Ferguson’s success is testament to a diverse and distinguished history, with over 130 years of innovation and adaptation across numerous industries. Ferguson is one of the world’s leading specialist distributors of plumbing and heating products, with over 1 million customers served by 35,000 associates in 2,280 locations across North America and the United Kingdom. Below are some of the key events that took a small sheep shearing company to the global distributor that Ferguson plc is today.
At the age of 50 Frederick York Wolseley an Irish immigrant living in Australia founded the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company in Sydney in 1887. The Company's sole purpose was to manufacture his invention, the first mechanical sheep shearing machine. This new technology would revolutionise the agricultural industry across the globe.
Frederick moved the Company to Birmingham, England, where he formed Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Co. Ltd. Wolseley also hired Herbert Austin to be Chief Inspector of the new Company in Birmingham.
In 1896 Herbert Austin moves the UK Company into a new factory in Alma Street calling it the Sydney Works, keeping the association with the Australian side of the business.
Following the success in 1895 of Austin’s experimental automobile the ‘flat twin’ he was given permission to design and build what would be Wolseley’s first car. The vehicles were to cost no more than £100 (approx. £12,500 today) each to produce. Austin designed the Wolseley Autocar Number 1.
The first true test of the Wolseley Autocar was from the works in Birmingham to Rhyl in Wales in 1899. The round trip was 255 miles. The average speed was around 8mph and the fuel cost was logged at 40 miles per 1 shilling.
In 1899 the second automobile, the Wolseley Voiturette, went on sale for £120 (approx. £15,000 today), in total around 100 cars are sold. The Voiturette is updated about a year later to a three-seater version with a steering wheel as opposed to a tiller and cost £270 (approx. £34,000 today).
In 1900 the Royal Automobile Club organised a challenge to show the practicality of ‘modern day’ travel with a 1000 mile journey from London to Edinburgh and back. The Voiturette, driven by Herbert Austin, completed the thousand miles trial of 1900 and was awarded first prize in class B. The Company received the £10 (approx. £1,200 today) prize money which was awarded by The Daily Mail.
In 1901 the Company established several patents for a range of Cream Separators, its second farming product, concentrating its efforts on the manufacture and marketing of its sheep shearing and other agricultural equipment.
In the same year a separate company, known as the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Company Limited is established and sold to Vickers Son and Maxim Limited for £10,000 (approx. £1.2m today). This eventually becomes the Rover Group, owned at one time by BMW.
Four years later Herbert Austin resigns as Manager of Works but remains on the Board, serving as chairman from 1911-1933.
By 1907 Wolseley had sold 1,846 Cream Separators, including 910 that were exported, and more than 20,000 sheep shearing machines. In 1908 the Separator Department expanded into new works in Witton and was fully operational.
In 1909 Wolseley went into production of petrol engines producing 50 units of 3hp engines. The spare land at the Witton Works site was let for 14 days to Barnum & Baileys’ world-famous circus, most recently depicted in the 2017 film The Greatest Showman, for the sum of £75 (approx. £8,700 today).
1914 - 1916
During the First World War a proportion of the Company was concentrated on munitions production. In 1915 Wolseley was contracted for the supply of 12,000 shell heads per week for a firm called Accles & Shelvoke (who were later taken over by the Group in 1961). Wolseley also made the Webley & Scott flare pistol.By 1916 profits boomed to £34,000, the heights of which were not reached again until the Second World War.
During the war the remainder of the company continued to trade as normal, and in 1916 an updated model of the petrol engine went into production, that produced up to 5hp.
In early 1932 the Board ordered a reduction on all salaries, 10% for Directors and Managers and 7.5% for Works and Office Staff. Several acquisition bids were made for the Company, but all were deemed by the Board to undervalue it. In 1933, after a turbulent few years, the Board began a reorganisation of the Company.
