Smith of Derby - Clockmakers
PUBLISHED: 12:24 18 March 2011 | UPDATED: 20:33 20 February 2013
Smith of Derby appeared in the first issue of Derbyshire Life and Countryside. Today, while it still keeps many of the country's older clocks in action, it has also become a byword around the world for quality engineering and innovative design.
The Queen of Tonga has one and so does a mosque in Oman. When John Smith set up his modest clock repairing business in 1856, he could never have foreseen that his work would span the Empire and spread right across the globe. You can tell the time on a Smith of Derby clock in Barra, Burma, Barbados and Bolivia; in Cape Town and Chicago; on St Pauls Cathedral and the new St Pancras International railway station; on Derby Cathedral and in most exquisite form on the Universitys Buxton campus.
Chances are, in fact, that if you see a tower clock or a pillar clock or any famous weight driven clock, it will be a Smith of Derby, and if they didnt build it, theyre likely to maintain it. They look after well over 4,500 clocks in the British Isles alone our core business is precious to us, says the managing director, Bob Betts. Back in 1893, the company was credited by Lord Grimthorpe with clocking as near to eternity as possible, and theyre doing it with even greater precision in the 12,000 square feet of new factory they moved into in 1998.
Eighty years ago, they advertised in the first issue of Derbyshire Life and Countryside. The world has changed out of all recognition since then and timekeeping has kept pace with change. Howard Smith, grandson of the founder, pioneered the auto wind system that has eliminated the hard work and regular visits required for winding a clock tower mechanism; satellite timekeeping, precise electronic controls, pendulum regulators, use of GPS satellite signals and battery backup maintain timekeeping even during power failures. Much of it has evolved from the conservation side of the companys work.
And now theyre exporting to China, a market so sought after by British companies that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself headed up the trade mission that went to the country in November in an attempt to close to export gap. It could take a leaf out of Smith of Derbys book. You cant survive these days with just the business in your home country. Three years ago, we needed to look at our international markets again to ensure we continued to grow, says Bob Betts.
We decided we had to follow where the cranes are, where people are building. So we packed our bags and visited the Far East, the Middle East and India. We started working on opportunities and talking to clients. Where people need timepieces, perhaps to meet by the clock, or under the clock, we have a lovely story to tell.
They found, amongst a people who love the concept of time, a resurgence and regeneration of traditional clock work. The Chinese are building towers for theme parks, and Smith of Derby won the contract to design and deliver for Harmony Tower in Ganzhou, what will become the worlds largest mechanical clock two-and-a half times the size of Big Ben. They were also engaged to design and build another 15 pieces, which will tell the story of timekeeping from its earliest inception.
Its a great start, whichever way you look at it, a very good start, Bob Betts says with satisfaction. We have to organise ourselves and take great care to be successful. When youre working with clients who are 12,500 miles away, you have to get things right first time and the quality has to be world class. China is building the equivalent of 20 New York Cities over the next decades. You cant walk away from that size of opportunity.
China has a passion for the mechanical clock and for traditional craftsmanship, and where Smith of Derby are really competitive is in the area of high design. In the last two years, they have taken on to their staff people skilled in computer-aided and 3- D design, because, says Bob, when youre selling to architects and hoteliers, they want to see the latest technology in front of them. So weve looked closely at our design and selling capability.
Part and parcel of that has been refreshing the whole look of the reception area for the impact the factory makes on arriving visitors. Its fresh and open and contemporary and almost everything has a quirky clock influence, from the cog-shaped seating area to the glass coffee table inlaid with clock hand a size that pales in comparison with those on the Ganzhou clock, which will be 8 metres long. The clock movement itself will be in a public gallery, an exquisite work of art that people can walk right up to and examine. It has a 100 year guarantee and it has taken the company almost nine months to design. Testing the clock was important because the safety standards in those circumstances are so stringent.
