Deloitte Indy 100: Engineers in for the long haul

The founder of a track maintenance company explains the secrets of his success to Elizabeth Skerritt
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The Independent Online

It's a classic rags to riches story: Andrew Tinkler, a joiner by training, started a house-building company in his own name in 1986 with just £500. The company, since renamed WA Developments, has diversified into rail engineering and track maintenance, in 2002 had a turnover of £21m and recently bought the famous Eddie Stobart haulage firm.

It's a classic rags to riches story: Andrew Tinkler, a joiner by training, started a house-building company in his own name in 1986 with just £500. The company, since renamed WA Developments, has diversified into rail engineering and track maintenance, in 2002 had a turnover of £21m and recently bought the famous Eddie Stobart haulage firm.

The accounts for 2003 have yet to be signed off, but Tinkler says the business has done "quite well really". WA Developments (WAD) was incorporated in 1993, the year "we did our first civils [civil engineering] work". In 1994 pre-tax profits were £26,000; in 2002 they were £2.1m.

The company moved into the rail sector when, by chance, they had equipment to clear a landslide that had caused a blockage on the main Settle-Carlisle line near their base in Appleby, Cumbria. The company took advantage of the opportunity and the directors agreed to invest in specifically designed road-rail vehicles. WAD applied for a Railway Safety Case, which was accepted in June 1999, qualifying them to do more complex earthworks and drainage on or near the line.

The rail business now provides over 95 per cent of WAD's turnover and they have major contracts with Nuttalls, May Gurney and Network Rail. In 2003 they were awarded the right to deal directly with Network Rail as a main contractor. Network Rail's decision several months ago to take all track maintenance in house was a blow to many contractors, but Tinkler says: "If anything, this benefits us because we do such specialised work for them."

In February this year, WA Developments International, the foreign arm of the company, took over control of Eddie Stobart, the private haulage firm. This "fitted very well into the international side of the business where we have a lot of real estate," says Tinkler. It has been business as usual for Eddie Stobart and its 1,500 employees, and presumably it reflects well on WAD to be associated with such an iconic company. It was a natural step when Eddie Stobart retired, as "William Stobart, his brother, is one of our major shareholders".

As for plans for further acquisitions: "Not at the moment but never say never." WAD has outgrown the site in Appleby and they are developing a new site in Penrith to consolidate the offices with those of Eddie Stobart which are already based there. The company's expansion to date has earned WAD a place in Britain's 100-fastest-growing companies last year. Annual sales growth between 1999 and 2002 was over 88 per cent. Tinkler says awards are "quite good. Good news about the company is always great, it encourages customers that our work is worth what they pay."

A majority of WAD projects are still based in the north of England and the company, which employs around 320, is well regarded locally. The community will miss the company staff, who are well known around Appleby and whose employment supports many local businesses. As Tinkler says, "PR is good when it is handled properly and it helps growth because it disciplines our company." Environmental and corporate social responsibility are important to WAD, which says one of its key strengths is a good record in safety and in training staff to a high standard. They have spent £500,000 on setting up an in-house training centre, this will remain in Appleby with up to 30 people passing through each day.

Tinkler seems modest about his personal achievement, but he is certainly proud of his company and the employees: "At the end of the day we are a very successful business and we look to moving forward." Which they most certainly look set to do.

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