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Company history

Company history
Established in 1888, listed in on the London Stock Exchange in 1959, and in the FTSE 100 index today, Spirax Sarco’s 130 year history offers a fascinating insight into the origins, development and growth of an international engineering group.

Company history

Knowledge, Service, Products: The History of Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc
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  • 1888-1920
  • 1921-1934
  • 1935-1945
  • 1946-1958
  • 1959-1989
  • 1990-today

In 1888, Herman Sanders established a general merchant business at 108 Fenchurch Street, London. Two years later Herman had a partner and the firm became Sarnders & Rehders. A third partner, Max Erlenwein, joined the company in 1894 and the firm became Sanders, Rehders & Co. Gradually the company built a business in German engineering products and by 1902 had established a large enough range to publish a catalogue devoted to them. The trade name “Sarco” (taking “Sa” from Sanders, “r” from Rehders and “co” from Company) was registered in 1906, covering its use for “Furnace Control Specialities, Philosophical Instruments, Scientific Instruments and Apparatus for Useful Purposes”. The business prospered and Sanders, Rehders & Co became a limited company in 1907. 

In 1907 the Sarco Fuel Saving and Engineering Company was incorporated in New York, USA as a branch office of Sanders, Rehders & Co. The Company was later renamed Sarco Company Inc. During 1911, Clement Wells (from Sanders, Rehders and Co) travelled across the Atlantic to take charge of the company in New York. Under his leadership, the US business became the dominant partner worldwide, until after the Second World War. 

In 1911, manufacturer Roller Smith, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, began making recording instruments for Sarco. When an embargo on German shipping threatened to cut off the supply of steam traps to the USA during the First World War, Sarco Company Inc commissioned Roller Smith to also manufacture steam traps on its behalf. Roller Smith continued to manufacture steam traps until 1935 when Sarco established its own manufacturing plant in the USA.

During the First World War, the British company (Sanders, Rehders & Co) also struggled to import steam traps and, not being able to manufacture locally, began to decline. 

By 1921, the British company was languishing. In an attempt to revive the engineering business a separate company, Sarco Engineering & Trading Company, was established as a subsidiary of Sanders, Rehders & Co, in London. The parent company, Sanders, Rehders & Co, struggled on until 1923, when a liquidator was appointed. 

When Sarco Engineering & Trading was founded, the poor prospects of the business precipitated the departure of employee Walter Crosweller who, in partnership with James Walker, set up Walker, Crosweller & Co.

Meanwhile, the US business was thriving and Clement Wells was developing an export business for the Sarco traps being made in the USA. In 1922 he appointed Sarco’s first European distributor, in France. The following year, Wells offered Walker, Crosweller the rights to distribute Sarco steam traps in the UK. The firm had to turn down the initial approach as it already had an agreement with another manufacturer to sell its traps, but once this came to an end, Walker, Crosweller became the UK distributor of Sarco traps, in 1926. There was one problem: the rights to the Sarco name in the UK were owned by Sarco Engineering & Trading (and a subsequent incarnation of the company, Sarco Company Ltd). The traps from the USA had to be sold under a different name. The trade name “Spirax” was chosen, deriving from the helical, spiral tubing that formed an integral part of the steam traps. The two parts of the name of today’s steam business were in being, but it took another generation before they were joined together. 

The Great Depression and Britain's decision to leave the gold standard meant that it was no longer economically viable to import steam traps into the UK from the USA. Thus, in 1932, the Spirax Manufacturing Company was established in London by Clement Wells and Walker, Crosweller to manufacture steam traps in the UK, under the management of Herbert Smith, Roller Smith's former Factory Manager, who was sent over from the USA. Another important event in the company’s fortunes occurred in 1932 when a young engineer, Lionel Northcroft, was appointed as Sales Manager for Walker, Crosweller. Northcroft developed a new sales approach for Walker, Crosweller based on “direct and scientific selling”, which remains fundamental to the Group’s selling philosophy to today.

In 1937, Clement Wells acquired Sarco Company Ltd, which held the rights to the Sarco brand in the UK. By this time Spirax was the leading brand in the UK steam trap market. Wells decided not to apply the Sarco name to the products being made by the Spirax Manufacturing Company. Instead, he set up a company, called Sarco Thermostats, to handle the sales of US-made Sarco thermostats in the UK, and continued selling steam traps under the Spirax name.

