True grit: the salt spreaders that came in from the cold

Bill Lupton must be one of the few businessmen who looks back on the late 1970s with affection. Before the "winter of discontent" brought the Labour government to its knees, local authorities had money to spend. Among the items they paid for were his road gritters.

Mr Lupton's Econ Engineering was doing so well that he could invest pounds 500,000 in a factory on the edge of Ripon in North Yorkshire.

It seemed a worthwhile risk, despite the change of government in 1979. "I anticipated the boom ending," he recalls. "The price we were selling at couldn't go on. We expected the market to shrink, but not to stop dead altogether."

The date when Sir Geoffrey Howe swung his axe and cut deep into local council spending is etched into the Lupton memory. "On 14 March 1981 we had pounds 1,280,000 of spreaders on quote. By the end of the month we were down to pounds 200,000."

When the factory finally opened it was staffed by just three people. The workforce had shrunk from 115 to 35 within a month. "This was a team I'd built up over 11 years. I knew them all by Christian name. Making so many of them redundant did not make me very popular. I had no idea what I was going to do with the building, but when you're in a position like that you can either defend or attack."

He attacked.

His rivals were also suffering from the savage cuts in public spending. The market leader, Atkinson's of Clitheroe, Lancashire, a subsidiary of Cammel Laird, was losing pounds 10,000 a month. Mr Lupton contacted the group chairman and persuaded him to sell Atkinson's for less than half price.

He gambled on a slow revival in the market that duly arrived when local authorities began to realise that slashing vehicle replacement programmes was a false economy. Econ Engineering now employs 137 people, has a turnover of pounds 5.5m and supplies 85 per cent of the salt spreaders used on British roads.

They are now very much the core of a business that began when this son of a Wharfedale farmer developed a mechanical hedge flailer 40 years ago. He was 19.

Modified agricultural spreaders were largely used to grit the roads until 1970, when Mr Lupton developed a purpose-built device that would spread the salt more accurately. "We started with the slogan 'Don't grit the gutter'," he says.

Always a keen student of political trends, he was ready to exploit the local government reorganisation of 1974 and the massive growth in spending that went with it.

Local government is considerably more cost-conscious in 1996. Road gritting in many areas has been sub-contracted to companies determined to account for almost every grain of salt.

Ten years ago it was spread at the rate of 40 grams a square metre. Now it is down to less than 20 grams and the target is even lower.

Accuracy is the key, and for that Mr Lupton had to invest heavily in state-of-the-art technology. Money from the sale of his other factories in the late 1980s property boom has come in very handy. "This is a business with low unit sales," he explains, "but there's profit in servicing parts and technological development."

A key development in recent times has been the installation in the driver's cab of a sensor, called SCAM, which monitors salt output. Technology originally designed to guide Cruise missiles and rockets has been adapted for use on cold roads.

One way or another, cuts have played a big part in the development of Econ Engineering: local authority cuts at the beginning of the 1980s and military cuts at the end. For motorists at least, the company's products have helped to keep some of the discontent out of winter.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine