based.
“In the West Midlands, manufacturing standards are set by the car industry and we have learned a lot from it,” William said.
Even, it emerged, to the extent of kitting out the Rangemaster works with robots bought second hand from car plants.
“They do a great job for us,” he said.
A Bristolian, and from an academic family, William trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG after university.
His first major client was Gillette, which is where, he said, he began to get “a really good feel for manufacturing businesses”.
“In terms of getting a grasp for how businesses work, all the way from production through to the accounting processes it was great to work on an account like that.”
The key lesson from those days, and one that has served William well, is whatever business you are in “you have got to be on top of the numbers”.
“Before you can really start looking at strategy and planning, people want to know you are the person who really does ‘get’ numbers, how they work and what drives them.
“That gives you a real bedrock skill that enables you to start thinking more widely.”
After four years with KPMG, William moved to the City where he had spells with Lloyds Merchant Bank and the blue-blooded Kleinwort Benson.
In the late 1980s he moved into industry, embarking on what he calls a “tour of unfashionable sectors”.
“The problem with working in the City and corporate finance is that it is a pretty narrowing skill and after a few years you are trained to a T to be very good at pushing one sector in corporate finance.
“To have new experiences and broaden out a bit is a good idea.”
He joined, first, the civil engineering group Norwest Holst as finance director, emerging as interim chief executive of a £400 million business at the age of 32, before moving to Peter Tom’s Aggregate Industries where he helped to restructure a heavily indebted balance sheet.
Next came a move to Glynwed, which at the time William joined in 1997 was primarily a metals conglomerate based in Birmingham.
It is a business probably best remembered for its 1960s concrete headquarters, Headland House, in Coventry Road, Sheldon, a building, William said, that “clearly was the work of an architect fresh from success with some government building in Bulgaria”.
Glynwed subsequently emerged from a period of sell-offs and restructuring with William as chief executive in 2001 with Aga Foodservice, as it was then called, at the heart of operations.
The Aga cooker was invented in 1922 by Gustaf Dalen, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Sweden, and has been manufactured in Britain – initially at the Aga Heat factory in Smethwick – since 1929.
They are now made on the site of Abraham Darby’s original 1709 iron-casting foundry at Coalbrookdale.
Although something of a stately dowager among kitchenware, the Aga has never dated. A constant stream of innovations means that a fully-programmable oven with polka dot paintwork designed by Emma Bridgewater is the centrepiece of many a kitchen today.
“My idea,” William said, “was that Aga, by making it the centre stage business and giving it more resources, could go on from being a nice but entirely niche business that had always produced good returns could be a rather larger business which, if we aligned other businesses with it, could really pull the wagon.
“I suppose the big decision critical to the development of the business was back in 2002 we decided we would come out of the smaller lower value-added cookers which we sold to a Turkish group and from that we reinvested heavily in the factory here [Rangemaster], in R&D, and brand development.”
Rangemaster cookers, which are built from steel, were designed to appeal to a wider audience and in combination with Aga and Rayburn would create a strong consumer offering.
“A few years on, dare I say, that is exactly what we have succeeded in doing. It was quite a radical shift for Rangemaster because we went from producing something like 160,000 cookers a year down to only 42,000 larger, higher value-added cookers.”
Another important decision was to broaden the market and appeal of Aga, which at the time had become shorthand for a whole genre of middlebrow literature, the “Aga sagas” of novelist Joanna Trollope.
“We wanted to make Aga as much Richmond, Surrey, as Richmond, Yorkshire, and eventually we want to make it Richmond, Virginia, as well,” William said.
“We wanted a wider and younger customer base, a bit more urban as well as country. That really gave tremendous impetus to Aga between 2001 and 2006-07.”
Ms Trollope is said to hate the “Aga saga” tag stuck on her novels of middle England, but is a devoted owner of the product.
But William is quietly pleased with the literary association.
“There are very few brands that create this whole sub-culture where there really is an identifiable community of people who like that lifestyle, and that continues to gather momentum.”
“The affection people have, not just in the UK but in various places overseas, for the brand, and the Rayburn brand as well, surpasses the attitude to most consumer products.
“A lot of people have almost a personalised relationship with their Aga and see it as the heart of the home.”
Aga Rangemaster has come through the recession in good shape, William, said. That is mainly due to its strong cash position and the work done over previous five or six years in developing a new generation of products.
And even though it has a long history, this is very much a forward-looking enterprise striving to adapt to an increasingly environment-conscious world, according to William.
“We are not new to the carbon topic, we have been thinking about this for many a year. We would say the issue with the Aga is that when it is up and running it does so many functions in the home, but what happens when you are not there?
“So an important development was to make the product programmable so if you are not there it will turn itself back on when you need it.”
And the technology to programme an Aga can be retro-fitted to most of those already in use.
William, who is married to Rachel, has four daughters and lives in Solihull. He keeps fit by running and is proud of Aga Rangemaster’s 25-year sponsorship of Birchfield Harriers.
He likes the world to know he remains a keen supporter of Bristol Rovers.