Wolseley disposed of its Australian assets (completing in 1936) and the Company started to make profits again. The Wolseley product line was redesigned making existing products smaller and more efficient and new products were introduced, such as the Clipkit, making the sheering machine portable. Wolseley also moved towards the ‘Home Trade’ with products such as milk coolers, strainers, wind driven lighting, hand tools, oils and force feed oil cans.
By 1936 the UK government had started re-armament and Wolseley was quick to obtain various contracts for bomb containers and steel bomb noses. Wolseley also imported the Parmak Electric Fencer from America, this quickly became one of its most successful product lines.
During the Second World War Wolseley once again concentrated on supply work. The Company had a good reputation for skilled engineering and carried out sub-contracting for Rolls Royce aircraft engines. Wolseley also continued to make munitions and the Company began to increase output leading to large expansion. Despite the Company making considerable profits during the war, these were nearly all paid to the UK Government due to Excess Profits Tax.
The post war period saw the introduction of several new product lines. The products ranged from engines to agricultural elevators to milk coolers. This period also saw a continued improvement in the Company’s existing products and some more unexpected product development, such as a remote babysitting device for expectant cows, alerting farmers to when a cow went into labour.
In 1955 the Company changed its name from Wolseley Sheep Searing Machine Co. Ltd. To Wolseley Engineering Ltd., to align with its wider range of products.
Between 1956 and 1957 Wolseley moved towards small agricultural machinery such as the Swipe and later the Jungle Buster. Wolseley acquired the licence to manufacture the Merry Tiller and despite a saturated market, the Merry Tiller proved to be a long-standing market leader in both quality and price. In the same year the Company acquired, HC Webb & Co., which added lawn mowers and hedge trimmers to the product portfolio.
In 1958 Wolseley completed a merger with Geo. H. Hughes, a versatile manufacturer producing wheels for a wide variety of uses. The Company changed its name to Wolseley-Hughes Limited. The £1 ordinary shares are quoted at 20 shillings and sixpence. Wolseley-Hughes is still relatively small. The Groups sales are c. £2.1 million and it employs around 1,000 people.
The Wolseley-Hughes Group acquired Nu-Way Heating which was based in Droitwich Spa in 1960. This acquisition had a significant impact on the Groups development, being the first business acquired in the heating market where it still operates today. The spare parts division of Nu-Way Heating is rebranded OBC (Oil Burner Components) and begins to grow rapidly.
In 1965 the Group ceased manufacturing of all sheep shearing equipment, the product line was simply not profitable enough. Whilst at the same time OBC continues to grow both organically and via acquisition with the purchase of Granville Controls and Yorkshire Heating Supplies.
In 1973 three businesses – OBC, Granville Controls and Yorkshire Heating Supplies form the main constituents of Wolseley-Hughes Merchants, which commences business on 1 August. Today the Company is known as Wolseley UK. The subsidiary originally distributed spare parts for burners but as the UK central heating market expanded, the business also began to distribute domestic system radiators and boilers.
In 1976 the Group ceases engine manufacturing, having manufactured 143,144 engines from 1943-1976. The Group also starts to implement a programme of vast acquisitive expansion within the UK heating and plumbing market.
In 1979 Wolseley acquires the publicly quoted John James Group of Companies Limited, which includes a significant distributor of industrial pipe, valves and fittings, now trading under the Mechanical side of the Wolseley brand.
On 4 January 1982, Wolseley registers as a public limited company. As part of its expansion programme, Wolseley purchases Ferguson Enterprises, a distributor of plumbing and heating supplies. Ferguson Enterprises was a US acquisition and the first overseas investment. Wolseley's financial strength contributed to Ferguson's phenomenal growth in the next decade expanding into 13 new states, more than doubling the total number of locations to nearly 200 by the early 1990’s.
Wolseley UK is established to distribute building products. The division operates under Plumb Center, Controls Center and Pipeline Center. Wolseley UK still operates today and is open 24/7 through its website www.wolseley.co.uk.
Due to its increased product offerings, the Group is renamed Wolseley plc and in April 1986 Wolseley plc listed on the London Stock Exchange. The Group also continues its US expansion with the purchase of Carolina Builders.