Harmony Park is a time theme park with 24 time zones, and is due for a grand opening around the Chinese New Year. The three main zones, ancient, mechanical and precision, tell the story of time technology from sun and shadow, through water and incense, right up to the electronic time pieces of the 21st century. Weve never been engaged to create a time gallery before, in the whole of our history, and we may never see one of these again, Bob says. Its a wonderful thing to have in our portfolio.
The management team has had to get to grips with the Chinese business culture, in a climate where they are continually competing against a Chinese national company with 70 per cent of the home market and which did the timing systems for the Beijing Olympic Games. They have sweated in their suits in temperatures of 110 degrees and shivered on a cold and windy night at the Shanghai Expo, where they were gratified that 50 invited architects and designers came to hear their story. Youve got to be in it to win it, Bob Betts says of the teams continuing hard work. Never take anything or anybody for granted.
When it comes to mechanical clock making, the basics of wheels, weights and gears are much the same as they always were, he observes. But its the way we approach it today, the exquisiteness, the decoration, the design. The company is involved with over 400 years of technology. When a clock comes in for refurbishment, it can be as old as the 17th century or involve todays latest GPS controlled technology, solar or wind power.
Looking after such a diverse range of technology is unique. This makes our engineering department very unusual. Imagine asking Rolls Royce to build and look after the A380 engines and saying, Oh, and by the way, can you refurbish this please, the first plane to cross the Atlantic? To us that happens each and every week.
Competitors are generally small family firms with perhaps 12 employees or fewer. Smith of Derby has 68 staff, despite going through tough times in the 1970s with the huge contraction of the construction industry. People come and stay. Its not unusual to have people retiring after 50 years and have twice seen clocks that come in only every 25 years for restoration! Bob Betts says with pleasure.
They have just built the worlds largest solar powered clock for Baghdad. I cant see that one on a whistle stop tour of the factory but Im awed by the huge variety of timepieces in various stages of construction. There are what Bob Betts calls bags of bits, bunches of cogs and wheels that have come in from all over the country. There are town hall dials with their four faces. The deep pendulum pit is in rhythmic and harmonious motion. The imperial system tools are all still in use because how else can you repair a seventeenth century clock?
You saw the bag of bits. Theyve got to make a clock out of that, Bob observes. The room you just saw was yesteryear when clocks were driven by weight and pendulum, which kept the time. This room is todays clocks, all built here as well and still beautiful, but now time telling is coming from the frequency of the electricity supply.
He came into the company from 20 years at IBM. When you say youre running a clock making firm, people say, whats all that about? he says cheerfully. There are people working on gold inlay, people panel beating, people burnishing. The place feels more like a laboratory than a factory, and thats deliberate. The quirkiest contract theyve got at present is to refurbish the automata at Leicester Squares Swiss Corner, and its a comic sight to see Tyrolean men in their lederhosen and ladies in their dirndls, lying on the floor awaiting attention.
Youd never believe this was all tucked away in Derby. When the clock strikes the hour, sheep start jumping and all sorts of things start to happen ... Weve got guys here who know how to do this, Bob says with huge respect.
The pice de resistance at the end of the tour is from the companys newly developed luxury Whitehurst range, a grandfather clock in 2010 high design, clear and stunning in crystal glass and gold, with a silvered face and jewelled movement. Developed for the World Expo, and on test for a customer abroad, it tells the time in 24-hour zones around the world.
These are the worlds most expensive clocks. Built in Derby. Designed here and hand-made here, Bob concludes with satisfaction. I love seeing the motion of a clock. Manufacturers talk these days of being squeezed out of markets. But if you just hold your corner and say, we still dont believe your quality is anything like ours and we can prove it, you can win.
We were sorry to hear, just before going to press, that Mrs Howard (Betty) Smith had passed away. She celebrated her 100th birthday last June, maintaining a strong involvement with the family business. She established the Darby & Joan Club in 1946, was a founder member of Derby Shakespeare Society, a Trustee of the Derby Playhouse and a Derby Magistrate for many years. Our condolences to her family and friends. She will be sadly missed.