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Company Profile: Rycroft: thinking outside of the cylinder

Rycroft’s cylinders were used in the Millennium Dome, Ascot Racecourse and will be in use in the new Wembley Stadium. But times are hard and Rycroft has had to reinvent itself to survive and prosper. Paul Braithwaite talks to Mike McDonald, managing director, who is changing the way the company works – and thinks.
Company Profile: Rycroft: thinking outside of the cylinder
RYCROFT is proud to be British.

It has been a cylinder manufacturer for more than 100 years and, if managing director Mike McDonald has his way, will continue to do so for another 100. He adds the basic manufacturing technique has not changed very much in those first 100 years, either.

Mike says Rycroft specialises in making large hot water cylinders (up to 15,000litres) in the Bradford factory and it is the market leader in hot water provision in the commercial and industrial sector.

It is part of the Baxi Commercial Group. It offers tailored solutions and its cylinders are used in the Millennium Dome, Ascot Racecourse and will be in use at the new Wembley Stadium, among others.

They are used anywhere masses of hot water is needed quickly such as at half time in a football stadium or schools, offices or processes.

Hospitals are major clients.

But life, Mike admits, is not getting any easier. The company has had to reinvent itself during the last few years. If it had stayed as just a manufacturer of copper cylinders, Rycroft would not have been in business.

'Overall, large projects have been declining. The trend is to decentralise hot water close to the point of use.'

For instance, copper price rises have hit hard. The company has had to adapt in a number of ways. For instance, it now optimises its use of copper sheet by joining smaller sheets but maintaining strength and the expected 25-year life.

In addition, Rycroft has developed a range of plate heat exchangers.

'This means a much smaller footprint in, for instance, a refurbished plant room.'

Mike adds: 'In new builds and refurbishments space is at a premium'.

He pointed out a large order for a London hospital which was ready to go. The heat exchangers were packaged and virtually ready to plug-and-play and were pre-commissioned in the factory.

Mike insists Rycroft staff have specialised water heating skills and knowledge and factory assembly saves m&e site staff time and the risk of error.

Hence, the ready-made tailored solutions which offer savings and put the responsibility for the design and engineering concept firmly on the manufacturer in the project.

Further, he adds, time is important. 'Often, our equipment is needed at the end of the project and anything which will save time is vital.'

Mike says that, when necessary, Rycroft will work day and night to bring its part of the project in on time, pre-test the unit at the factory and have it on site ready to plug and play when it is wanted!

Mike adds that what he can also offer is repeatability.

'The factory is set up to repeat orders when needed so that if a client orders five, 10 or 100 cylinders or heat exchangers, then that is what the workforce will turn out with each one matching in dimensions and performance.'

And it is not just in the factory where the skills count. Mike says Rycroft's design teams have probably worked on similar contracts in the past and they have the experience. He cites a recent hospital project where one of Rycroft's design teams was used because it had worked on a similar project.

'It is simpler to give the design to our team than to start from scratch.'

But it is not just about big tanks. Rycroft offers many solutions for projects.

'The design team asks, not what type of cylinder is wanted but what hot water is needed and then works towards the eventual design.'

It is, he says, a case of how much hot water is needed for how many hours a day and then it is a case of generating that hot water.

Prefabricated package for the new Derby General Hospital

'There are plenty of ways of generating that hot water and, being part of the Baxi group, Rycroft is able to call on the expertise of other parts of the group.

Take a football stadium, for instance. It isn't just a case of turning up a couple of hours before the game and switching on the boilers for the hot water.

'Trickle charging the cylinder for several days could mean a smaller boiler. It is a case of working out the best solution.'

Mike admits that, at present, hospitals are the biggest percentage of the business and much of it is from PFI. And, yes, he knows it will not last forever. But this business is worth only about 12% to 15% of the total.

The Bradford factory is also linked with ship building, and some of its packages go into the Royal Navy's new Type 45 destroyers, off-shore oil, and the process business. It is a second tier supplier for Defence Estates' Project SLAM (see HVR April issue).

'Rycroft has a diverse portfolio of products and many clients.'

As the person responsible for growing the business, Mike is always looking for more.

Offsite fabrication was one area with which the company has been working for some years now. At the moment, the company has an order for a young offenders' institute in South Wales.

'But rather than just supplying the cylinders, Rycroft's deal is for a totally-enclosed boiler house which was 7m x 3.5m and contained two x 500kW boilers.'

The boilers, calorifiers, pumps and pipework etc are pre-fabricated on skids and then the walls and roof are made of insulated material. Everything is loaded on to a truck and taken to the site.

As well as the UK business, Rycroft turned over £1.5million-worth of exports.

Mike adds that it has been an exceptionally good year for hotels abroad, especially in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, places he says which have high standards of their own or which are similar to those in the UK.

Mike admits the price of raw materials especially copper has hit the company hard and margins are thin. But volumes are increasing.

'I see hotel building especially in and around London as a big opportunity.'

And Mike is also looking at what will happen with the gas price hikes. Again, he sees a future for CHP and solar systems.

'I believe there could be a renaissance of centrally-controlled units which will combine solar and gas-fired hot water and district heating units.'

Again, as part of the Baxi Group, Rycroft has the ability to tap into these systems from other parts of the group.

When all these factors are taken into consideration, he expects a steady growth in turnover during the next five years.

Rycroft has responsibility for another manufacturing business called Elsy & Gibbons (Elson) in South Shields which deals more in the domestic market. Its turnover is expected to grow around 25% this year as packaged hot water solutions in the new building market gain in popularity.

The Elson business is, traditionally, a copper cylinder domestic unit. Mike sees vast potential for combining parts of the Rycroft and Elson businesses. A recent installation in a 120-apartment block used condensing boilers in a central plant to supply hot water and heating to the block with each apartment separately controlled, metered and billed.

He adds that the packaged approach has therefore overcome three main objections to a central boiler plant: boiler efficiency is maintained; DHW provision is secured without loss of the benefit of condensing operation: and each flat has an independently controlled, metered heating and DHW service.

'I see massive growth from our expertise, with our designers working together with the Elson team, using their packed solutions, coupled with our design skills and our controls. Further, because the units are manufactured off-site, it is only a case of connecting up and they are ready to go.'

There are 142 staff across the two factories. There are around 15 designers but Mike expects this will grow.

'Rycroft took a decision a few years ago to employ only graduate engineers in its support roles. This gives the company the calibre of people it needs to drive forward, whatever the future holds.'

The company takes on between two and three apprentices each year and there are eight currently with the company, all at different stages of development. Mike says the difficulty for Rycroft (and probably every other engineering company in the UK) is attracting young people to the industry.

Rycroft has eight area sales managers, four in the south and four in the north and they sell Rycroft and Elson products.

When Rycroft became responsible for Elson, the sales forces were combined so that each sales manager had a larger portfolio but a smaller area. Each sales manager has his own support cell which has designers, technical engineers and sales support staff.

Mike adds: 'Customers want to know where their product is in the system when they want it. Here, there is no place to hide. The customer will not be passed from department to department. His contacts are all in one place.'

Hopefully, this gives better customer service.

And customer service is what Rycroft is all about!

Catalogue operation

THE Dreh business is also run from the Bradford factory site. It manufactures copper fittings which are sold from a catalogue. “It is a pick-and-pack operation and sells to BSS, Plumb Center and others,” said Mike McDonald, managing director.
1 May 2006


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