In the April/May edition of Commerce and Industry magazine, we commemorate the success of Willerby Holiday Homes – a thriving Hull company which is proud to be celebrating 70 years in business in 2016.
The company has a remarkable history and has grown from humble beginnings in 1946 to become the largest manufacturer of holiday homes in the UK and a key component in the economy of Hull and East Yorkshire. Through a policy of investment and innovation, Willerby Holiday Homes has built a substantial business generating a turnover of £125m a year. It employs around 1,000 people directly and supports hundreds more jobs across its supplier base.
The success of the company has been largely due to the commitment and hard work of its loyal workforce. The team at Willerby are genuinely passionate about what they do – from those who travel the globe to capture the latest design innovations, to those who ensure that the holiday homes are in perfect condition. Willerby employs only the very best designers, engineers and craftsmen – many of whom have been with the company for decades.
A well-established business
Since it was established 70 years ago, Willerby Holiday Homes has remained competitive and built upon its success and achievements year on year.
The company was founded in 1946 by entrepreneurs Walter Allen and John Richardson, who started making touring caravans in a small factory in the village of Willerby, near Hull. Over the intervening years, Willerby Holiday Homes (as it is now known) has grown into a multi-million-pound business.
The secret of the company’s success is undeniably astute management which has responded promptly to changing market conditions. This is a business which has never been afraid to diversify, has embraced expansion, has realised and exploited the potential of export markets, and has appreciated that an organisation is only as good as the staff it employs. In fact, the loyal workforce has played a major role in the continued success and development of the company.
Back in the 1940s, caravans were very much in their infancy, but they started to gain in popularity after the Second World War when families were able to enjoy more leisure time.
Walter Allen, whose business had been in beekeeping equipment, timber importing, and engineering, was aware of the potential of caravan holidays and this was when he and John Richardson decided to go into manufacture.
Their first touring caravan – called the York and about 11ft long – proved to be hugely successful, with sales of more than 1,000 in 1949. Larger and more sophisticated models followed in succeeding years.
However, spotting another trend, Willerby’s management diversified into the manufacture of holiday caravans (caravans that are permanently sited – not towed). These were quickly snapped up by caravan park owners who sought to cater for the growing numbers of families wanting to hire caravans (usually at the coast or in the countryside) for their holidays. Another market was soon to emerge, too – the need for slightly more luxurious holiday caravans that families would buy on sites of their choice for weekend and holiday use. Over the years Willerby has introduced more and more features into its various ranges, offering customers amazing choices in the style and equipment of their holiday homes.
With both the width and length of caravans increasing, there was huge scope to introduce ‘home from home’ touches – and others (like en suite facilities, hot tubs and wine coolers) that might not be familiar at home!
Willerby’s designs have brought the company huge numbers of accolades and on several occasions one or other of its holiday homes has been voted ‘Holiday Caravan of the Year’.
Expansion saw more manufacturing facilities coming on stream around the Hull area. Taking over competitors and their ranges (of both tourers and holiday caravans) was also part of the expansion, and Willerby never ceased in its quest to produce the best possible products, and to give its customers superb value for money.
Always looking for more efficient materials, Willerby was one of the first manufacturers to fully appreciate the possibilities that glass fibre could bring to caravan construction. Its light weight was very important for the tourer market, and it also brought some benefits in holiday caravan manufacture, too.
As the demand for larger and more luxurious holiday caravans increased, Willerby looked at other markets – twin unit homes (for residential parks) and lodge and chalet-style holiday models, in various widths up to twin unit sizes.
A management buy-out at Willerby in 2000 was hugely successful and provided the impetus for the company to grow even stronger. The welfare of staff and their involvement in the business became very important, as did health and safety matters, and the recycling of waste materials – something that Willerby has done throughout its 70-year history.
Willerby has a strong ‘green conscience’ and continues to lead the industry in the pursuit of environmental excellence. All of the company’s products pay careful consideration to the environment, from the sensible selection and consumption of raw materials, and the use of energy efficient appliances and fittings, right through to waste management during manufacture.
An innovative company
Today, Willerby Holiday Homes manufactures a wide range of static holiday homes and lodges at an 80 acre production facility in Hedon Road, Hull. While most of its production is for the UK market, the company is also an established exporter to Europe and has recently started opening up new markets in China, New Zealand and Australia. Exports sales were in excess of £4.25m in 2015.
In line with its policy of innovation, the company has established a separate special projects division. New products include an eco-friendly modular build range for social housing providers – a cost effective but high quality solution.
Its social housing initiative enables new homes to be erected within 45 days. It has recently supplied 33 homes to a customer in Liverpool for the largest modular build social housing project in the UK.
