Take a Shower

The first big employer in Westerham was the Black Eagle Brewery with, at its peak, over 200 employees. The larger builders, like Wellers, had lots of people working for them but they were hired job for job. It was the same with the large tenant farms, but the estates were different. Squerryes, Valence and Dunsdale all held permanent staff working on the land, farming and ‘below stairs’ including butlers and coachmen. Numbers here would typically be between twenty-four and forty per estate. In the latter-half of the twentieth century the brewery began shedding staff, having been absorbed by first Taylor-Walker and finally by Ind-Coope. At its peak, in the 1920 – 30s, local printer Hooker Brothers employed some two-dozen staff, but it was the serious growth of Westerham Press, from employing thirty-five people in the late 1950s, to one hundred and ninety staff when the new complex was opened on the London Road site in the late 1960s that was to mark the first large employer of ‘modern times’. But by 1984, Westerham Press had been bought-out by the St Ives publishing group and all interests were moved to Edenbridge, so the Westerham employer was no more.

The next contender was to be the innovative shower company Aqualisa. Founded in Sevenoaks in 1977, and currently the largest manufacturer and retailer in Westerham today, the company employs close to 250 people, and therefore holds the record as being the largest ever employer in the town.

Staying with records, I spoke to Freda Binns who has been with Aqualisa for forty years, the longest running employee in the company. She started with the company in its first year of trading. “I started my working life at Caxton & Holmesdale Press in Sevenoaks where I worked in their dispatch department. I went in there straight from Churchill Secondary School, and was there about six years. It’s a bit of a story how I got to work for Aqualisa. I friend of mine who worked with me at the Press came and told me she’d got an interview with Derek Goldsmith and explained what the firm did. I thought it sounded interesting and asked if I could go with her. She thought it would be ok, so we both went together. We were led into Derek’s office where she told him that she had come for the interview. I chipped-in that I had come ‘on the off-chance’ and he sort of interviewed us both on the spot. Well, I got the job and my friend didn’t – whoops!

I started working for Aqualisa while they were still on the industrial estate behind the fire station in Sevenoaks. They moved to Westerham in a phased operation between 1980 and 1982. When I first joined there were no more than ten people working for the company, and I was employed to assemble parts. The ‘assembly line’ was a couple of benches with us four girls – myself, Shirley Martin and twin sisters Pat and Pam. 

Over on the far side of the unit there were two men Fred and Andrew, working on a couple of lathes. There was a sink in the corner where you tested the shower heads for quality of spray. We would get given the shower assembly which was quite simple in those days and we would have to pop the badges on and complete the assembly. Even though it was a simple build it was innovative and a market leader right from the start. I was assembling for nearly twenty years all told, but then moved on to become dispatch manager. We have a certain number of orders to get out in a day, I will pick the orders and the dispatch boys have infra-red bar-code readers that we call ‘guns’. I send the whole days orders to the boy’s guns, allocated from stock, and they go off to get the goods which they pack for shipping. Larger orders are organised in pallet quantities and the courier firms come in to take those away. It’s my job to keep on top of the orders and shipping.

When I first started work for Aqualisa Derek Goldsmith was the ‘governor’ and he’d invented the original product. The company was named after his daughter Lisa. He had a partner after a bit who had invested in the company. There have been lots of changes in management over the years as the company has grown. Significant ‘milestones’ have been firstly, over at Sevenoaks when we made ten showers for one customer, our first ‘big-order’ which got the ball rolling, the orders just kept coming in after that. Second was here in Westerham when we launched our first digital product, at Christmas-time about ten years ago. Everybody was ‘hands-on’ then to get the orders ready – managers, directors and the whole workforce were all in it together and we were ahead of the game with that. Its always been a pioneering company who was not scared of trying things and getting stuff out there. They never sat back resting on success and that’s right, you can’t stand still.

The workforce come from a wide area, Sundridge, Biggin Hill, Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and some even further afield.

