The main products of T and N subsidiary Wellworthy's Weymouth plant were latterly the cast iron liners used in diesel engines. With the pistons, piston rings and gudgeon pins, mainly from the other factories in the group, they form a specialist range of components offered to customers like Perkins, Cummins and Land Rover. A major rival is GKN's Sheepbridge Engineering, which is twice AE Piston Products' size in a business where volume is vital.
Wellworthy never had serious international ambitions, and in the view of director Alan Turner, it suffered from one of British industry's recurrent problems - a lack of focus.
The recent recession had its inevitable impact on the liner business, but three further factors eroded Weymouth's position in particular. The MoD had always been an important customer, accounting for about a quarter of the workload. The old Chieftain tank engine required very complicated and expensive liners for its opposed piston layout, but the succeeding Challenger requires conventional ones at only one hundredth the work content. But even that business has now come to an end. The second factor was the new investment made by the group at the Bradford factory in gudgeon pin production. In the subsequent rationalisation, it lost a further 20% of its workload.
Finally, the low technology that suffices for conventional liners made Weymouth vulnerable to cheaper imports from lower-wage economies. These were eating away particularly at the independent after-market, and the product became a commodity, offering little opportunity for adding further value through the quality of design, service etc. The result of all three, recalls Turner, was that the overheads were left uncovered, with little prospect of the necessary increase in business. 'The loss of the defence business was the final straw, but the other factors involved determined that the division's investment was placed elsewhere.' In October 1993, he broke the news to the 240 staff that the factory would close on 30 September this year. The verdict had been expected, but 'like an invalid, it's always a shock when the end comes,' remarks Turner. It was not his first plant closure, and important points he has learned are, first, to stop rumours forming by not holding information back, and giving staff time to digest it; second, that it must come from someone at a high enough level to take it on. As general manager of the Works, and a Wellworthy manager for 18 years, 'I've gained a reputation for meaning what I say.' Turner talked to every member of staff in six groups; he talked to the trade unions - and he talked to the town council. He told the staff that there was an easy way to close the plant, through an orderly run down, or a hard way, with disruption which would lose customers more quickly. He gained their commitment to the easy way, and was then able to go to the suppliers and customers to agree schedules for a phased reduction that ensured that there would be business over the year, but no redundant stocks left at the end.
Staff redundancy terms were relatively generous - two weeks' wages per year of service, or twice the legal minimum. The average payout was expected to be around £7,500, implying a total cost to the company, excluding clearing up, of £1.8 million. 'To me, you're risking the rest of the business if you pay too much.' And what was Turner going to do on 30 September? 'I'm going to support a T and N joint venture making liners in India. The wage levels are one tenth of UK rates, and they account for a third of your costs.' In the end, there's no arguing with economics.