The Leeds boss preparing for hole-digging season
We’ve all heard of the Yorkshire Mafia – the informal name given to groups of ex-pat Yorkshire folk wherever they may be in the world – but not many people have heard of the Leeds Hole in the Ground Mafia.
That may not be a name they would recognise, but this “gang of three” is busy trying to disrupt the construction groundwork industry on three continents and, coincidentally, they all come from within a mile of each other in the south of the city.
The story starts in 1971, when Tony Geldart, then 24, left his native Belle Isle and settled in Australia. He set up his own sewer and drainage business, specialising in unstable ground conditions.
To prevent trenches from collapsing – with possibly fatal consequences for workers – they are shored up with steel shields. The problem is that these are heavy, so Mr Geldart designed an aluminium version that was just as strong, but a third of the weight, and could be manoeuvred with ease.
It is this product – now the Australian market leader – that is being made by Leeds Welding Company, a business led by managing director Richard Eaglen, who grew up a stone’s throw away in Beeston.
“Tony was using LITE guard for his own protection initially as a drainage contractor,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “It snowballed from there. People saw that he was laying more pipe than anybody else in a day, and said, ‘Where do you get that from? Can I have one of them?’.”
The tie-up between Mr Geldart’s company, Victoria-based LITE Industries, and Leeds Welding Company came about after a chance meeting at a trade show in Germany in 2015.
Mr Geldart met plant hire company director Patrick Flannery there, who coincidentally also comes from Belle Isle. Flannery introduced him to National Trench Safety (NTS), a large American company which took on the manufacture under licence of LITE guard trench shields in the United States.
When NTS decided to open a UK base at Sherburn-in-Elmet, Mr Flannery became its UK managing director and, already familiar with Leeds Welding Company, recruited the Beeston business to manufacture LITE guard under licence.
“It’s all come full circle, really,” says Mr Eaglen. “We’re now the UK manufacturing base for LITE guard, and National Trench Safety do design work for customers. So somebody might say, ‘I’m going to dig a hole; how much ground pressure is going to act on that shield while it’s down there?’. NTS work out what’s needed, and then we manufacture it.”
Leeds Welding Company, which employs 120 people at its Beeston factory, started making LITE guard shields for NTS in 2019, but further production got off to a slow start.
“In 2020, we got hit with the pandemic, right at the start of the ‘hole-digging season’,” says Mr Eaglen.
“We were only just learning the product in spring 2020, and the construction industry shut down. Nobody was out buying new and innovative pieces of kit; they didn’t want to spend anything they didn’t have to.”
The firm was able to fall back on work for the agricultural division it set up in 2018, whose products were still in demand through the pandemic because food production was still a buoyant sector. The supermarkets kept the company busy indirectly too, since it provides components used in the delivery vans the nation became dependent on during lockdown.
In the meantime, the company has invested up to £200,000 in raw materials and machinery, has created five new jobs, and is now ramping up production in readiness for new orders. Mr Eaglen is confident they will come, but acknowledges there are challenges to surmount.
“It’s a ‘slow burner’, because you’ve got to change the mindset of the UK construction industry. That’s the battle at the minute,” he says. “LITE guard is very lightweight, and in most people’s minds that also means ‘weak’, but because of Tony’s unique design it’s just as strong as steel. It’s been fully tested and approved.
“It’s a bit of a game-changer, really, but there’s a bit of reluctance from the main hire companies, because they might have to replace up to £20m of steel shoring with aluminium if it becomes the most popular product on the market.
“But the big construction industries are now all trying to reduce their carbon footprints – that will be a key part of winning big contracts – and you can put LITE guard in the back of a van, so there’s no more need for 20-tonne excavators to lift them into place any more, cutting down on costs and emissions.
“I think any way companies can contribute to reducing their carbon footprint will ultimately be picked up by the industry.”
The size of the UK market is also a reason for hope, he says, as it is so much bigger than Australia, where LITE Industries is already doing good business.
“We estimate that the three big rental companies are collectively hiring out £60m worth of shoring each year in the UK,” he says.
“In Australia, Tony [Geldart] manufactures $9m worth of trench shoring every year and hires out $14m. If you apply the same ratios, then those UK hire companies will be replenishing £40m worth of stock per year. If we can get 10 per cent of that, we’ll be very happy.”
This winter will see Leeds Welding Company build up its stocks of LITE guard, ready, says Mr Eaglen, for the “next digging season in the spring” – when the three trench shoring pioneers from south Leeds will make the market an offer it may find hard to refuse.
CV: Richard Eaglen
Richard Eaglen was born in Leeds and grew up in Beeston.
After attending school at Mount St Mary’s Catholic High School, he left at 16 and was taken on as an apprentice sheet metal worker by Long Close Ltd, a leading textile machinery manufacturer.
He rotated around departments, learning about production planning, buying, fabrication, electronics, hydraulics, finishing and painting.
He went to college on day release and worked his way up the drawing office.
In his early 20s he left and joined Leeds Welding Company.
Now managing director, he works with Leeds Manufacturing Festival and the Leeds Manufacturing Alliance to encourage young people into the sector.
He lives in Garforth and is a keen Leeds Rhinos fan.