UK: No more trouble 't mill. (2 of 3)

UK: No more trouble 't mill. (2 of 3) - Davidson enjoys looking at the soaring, ornamental brick face of Cairo from next-door Orme, which Ferranti took over too as its operations expanded. He eyes the bottle-green tiles in the old engine house and looks

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Davidson enjoys looking at the soaring, ornamental brick face of Cairo from next-door Orme, which Ferranti took over too as its operations expanded. He eyes the bottle-green tiles in the old engine house and looks forward to the day when they can be spruced up.

Mincher is also an unashamed enthusiast for the building, especially its light, its airiness ("People can actually open the windows and let in fresh air") and the way that its floors conform to the firm's division of staff into different groups. He says: "You could show me a modern greenfield factory and it would look wonderful from outside. But inside the people might as well be down a coalmine for all the light and air they get. Maintenance is much cheaper too. These mills retain heat and it works its way up through the floors. The whole thing is solid, built to last. The folklore is also tremendous. A lot of staff live locally and have been brought up with Cairo and know its history."

The six floors allow Ferranti to give separate divisions their own little worlds. "Each builds up a work group," says Mincher, "and the building encourages this. You're on this floor, say, with your customer on the floor above and your supplier on the floor below - purpose built for an internal market."

Brailsford finds the same paradox in his work spreading Ferranti's total quality management initiative. The mill is an ally in every way. The sense of a characterful home encourages staff to bring their factory floor knowledge to bear on decision making. Management learned an early lesson when it painted one floor's forest of iron supporting pillars bright red. The department's staff, largely women, gave them a sharp lesson in interior decoration and the use of pastel shades. That led to wider consultation on other matters.

There are disadvantages. Davidson had some Oldham rugby league players round the other week collecting money for charity; and even they were gasping at the number of tight, twisting stone stairs that they had to climb and descend between floors. "And we had a lot of trouble finding a space big enough for a conference room, with all these pillars," Davidson says. Eventually a 1930s annexe came up with what was required.

The pillars, essential structurally to allow the enormous window space in the brick walls, serve another purpose across South Lancashire in Wigan, where some of the classiest re-use of cotton mills has taken place recently alongside the celebrated canal pier.

In her office, Judith Wheeler of the Tidy Britain Group picks up radio programmes and occasionally conversations from the workshops of bedlinen manfufacturer WM Christy, two floors above. The hollow iron conducts the sound like a spy's eavesdropping bug. "You get a strong sense of the building's original purpose when Christy's machinery starts up," she says. "It's one of the interesting things about having offices in a mill. And you should see the old engine working."

The engine is the pride of Tidy Britain's Trencherfield Mill, an enormous wheel which used to power every spindle in the building, smoothly turned by the pistons of Rina and Helen. "They were daughters of the engine's designer," explains Tony Palmer, Tidy Britain's director, who also points out kestrels nesting in Trencherfield's ornate tower. Engines were usually named after daughters; the mill boiler traditionally carried the name of the owner's wife.

Tidy Britain revels in this characterful HQ, which also brings free and considerable publicity; parties of schoolchildren and tourists from as far away as Japan tour the Wigan pier complex. The borough council's souvenir shop stands side by side with Tidy Britain's own boutique, where wholesome recycled products fit in with the general air of salvage and restoration of the best of the town's industrial past.

"It's a really lovely location," says Palmer, "the canal with the narrowboats, the mill garden, visitors sauntering around." One particular knot always forms around Wigan council's innocent combination of signs saying "Department of Leisure, Cremation Services", which appears regularly in curious photo columns like Private Eye's "Eye Spy".

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