The flexibility of the special projects unit has also seen significant contracts for bespoke Woodland Lodges for one of Britain’s biggest theme parks, as well as chalets and lodges to meet the demand for ‘glamping’.
Training and investment
At the heart of the company’s success is its workforce and Willerby Holiday Homes has made a major investment in a continuous training programme, partnering with Hull College to deliver NVQ training across the business.
The company is also committed to an apprenticeship programme and has set up a dedicated Apprentice Training Centre which currently has 10 young people under training.
Additionally, Willerby is also expanding its Apprentice Scheme to non production apprentices in IT, Finance, Design, Marketing, HR and Customer Services.
Out of hours training will also be available to production staff across a range of trades and a graduate programme is to be launched in conjunction with The University of Hull. The company will also seek Investor in People status this year.
Willerby Holiday Homes is extremely proud of the achievements and commitment of its workforce and is the only holiday home manufacturer in East Yorkshire to move away from the traditional piece work system and have salaried staff throughout.
Executive Chairman Julian Cooper said:
Willerby is blessed with some of the most dedicated, committed and brilliant people that we have ever had the privilege to work with. It is a wonderful workforce that can power Willerby on to a very exciting future.
The dedication of staff shone through when the company was hit by a major fire last year which threatened to halt production for three months. Such a delay would have been a disaster for Willerby and for its suppliers. However, its workforce rallied round the company and set about restoring the burnt out production centre enabling production to re-start after just 10 days.
A loyal team
Willerby’s care and concern for its staff is reflected in the fact that so many have stayed loyal for so long. When an industry is located in a particular area (and the caravan industry has always been centred in and around Hull), it often happens that personnel tend to move from one employer to another. However, Willerby has bucked that trend and can proudly claim to have long-serving employees, some of whom have been with the company for 25 years or more.
One such employee is Jacquie Atkin who has worked at Willerby for 31 years. She joined on 7th January 1985 and, at that time, she was the only person in the purchase ledger department:
Everything was prepared manually, and the data was then passed to the computer operator for entry into the computer.
Over the years, Jacquie has seen Willerby grow and flourish. She particularly highlights the camaraderie, the ‘positive vibe’ and the ‘family feel’ of the company and the fact that everyone is dedicated to helping the business to succeed.
Jacqui has seen Willerby respond to the rhythm of the wider general economy – growing in good times and retracting when the situation demands.
I believe that the fact we are here today is due to the quality of our products and good management. I have seen my own department numbers increase from one (myself) to five. The variety in our work is great and no two days are the same. I have been lucky enough to have been sponsored through college to build upon and improve my knowledge and understanding. I take great pride in what I have achieved as an individual and within the company.
Today, Jacqui is now manager of the purchase ledger department.
Paul Drury is another long-serving employee. He joined Willerby 26 years ago – on 20th March 1990 – at the age of 21. Like Jacquie, he is proud to be part of “one of, if not the “best” holiday home manufacturing facility in Europe.”
Paul Drury added:
Willerby drives operational excellence and is never complacent, regardless of its current market position. I enjoy the team ethos and direct department personnel are second to none and work with dedication and loyalty in every project we collectively undertake. Every day presents a challenge – large or small – which we embrace and deliver on time and in full.
Paul’s current role is Group Technical Manager.
The company is now in a strong position to further increase its UK market share while also capturing new opportunities abroad as countries around the world seek to emulate Britain’s successful holiday park industry.
It’s a long way from the post war years when Willerby’s founder Walter Allen started making the company’s first touring caravans. But, even then, the spirit of innovation and enterprise was evident as Mr Allen quickly realised that there was a demand for caravans that people could live in all year round. New designs emerged and by 1950 Willerby began to produce large models complete with central heating and all mod cons for that period.
Today’s models are highly sophisticated and meet the demands of 21st century living. In fact, Willerby’s 2016 ‘anniversary’ ranges of holiday homes once again demonstrate the care that the designers take to cater for the tastes and ‘pockets’ of its wide range of customers. There are, of course, the ultra luxurious models, but Willerby believes that by offering excellent choices for ‘first time buyers’ it can allow them to experience the freedom lifestyle that caravanning offers and hopefully persuade them to upgrade as and when they can. Willerby models can be seen at many exhibitions all over the country.
It is therefore evident that Willerby Holiday Homes is firmly established as the market leader in its sector and, employing around 1,000 people, the company is one of the most important businesses to the economy of Hull and East Yorkshire.
The team at Willerby have worked hard to gain an enviable reputation for high quality, beautifully designed products. The company’s policy of continuous improvement and a customer-focused approach also underline its commitment to remain firmly at the forefront of the holiday home industry.
All of the management and staff at Willerby Holiday Homes are therefore proud to be celebrating 70 years in business and they look forward to building upon the success of this exceptional company for many more years to come.