Measure the scale of an industry simply by the weight of material it produces, and aggregates - the quarrying of sand, gravel and stone - easily ranks as the biggest in Britain. Its output runs at a rate approaching 300 million tonnes a year even in the present construction industry recession. It is three times larger than the coal industry and is projected to grow to 400 million tonnes a year over the next two decades.
As the basic material for all construction (whether it be roads, hospitals, homes, schools, airports or tunnels), every man, woman and child in the land 'consumes' six tonnes of it every year. That insatiable appetite is becoming progressively more difficult to slake.
In the mid-'70s, an official government inquiry, headed by Sir Ralph Verney, produced a report with the less-than-compelling title 'Aggregates: the Way Ahead'. It warned of a potential supply famine.
Shortages caused by increasing difficulties over planning permission in environmentally sensitive areas were already building up then. The nightmare vision emerged of our sceptred isle becoming a patchwork of holes in the ground linked by eight-lane motorways to new towns and industrial estates.
One man who read that report was John Foster Yeoman. The son of a quarryman he had in 1950, at the tender age of 21, inherited his father's own modest hole in the ground. This was at Wells, in Somerset - a county which has somehow managed to preserve much of its beauty while continuing throughout the post-war period to meet the heavy demand for its limestone from the booming South East. Little in Verney's report surprised him. Indeed years earlier, in 1959, he had foreseen its conclusions when he had decided to purchase an old quarry at Torr near Frome. The seller, the Limmer and Trinidad Lake Ashphalt Company, felt it had no future.
Yeoman saw things differently. He planned a super quarry on the lines of the giant opencast base metal mines of Africa, Australia and America: a quarry that could be linked by rail directly to its main market 100 miles east.
'In the '60s he could see the way demand for limestone was going to grow and he could also see the potential supply difficulties,' says Kurt Larsen, his son-in-law and now a key director of his company. He began buying out the local farmers to increase his stone reserves and then, in the mid-'60s, had the branch line from Torr to Westbury re- opened. 'In those days,' says Larson, 'a quarry producing 100,000 tonnes a year was big. With the rail link he raised Torr's output to two million tonnes and by the early '70s it was running at four or five million tonnes.
Many of his peers in the industry felt all he was creating was a giant white elephant, but expansion continued. Finding British Rail could only offer him a five-year delivery deadline on new more powerful locomotives to haul even longer trains, Yeoman ordered from the US. By installing mobile primary crushing equipment on site he was able to boost to a peak of eight million tonnes a year by the time of his sudden death in 1987.
Richard Painter, the director now responsible for the company's trains and whose advice has been sought from the Government on BR privatisation, says: 'Foster Yeoman is that rare almost unique phenomenon in British business, a private family company which is a leader in its industry.'
Even more remarkable perhaps has been the successful transfer of control of the business into the hands of Yeoman's widow, Angela. She collects her pension every week from the local village post office and stops for a chat with the subpostmaster. The daughter of a bank manager, she bore Yeoman two sons and two daughters, she drives a red BMW and arranges a two-day horse trial every year in the grounds of the 44-acre family estate.
She runs the business from Marston House, a lovingly restored Georgian pile in unspoilt countryside nor far from the Torr quarry.
Though she describes herself in her matter of fact way as 'an ordinary housewife', she is no dilettante and sees no reason why she should not run the family business. 'Women have as much energy as men,' she insists. 'Anyway, I was always involved as a director as well as a wife just as my mother-in-law had been when my husband first inherited the business.'
Those who know the company say she is not just a figurehead above MD David Tidmarsh, but the real power in the company. 'I feel I am in control most of the time,' she wryly remarks. The giant Torr quarry is her particular responsibility. A mile across at its widest point and easily the biggest in Europe, Torr might seem an adequate monument to the man who revolutionised his industry.
Hanson-owned rivals ARC copied his train idea for their own Somerset quarries and now there are 14 rail served depots for limestone throughout southern England. 'The quarry which rivals in his industry said was a white elephant and would bring him down, has turned into a huge money spinner,' says Angus Phaure, the industry's leading analyst at brokers County NatWest.
But by the time of his death Foster Yeoman had gone a long way down the road in developing a second, even more remarkable, 'white elephant'.
Back in the mid-'70s Verney's report set him thinking he should find and develop an even bigger quarry from an even richer seam of stone reserves. And instead of using railways he would use ships. He had an ugly role model for such a development in the coastal china clay workings of Cornwall and in large quarry projects on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. By the late '70s Yeoman decided what he would do. He would buy a granite mountain in Scotland. He would gouge out the middle of it to create the appearance of extinct volcano with crater even bigger than his quarry at Torr. And he would ship the contents round to a terminal in the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary.
So a decade ago he could be found prospecting for his mountain on a motor cruiser in the Firth of Clyde. Kurt Larson, who had met his son David at mining school in the US, was on one of those forays. 'With his geological map in one hand and his depth sounder in the other he worked his way round the coastline in search of a deposit close to deep and sheltered water,' he recalls. In Loch Linnhe in part of the Morvern peninsula near the island of Mull, Yeoman found what he wanted. 'David and I were off-loaded with our geological kits to do a bit of fieldwork. When the landowner, Mrs Patricia Strutt, accosted us we posed as stranded American yachtsmen.'
Mrs Strutt, a textile heiress from Derbyshire, now in her 80s, soon struck a deal over the 2,000 ft. mountain on her estate at Glensanda.
'She told us we could buy the mountain so long as she retained the hunting rights,' Larson recalls.
Feasibility studies began and planning permission was sought and, by 1983, a master plan had been drawn up for a quarry capable of producing 15 million tonnes of granite a year. The Glensanda Harbour Act was passed by Parliament two years later and first production from the site began in 1986. The company's founder lived long enough to see his second 'white elephant' operational and recently crushed rock from the mountain has been used for the lining of the UK end of the Channel Tunnel.
A visit to Glensanda is an extraordinary experience. On a clear day the top of the 2,000-ft. mountain affords spectacular views of Ben Nevis 25 miles away. There is no road access to the site where a ruined fort, an old harbour and a small cluster of farm buildings still stand. They have been restored and serve as both home and communications centre for general manager Larsen and his family.
From the other side of the loch at Portnacroish harbour the development is just visible to the naked eye as a tiny scar on the landscape. The aim is to ensure that the excavation can only be seen from the air and that the original side view of the mountain will scarcely be changed. This will take some doing since the master plan for the quarry is to excavate 450 million tonnes of rock from a crater which is roughly two kilometres across at its widest point. Angela Yeoman has strong views about the industry's responsibility on environmental matters. 'The record in the industry is appalling,' she insists, but tries to lead by example. 'None of our stone is transported by road. It is all either rail or ship.' Certainly from the roadside entrance to the Torr works, few passing motorists would imagine there was a giant quarry behind the tree-covered hills.
Rock from the top of Glensanda is blasted and conveyed in dumper trucks to a primary crusher which pulverises giant boulders to rocks roughly the size of a human skull. It then goes by conveyor to the top of the glory hole, a 1 ,000-ft. deep shaft bored into the centre of the mountain. This can be seen as a giant silo permanently topped up with a slowly sinking stockpile of granite. At the bottom of the glory hole is a mile-long tunnel conveying rock out of the side of the mountain at a maximum rate of 4,000 tonnes an hour. Above the harbour are secondary and tertiary crushers and great stockpiles of different grades of stone awaiting transhipment.
Three self discharging ships were delivered earlier this year with a combined annual carrying capacity of 8 million tonnes. One of the larger 75,000-ton vessels can be loaded in under 24 hours and can make the trip to the Isle of Grain in a week. Because of the recession the whole venture has yet to prove its commercial viability. High volume runs are needed to justify the long distances the ships have to travel. Some of the mountain has already been exported to other ports in Northern Europe and even as far afield as Houston.
Glensanda has yet to vindicate the vision of its creator. The high cost of its development at the time of recession pushed the group into losses in the year to last May, halting the uninterrupted growth of the past decade. Between 1982 and 1989 sales more than doubled to £87.1 million while net assets of the business trebled to £28.3 million. But sales have reached a plateau in the past couple of years creeping up just £3 million in value to £90.1 million. In terms of tonnes produced the company reached a peak in 1988 at 12.4 million tonnes, slipping to 11.7 million tonnes last year. This is in spite of the build up of Glensanda's granite production from 200,000 tonnes in 1986 to 3.8 million tonnes last year. County NatWest's Phaure describes Glensanda as 'a huge cash drainer just as Torr is a huge money spinner. 'There are,' he says, 'a few fingers crossed down in Somerset. We are after all going through the worst building recession since the war.'
There a few doubts in the Foster Yeoman camp that the profitable pattern established in Somerset will be repeated soon enough in Scotland. Already overall group production is back above the 1988 peak. Output from Torr is steady at 6 million tonnes - reflecting the recession. But output at Glensanda has been shooting up and is now running at 5 million tonnes a year. Additionally the company produces about 2 million tonnes of bitumen-coated stone for roads.
'We are,' Larson agrees, 'waiting for the upturn in the market, but we have already begun constructing parts of the onsite process plant with the aim of raising production from 5 million to 8 million tonnes and then to the 15 million tonnes target.
The industry waits and watches with fascination. Will the company get the numbers right: particularly the crucial delivered cost per tonne? Will the major contracts like the Channel Tunnel, Stansted airport or Heathrow's Terminal 5 be available to soak up these enormous volumes?
Angela Yeoman displays few doubts. 'A lot of people thought we were mad to develop Torr the way we did and a lot of people thought we were mad to develop Glensanda. We shall see. All I would say is that our company has the reserves, the planning permission and the distribution network to go with it.' These reserves with planning permission total 530 million tonnes while Glensanda alone has potential reserves of 1 billion tonnes.
As the owner of a private business Angela Yeoman can afford to look beyond present difficulties by planning and investing for the next big upturn. A publicly quoted Foster Yeoman would almost certainly have fallen prey to a predator by now. Indeed, according to Phaure, the business John Yeoman created has a permanent cluster of would-be buyers hovering around it. 'In 1989 the bidders were around the company like bees round a honeypot,' he says. 'Today, of course, there are fewer buyers and the price would not be so high but there is still plenty of interest.'
But if Angela Yeoman resisted the temptation earlier she is unlikely to do so now the next major phase of the company's development is clearly on track. The price in an open auction might well exceed £200 million. We might have sold had I not had two sons and a son-in-law in the business, but as things are I'd rather not.'