Last week I visited Thomas Keating Ltd, a business based in Billingshurst. I’d visited a few years ago and asked to do so again when they were awarded the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise, specifically, international trade.
The company’s been on the same site since 1926 but some time ago upgraded to more modern premises. They go back longer than that though, starting trading in the 1780s off St Paul’s Churchyard in the City of London.
Managing director, Richard Wylde – whose great grandfather managed and then owned the business from the turn of the 20th century – explained how over the centuries Thomas Keating has adapted to survive – indeed flourish – in a changing society and evolving markets.
They started out making cough lozenges in the winter and an insecticide during the summer – sales soared when First World War troops took Keating’s Powder back to the trenches.
As public health improved, sales started to tail off and so Thomas Keating moved to precision tool making, contributing to, among other things, the watch, aerosol and telephone industries.
In the 1980s this was refined into scientific instrument manufacturing and they are now involved in areas of science that affect our daily lives such as finding new C02 free sources of energy and providing instruments used for state of the art research into Alzheimer’s disease.
As someone who does not come from a scientific background, I was absolutely fascinated by what I was shown and what I learned during my visit.
I saw wire, fractions of a millimetre thick, being very precisely and very slowly wound around a frame by an unassuming looking machine - it was a challenge to actually focus on the wire, it was so thin. I lost track of the number of complicated looking bits of equipment that will eventually be in space as part of the European Space Agency programme.
Whilst Thomas Keating is part of a truly international niche market and is involved in international research programmes, trading around the world, it is also very much a ‘local’ business.
It employs local people, many of them apprentices and many for the entire duration of their working lives. They employ retained fire-fighters, donate their van for the use of the local scout group and have been involved in the upkeep of the Coultershaw pump.
It was a pleasure to visit Thomas Keating and I’m proud they are based in the constituency of Horsham.