In 1989, Charlie Banks, Ferguson's first official trainee, became Company President. With Banks' guidance until 2001, Ferguson grew from $606 million in sales to over $3.3 billion and had more than 500 locations in 38 states.
The Group looks to Europe to grow its business and in 1992 purchases France’s leading supplier of plumbing supplies, Brossette. Following the acquisition the Group moves into Austria, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic. In 1993 the Group also expands further into Sweden with the purchase of Enertech. On 21 June 1993 Wolseley is added to the FTSE 100 for the first time since the FTSE 100 was introduced in 1984.
After strengthening its position in Europe the Group boosts its US operations with 15 acquisitions in the US between 1997-1998, including lumber compaony Stock Lumber. Total acquisitions amounted to £204.8 million. In 1998 the Group purchases UK building supply firm Hall and Co.
In 1999 Wolseley acquired five businesses across the US, UK and Republic of Ireland for £38 million. European growth gathers pace again with the acquisition Manzardo in Italy and CFM in Luxembourg. The late 1990s see the Group continue its withdrawal from engineering by selling off its boiler and burner businesses. In 2000 Private equity firm Cinven purchased most of the Groups manufacturing businesses for around £215 million.
In February 2001, with the disposal of the majority of the Enertech business, the Group finally exits manufacturing and is now completely focused on its distribution activities. Later that year Wolseley expands into Canada through the acquisition of Westburne plumbing operations for around £250 million. The UK operations of Nationwide Refrigerations Supplies are bought by Wolseley UK for around £22 million. In May 2001, Wolseley plc commenced an ADR level 2 listing on the New York Stock Exchange in addition to its London listing.
In 2002, Wolseley buys Clayton, the fourth largest wholesale distributor of waterworks, wastewater and storm drainage material in the US for approximately £77 million. The Wasco Group is purchased for £38 million and sees Wolseley expanding into Holland.
In 2005 Wolseley moves into a new country, Belgium, through the acquisition of Centratec. The group also moves into new product areas – electricals and insulation – through the acquisitions of William Wilson and Encon in the UK.
In 2007 Wolseley further extends its geographic reach by acquiring DT Group, a distributor of building materials in the Nordic region. The business has operations in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. By 2007 Wolseley was operating 48 key brands which were displayed in the 2007 annual report.
In 2009, as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the Group implemented a comprehensive restructuring program and adopted a new strategy to focus the Group’s resources on those businesses capable of generating the highest returns for shareholders with a particular focus on core plumbing and heating markets. This strategy resulted in the disposal of many of the Group’s businesses. Large scale disposals during this period included Stock Building Supply, the United States building materials business in 2009, Build Center, the UK building materials business and Brossette, the French plumbing and heating business in 2012.
In August of 2016 after a six-year tenure as Group Chief Financial Officer, John Martin is appointed as Group Chief Executive of Wolseley plc. The Company invested $418 million on 16 bolt-on acquisitions, these included Signature Hardware and Matera Paper Company.
In 2017 Wolseley plc changed its name to Ferguson plc to better align itself with the largest subsidiary in the Group. Ferguson Enterprises generates over 90% of the Group’s earnings and employs the majority of its associates. The US business has been operating for more than 65 years, 35 years under the Wolseley name, and has a reputation for great quality and service. The change of name continues to help raise the Group’s profile further in the US market and establish a greater connection between stakeholders and the US brand. The Wolseley brand however still operates throughout Canada and the United Kingdom.
In 2017 the Group completed 11 bolt-on acquisitions for a total consideration of £292 million, this includes the acquisition of Supply.com.
The Group completed the disposal of the Nordics business for c. €1bn. Ferguson also returned over $2 billion to shareholders during the year through dividends and buybacks. As well as the disposals the Group also completed 13 acquisitions for $415 million including; Safe Step, World & Main, Amre Supply, Grand Junction Pipe, and Millennium Lighting.
For more detail on Ferguson’s excellent progress in 2018 please find the annual report here.