In November 1937, with the political situation in Europe becoming increasingly volatile, Wells and Walker, Crosweller decided to move the Spirax Manufacturing Company out of London. Cheltenham, situated in a predominantly rural area around 100 miles north-west of London, was chosen. 

During 1939, Wells rejected an offer from Walker, Crosweller for his share of the business. He made a counter-offer for Walker, Crosweller’s Spirax sales agency and their share in the Spirax Manufacturing Company. Terms were agreed and in June 1939 all Walker, Crosweller staff involved in selling Spirax traps moved over to the Spirax Manufacturing Company, dissolving the partnership between the two companies.

Throughout the Second World War, the Spirax Manufacturing Company played a vital role in the war effort, supplying steam traps to naval dockyards, Royal Air Force stations and military camps, and also having its traps specified in the sirens produced by the Air Raid Precautions service. Perhaps more importantly, however, the company’s expertise for maximising energy efficiency in wide array of industries using steam made it an invaluable advisor to the British government. Amidst coal and oil shortages, in 1942, Lionel Northcroft approached the Ministry of Fuel and Power and placed the company’s expertise at the Ministry’s disposal. As a result, the company supplied sales engineers for the Ministry’s team of lecturers who gave talks to plant managers all over the country on fuel efficiency. Northcroft himself joined the Fuel Education Committee in London and he and a fellow employee were members of the Steam Panel, chaired by Oliver Lyle. After the war, Northcroft received an OBE in recognition of his services to fuel efficiency. 

In September 1944, Sarco Thermostats Ltd became a subsidiary of the Spirax Manufacturing Company. The following year the Spirax Manufacturing Company, together with Sarco Thermostats, moved its company headquarters to Charlton House, Cheltenham. (Charlton House remains the headquarters of Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc today.)

It was the consequences of the war that shaped the development of the international business once peace returned in 1945. The US dollar was in short supply, making it difficult for Sarco’s international agents to buy goods from the USA, so they increasingly asked Wells to allow the Spirax Manufacturing Company to meet their needs. In 1946, Clement Wells gave permission to the Spirax Manufacturing Company to export to Denmark. Until this time, overseas selling was conducted from the USA. Shortly afterwards the French company (one of a number of joint ventures that had been established before the war between Sarco agents and Clement Wells) and Sarco's Dutch agents began to be supplied from the UK, followed by Sweden, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and Argentina. Within a year of the war ending, Spirax was exporting a third of its output. 

Around this time, an aging Clement Wells began to consider how best to secure the future of the business. Over a period of 11 years, from 1946, he steadily disposed of his personal interests either wholly or in part, in the constituent parts of the organisation. A share of Sarco France was sold to its management team in 1946, in 1948 Wells established a cooperative trust to acquire his shares in Sarco Canada and in 1952 he sold the Spirax Manufacturing Company and its subsidiary Sarco Thermostats Ltd to Lionel Northcroft and Herbert Smith. The two companies were subsequently combined as Spirax-Sarco Ltd.

In 1952 Wells formed Sarco International to look after the overseas interests of the American company, which held the rights to sell Sarco products worldwide, with the exception of the USA, France, Canada and Belgium (where there were Sarco companies in operation) and those countries that Spirax was already supplying. Removing the international arm of the American business did not go down well with management in the USA. Protracted negotiations ensued and it took four years before an agreement was reached for the sale of the US business to its management team. 

In 1957, Wells sold Sarco International to Lionel Northcroft and Herbert Smith of Spirax-Sarco Ltd. With it came a controlling share of Sarco companies in France, Belgium and Germany, as well as the worldwide rights to the Sarco steam trap brand, other than in the USA and Canada. 

By 1959, the UK company was thriving, having several international interests and agents across many parts of the world. As a private company, Spirax Sarco ran the risk of dismemberment in the event of the death of either Lionel Northcroft or Herbert Smith because of a need to satisfy heavy death duties. To mitigate this risk, the business became a public company in May 1959, when 30 per cent of its issued shares were sold. The company floated on the London Stock Exchange as Spirax-Sarco Engineering Ltd; it was a popular offer, oversubscribed by 20 times.

