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17 Jul 2017

We sat down with James Blackhall, Managing Director, Brighouse-based Blackhall Engineering, the UK’s leading valve designer and manufacturer, to talk about the company’s interesting history, exporting experience and recent highlights.

Give us a brief history of Blackhall?

We are the UK’s leading valve designer and manufacturer, providing innovative and long-lasting valve solutions for specialist applications. Blackhall was founded in Brighouse, in 1965 by my father – Douglas Blackhall, who was head of the research and development department at Blakebrough Valves. He was definitely an eccentric when it came to innovation and was always looking for the ‘next big thing’. This is definitely an aspect we carry through in all of our designs today. Since taking over the firm as managing director, I’ve seen Blackhall grow from just six or seven employees to over 50, which is an amazing achievement. We have grown the team internationally too. We’ve won contracts in the US through word of mouth and a proven track record for making long-lasting valves, and our network has grown from there. Today, 60 per cent of water supply to the city of New York is being controlled by Blackhall valves that will last another 100 years, manufactured in Brighouse and exported to the US.   

Where do you export? Do you have any advice for fellow business owners about export?

Blackhall exports globally and we have quite a big presence in the USA, Australia, South Africa, Czech Republic, Middle East, China and India. We’re not as well-known in the UK as we are internationally, which some people find surprising.  Out of the countries we work with, I would say that although our work is very much dependent on our projects, we’ve found that India and China have been the most successful countries we export to over the past few years.

To any business owners looking to export, I would definitely recommend focussing on long term goals. Have an aim in mind and don’t stop until you reach it. Obviously things will change slightly – that’s just life. But if you have a clear vision, it’s a lot easier to see where you see yourself and where you want to be in the future. Another tip is to build good relationships with anyone that you meet. This has come in really handy for us; we’ve found that even the most unexpected of people can help you out somehow. Be a people person, that’s how you do business.

What project are you most proud of?

I would have to say that the project Blackhall is most proud is providing Texas with the biggest valves in the world. We were incredibly proud (and still are!) that we achieved the result.

Talk us through the highlights?

Securing the project was a great highlight, but to be honest we are most looking forward to what the future is going to hold. The valves we put in place will last at least a century, so we’re hopeful that once our two year contract is over we’ll see some further work come through over the years.

Why is there a cluster of valve companies in the area?

I think it’s been that way since the Industrial Revolution; it was such a defining period of time that drew in so many different industries, especially in textiles.  There was a heavy surge of textile businesses in Huddersfield and Bradford. I think the valve industry followed suit and began trading from surrounding areas. Over the past 50 years, bigger companies have had a stronger influence and have influenced smaller companies coming in to the areas.

What is your experience of employing apprentices?

Our Apprenticeships and Talent Pipeline (Graduate Scheme) programme has been running for the past ten years with great success. This year we have one male apprentice and two female apprentices, one of whom is Irum Khalid, who is one of the most successful engineering students. All of whom are doing exceptionally well. It’s fantastic to have seen them develop over their time with us. It’s amazing that 20% of our workforce have been part of our Talent Pipeline programme. One of whom, is now the supply chain director at Blackhall!

What’s your approach to developing new products and innovating?

To be honest, it’s in our DNA. We’ve always gone about creating products this way. However, now we are lot more proactive, where my father was very reactive. I think we’ve learnt from our mistakes and learnt to calculate the risk with each design. I think ultimately this has enabled us to stick to our ethos of creating innovative, high quality valve products. 

Find out more about Blackhall Engineering.

 

If you'd like to speak to Leeds City Region Sector Manager for Advanced Engineering and Manufacturing, please contact Ken Brockbank at ken.brockbank@westyork-ca.gov.uk.