It is a name that, for more than a century, was closely intertwined with UK manufacturing.
More recently, it has been a name known to builders and plumbers up and down the country.
And, today, Wolseley has a new owner.
The builder’s merchants chain has been sold by its parent company, Ferguson, for £308m.
The business was put up for sale in November last year after Ferguson said it wanted to focus on its US business. The UK operations sold accounted for just 9.4p in every £1 worth of sales made by the company in its most recent financial year.
The buyer is Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, the private equity giant whose senior advisers include Sir Terry Leahy, the former Tesco chief executive.
It is the second big move into the UK building materials sector for CD&R in under a year. It invested £85m last May to take a 25% stake in SIG, the company previously known as Sheffield Insulation Group, becoming its biggest single shareholder.
Wolseley employs nearly 4,500 people in the UK across 485 branches. It previously traded under the Plumb Center, Pipe Center, Parts Center, Drain Center and Climate Center banners before rebranding the business to Wolseley in January 2018.
Yet few of its customers in the building trade may know the fascinating history behind the name.
It dates back to 1887 when, after working as a ‘jackeroo’ in New South Wales, Dublin-born aristocrat’s son Frederick York Wolseley founded the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company. His invention, developed over a 20 year period, revolutionised the Australian wool industry. Before then, sheep had to be sheared using hand or blade shears, but Wolseley’s invention enabled more sheep to be sheared more quickly.
After its launch in Walgett, New South Wales, Wolseley told the Argus, a local newspaper: “The shearer also has an advantage of course, because he is able to shear a greater number of sheep, and, consequently, to earn a larger cheque than he could by hand; while the labour is not nearly so severe, and he is not called upon to stop work from bad wrists and so on.”
The Argus itself noted that Wolseley’s machine was “quicker than a hundred-a-day shearer…and any man may learn to work it in a week”. It also praised the fact that eight ounces more wool could be extracted from every sheep with the new machine. The unions, understandably, were rather less impressed as mechanisation enabled less skilled workers to take up the job.
Wolseley – whose soldier brother, Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley, was the inspiration for Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous song The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General – opened a factory in Birmingham in 1893 in order to step up production of his machine.
That factory was run by one of Wolseley’s engineers, Herbert Austin, who quickly realised that making sheep shearing machines was a seasonal business and had begun looking for other products to manufacture all year round. One of these was cars and Austin studied the then-new internal combustion engine closely. He persuaded Wolseley to let him develop a three-wheeler two horse-power vehicle in 1895 before launching a four-wheeled vehicle, the Wolseley horseless carriage, four years later. By then, Wolseley himself had died of cancer, while the company’s board failed to share his enthusiasm for automobiles.
The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company ended up as part of Vickers, the arms manufacturer, where it went on to become the UK’s biggest carmaker inside a decade. Austin, meanwhile, set up on his own in 1905 to become one of the UK’s most famous carmakers while the company he founded, Austin, merged first with Morris and then eventually evolved into British Leyland. The factory where Austin set up, Longbridge in Birmingham, became British Leyland’s biggest production site and later, ill-fatedly, that of MG Rover.
The original Wolseley, meanwhile, had expanded into agricultural equipment and electric fencing before, in 1958, it merged with another Birmingham manufacturer, Geo H Hughes, which made wheels.
It subsequently moved into selling heating and oil burning products and, from there, the next logical move was selling parts for burners, boilers and radiators. This was the origin of the business as it is today. The company got out of manufacturing altogether in 1979 to concentrate on distribution and, in 1986, founded the Plumb Center and Builder centre chains. By then, under its inspirational chairman Jeremy Lancaster, it had bought the US distributor Ferguson – the platform for the business to become the world’s biggest distributor of building products.
Mr Lancaster, a noted eccentric who once wore Wellington boots to the office for a year, was very much the driving force behind the company’s success. Wolseley’s stock market value shot up from £25m to £2.5bn from 1982, when he took over to 1996, when he stepped down.
Continuity was important in those days. Mr Lancaster had succeeded his father, Norman, as chairman while his successor, Charlie Banks, had been Ferguson’s first management trainee. His successor, Chip Hornsby, also came from within the company – although his tenure was notably less successful.
Now the wheel has turned full circle. Wolseley renamed itself Ferguson in 2017 and now the original UK business has been sold.
The big question is whether Ferguson itself, now it is focused on the US and Canada, will give up its London listing and relist on the New York Stock Exchange.
This was something the company ruled out as recently as 2019 but few would be surprised to see it happen. One of its biggest shareholders is the billionaire hedge fund manager Nelson Peltz – best known in Britain for getting Cadbury to demerge Schweppes before its eventual takeover by US giant Kraft – and he has been agitating for just such a move.
As for Wolseley itself, its management is confident that it has a bright future under its new owners.
Simon Oakland, who will continue as Wolseley’s chief executive, said: “We believe that Wolseley, as a freestanding enterprise, can accelerate growth, enhance customer service, and create rewarding career opportunities for our colleagues.
“CD&R has extensive experience supporting branch-based networks like ours and shares our vision to continue to build Wolseley’s entrepreneurial culture and relentless focus on customer satisfaction.”
Who knows, in time, this venerable old name may return to the stock market, once again, in its own right.