Its a very social company, we have always had a Christmas party, though the venue changes now and again these days. The first Christmas party in Sevenoaks took place at the assembly line. We all brought in sandwiches and the boss brought a bottle of wine or two, but it has grown since then.  We’ve held it at Westerham Golf Club, the big Grasshopper at Moorhouse and the last couple of years at Lingfield racecourse. Last year, for the first time we had a summer party as well, which was lovely. We did a ‘best-dressed Halloween person’ competition which involved family children as well, so that was nice. It’s nice to mingle with the others and with people you talk to on the phone, but would never meet otherwise.”

I then spoke to Wendy Bennett, Customer Experience Director who has been with the firm for twenty years. Her job now is customer focussed with a holistic approach in which she is responsible for quality, field service, customer service and marketing. But that’s not where she began… “I started when I’d just turned twenty-one, was still living at home and was taken-on as a call-handler, one of the first females on the technical help desk. There was no hiding place, a plumber rang in saying he had just spoken to a young lady who had given him duff information – it had to be me, so it was a bit awkward and I only lasted six months in that role” – she laughs.  “I literally worked my way up a helter-skelter path to where I am now. When I first started you’d spend two weeks in the factory greasing ‘o-rings’, putting the coils onto the cartridges and other assembly jobs which gave me a great insight into the assembly process and helped my understanding of the business. I then went out on site shadowing engineers and learning how they worked. I had previously worked for Marley Tiles in Dunton Green and I think that’s what got me the job, I had a good understanding of trade accounts. It’s one thing that Aqualisa has remained passionate about, the installer is king, and making sure that we have products that they can sell, install, fit and forget is all important.

Since I was twenty one and I came to Aqualisa, every major thing that has happened in my life has happened here – shortly after I joined the company I lost my father, I got married to someone who still works here and ended up with two children, so this place has always been part of my life in a very big way. You can talk to a lot of people here who have lived their lives in and around Aqualisa, which is unique because there’s a real passion within the business which has given it the DNA that it has today. I think I’m most proud having made it to the board of directors that I can offer that insight, especially with the growth of the last four years. It hasn’t always been like that though, even within the time that I’ve been here there was a period where we lost sight of the drive; we’ve always considered ourselves very much a family company, and it was almost ‘well, if we made some money that was a bonus.’ But now things have changed, you have to deliver an EBITDA (earnings before all) that has a certain number attached to it, there are targets to meet, yes, but alongside that you have to retain the heart. If you strip that out you lose what I think is the intellectual property, which is the people we have got, the knowledge, the history, the passion and the heart, that is what makes a good business. We don’t have a high-churn here, and I was very keen that we created a program where we rewarded long-term service, we’ve got people who have been here over twenty years, over thirty years some, and its important to invest in them for their loyalty. If you asked what the ingredients are that drive that loyalty, it’s very hard to distill what it is, there are a number of people who have left the business and come back, that’s quite telling that they recognise when they are in a good place. When I first joined the ‘contact centre’ there were six of us and now there’s forty-five. At that time there were fifteen service engineers employed by Aqualisa, there’s now over forty full-time employed staff in that team. Everything has expanded at a considerable rate especially over the last few years, and that creates its own challenges, but we’re doing well with the infrastructure needed to support that growth. We redesigned the layout of the warehouses to make it more fluid, it was very disjointed at one point. At some stage we are going to have to think about growing upwards as there’s no spare footprint on the site.

Another thing to consider is that people travel long distances to work here. When I first started most people came from the local area, but now, people are travelling some pretty chunky distances and they are doing that because they want to be within the business. We’ve got people from Wales and Birmingham, who commute down here, and we are not just talking about directors, we have heads of department all commuting sizeable distances, several from right across London”

I ask about diversification and Wendy is very clear on this:  “We know what we are good at, and will stick with that, you don’t want to weaken a strong brand. There are different channels we can launch in, we’ve just launched a product for the e.u. market in Belgium, but still in showers, that’s our integral brand, and that’s what we’ll stick to.”

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