Over the following years, the company continued to expand globally and technologically, offering an increasingly wide product range and maintaining its strong direct sales philosophy. During 1963, Spirax Sarco acquired Drayton Controls, a significant competitor in self-acting controls and steam traps. This acquisition doubled the size of the company and extended its operations into such product ranges as filled thermostatic systems; domestic, commercial and industrial controls; and advanced sterilising and other hospital equipment. During the same year, a joint manufacturing and sales venture was established in Argentina, following a pattern previously established in India and Brazil. Spirax Sarco was relentless in its pursuit of new opportunities, seeking to be the first to market as new territories opened up, for example in Latin America and Asia. 

In March 1982, Spirax-Sarco Engineering Ltd was re-registered as Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc.

In April 1983, Spirax-Sarco Inc., the American company, which was by that time owned by White Consolidated Industries Inc., was purchased by Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc. Two months later the Group completed the purchase of White's Canadian steam trap business, Escodyne. With these acquisitions Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc obtained the rights to use the Sarco brand name in the USA. With the acquisition of Sarco Canada, in 1989, the Group obtained the rights to the Sarco brand in Canada. From that point forward the Group has held the exclusive rights to the Sarco name worldwide.

​In 1990, Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc acquired Watson-Marlow pumps, which had been established in 1958 in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, to produce medical peristaltic pumps. (In 1969, Watson-Marlow had relocated to Falmouth and expanded its operations to include industrial and scientific markets.)

Following the acquisition of Watson-Marlow, Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc purchased Bredel Hose Pumps BV, the world leaders in high-pressure hose pumps; Alitea, a Swedish manufacturer producing small precision pumps; Flexicon Liquid Filling of Denmark, a company which had built a worldwide reputation for its peristaltic-powered aseptic filling and capping systems; MasoSine of Germany, a manufacturer of unique, gentle, sinusoidal rotary pumps for food and cosmetics; BioPure, a manufacturer of biotechnology flow path components; Asepco, a manufacturer of high purity valves and magnetic mixers for the biopharmaceutical industry; Flow Smart, a manufacturer of high purity sanitary gaskets, silicone transfer tubing and hoses, for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries; and Aflex, a designer and manufacturer of PTFE-lined flexible hoses for the pharmaceutical, food, chemical and automotive industries. Today, the Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group is acknowledged as the world leader in niche peristaltic pumps and associated fluid path technologies. 

The Spirax Sarco Steam Specialties business also continued to grow and expand, increasing its global presence and expanding its technological offering. With the purchase of technology from Transvac in 2012, the Steam Specialties business extended its product range to include desuperheaters and in 2013 it added heat pipes. In 2017, Spirax Sarco announced the acquisition of Gestra, a technology leader in advanced industrial boiler control systems, which also specialises in the design and production of valves and control systems for steam and fluid process control. Through this acquisition, the company acquired world-leading boiler control technologies and also expanded its market share. Today, the Group’s Steam Specialties business is the global leader in the supply of engineered solutions for the design, maintenance and provision of efficient industrial and commercial steam systems. 

During 2017, Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc acquired Chromalox, a US-based provider of electrical products, systems and solutions for industrial process heating and temperature management, substantially increasing the Group’s total addressable market. Chromalox is closely related to the Steam Specialties business in delivering thermal energy solutions, with the decision between using steam or electricity as a heating medium being driven by differing needs of the application or customer circumstances. The Group’s electrical thermal energy division was further strengthened, in 2019, by the acquisition of Thermocoax, a leading designer and manufacturer of highly engineered electrical thermal solutions for critical applications in high added value industries.  

In December 2018, Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc became a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index. 

Today, Spirax-Sarco Engineering plc has the most complete worldwide coverage of any business in our sectors, employing over 7,800 people and having strategically located manufacturing plants around the world. With over 120 operating units in nearly 50 countries and a direct sales presence in over 60 countries, we directly serve over 100,000 customers. In addition, we have distributors in over 50 countries. Together, our network of operating units, sales offices and distributors enable us to serve customers in over 110 countries worldwide. ​