March 7, 2021

Wolseley UK Ltd – Leading the way

Wolseley UK Ltd is the UK operating subsidiary of Wolseley PLC, one of the largest distributors of building products in the world. Wolseley UK’s head office is at Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. The company is wholly engaged in the distribution of construction products and materials through a nationwide branch network.

The company is organised into trading brands, which service distinct customer groups. Many of these brands are market leaders with outstanding reputations for supplying professionals in the construction market. Names such as Plumb Center, Parts Center, Pipe Center, Drain Center, Climate Center, William Wilson are widely recognised throughout the industry.

Wolseley UK provides a daily delivery service to branches from three massive regional distribution centres situated at Ripon, Worcester and Milton Keynes – backed by a national distribution centre at Leamington Spa. The company uses its own fleet of specially designed commercial vehicles. Branch-based vehicles then complete the ‘Hub and Spoke’ network by satisfying local accounts. The Wolseley UK commercial fleet boasts more than 2,000 vehicles, making it one of the biggest in the UK.

The company has invested heavily into information technology. All Wolseley UK branches have been networked to mainframe central computers for over 15 years and the company has eight fully transactional websites. Continuing investment in the latest supply chain software maintains high levels of efficiency whilst minimising costs. Wolseley UK also invests heavily in people. There is a company-wide training structure and a policy of promoting from within wherever possible. All employees are encouraged to develop core and associated skills utilising internal and external resources

The early days

Born in Dublin, Frederick York Wolseley (1837 – 1899) was one of a family of seven and emigrated to Australia when he was 17. At the end of the 19th century, the Australian economy largely depended on sheep farming. Sheep shearing was carried out by hand which was a slow and tiring process. This factor, together with the the lack of experienced labour served to restrict the size of sheep flocks. Frederick was working in Australia and he applied his mind to finding a mechanical solution to the hand shearing problem.

In 1887, he founded the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company in Sydney, Australia, for the purpose of manufacturing his invention, which revolutionised the lives of sheep shearers around the world. Wolseley soon discovered that engineering skill was not available in Australia and so he imported components from England, but even this was difficult because of communication problems and the interpretation of specifications.

24290-Wakefield L-R: Kevin Dodd (cheif exec WDH), Wilby Meadows (Wolseley), Derek Cooper (tennant board member) & Steve Lawson (cheif exec WDH)
L-R: Kevin Dodd (cheif exec WDH), Wilby Meadows (Wolseley), Derek Cooper (tennant board member) & Steve Lawson (cheif exec WDH)

Wolseley returned to Britain, and in 1889, after some difficulty, he finally set up a new company that purchased the rights and patents of the Australian company for £75,000. The English company sold the machines, which were manufactured in Birmingham, to Australia. Wolseley returned to Australia in 1890 and sent a young engineer back to England to look after the inspection of the products. Herbert Austin arrived in England on 9 March 1892 and took up his duties as chief inspector. Austin was an ambitious young man and by November 1892 he had set up a warehouse in Broad Street, Birmingham, thus starting the company’s long association with the Midlands. The company struggled for survival between 1892 and 1896 and was forced to raise additional money by debenture, which was used to finance the company’s move to a new factory at Alma Street (the Sydney Works).

The horseless carriage had by this time become the rage of Europe and after a visit to a Paris exhibition, Austin obtained permission from the directors of the company to design and build a machine. In May 1896 Austin was given a budget, which stated that the vehicles were to cost no more than £100 each. By January 1897, the original model was produced and although untested, was exhibited in Liverpool, the final testing being delayed until after the exhibition. Test records show that the first successful journey was completed from the works to Sutton Coldfield and back, some 18 miles, in May 1898, and in July of the same year a crew of two completed a normal journey of 255 miles to Rhyl. The average speed was some 8mph and fuel cost was logged at 40 miles for one shilling. By 1899, the first Wolseley horseless carriage was on sale to the public at £120. Although exact records are unavailable it is believed that only about 100 of these original vehicles were manufactured and an example can be seen at the Beaulieu Museum of Motor Vehicles in England.

Ironically, Wolseley, the man who transformed Australia’s rural economy and facilitated the fledgling British motor industry, did not enjoy either the fame or fortune of many of his contemporaries. When he died, aged sixty-two, in 1899, his estate was valued at a modest £115,000, and for almost ninety years his grave in a south London cemetery remained unmarked.

In 1901, Wolseley sold its car and machine tool business to Vickers Son and Maxim, which subsequently became a part of Morris Motors, BMC, British Leyland and Rover Group. Herbert Austin left Wolseley to start his own factory at Longbridge. Thus within the roots of Wolseley lie the origins of the UK car industry.

The next steps

The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company continued to operate with little notable success and during 1902 to 1935 its trading results were poor. In 1935, Captain MacNamara was appointed as the first ever managing director. He redesigned and improved the company’s traditional products as well as introducing several new lines such as electric fencing and cattle clippers. During WWII the company concentrated on work for the Ministry of Supply, but after the war the transition from munitions to more peaceful products was difficult. Steady progress was made between 1952 and 1957 when further additions were made to the product range.

In 1958, Wolseley found itself with good management and products, but short of finance. The then MD of Wolseley, Rodney Drake, and his next door neighbor Cyril Hughes (the chairman of Geo. H Hughes) decided to merge and formed a company Wolseley-Hughes Limited. Geo H Hughes was involved in the manufacture of wire wheels. It was soon apparent that Wolseley-Hughes was going to grow and the new group attracted several other companies. A total of 14 companies joined the group and a further five new companies were formed, which had the result of increasing sales from a level of £2m to £27m in 1971.

Into merchanting

Wolseley, through its member company Nu Way, were involved in central heating. After a visit to the USA in the early 60’s, the then Chairman, Norman Lancaster returned with the idea of selling central heating spares and a new business called OBC (Oil Burner Components) was formed. Although it only involved three people, it soon began to generate significant business. The discovery of North Sea Gas prompted a boom in the sales of central heating which had previously been regarded as something of a luxury. Branches were quickly opened in and around the Midlands and West Country and the company experienced rapid growth. One of the early purchases was a small company based in Leeds called YHS (Yorkshire Heating Supplies).


From 1974 onwards, the company was extremely active in finding suitable companies to join the group. It is a proud boast that we have never been involved in a hostile takeover.

In 1979 the John James group of companies came onboard bringing KS Pipelines, RSJ Plastics and several engineering companies.

The group then parted with its manufacturing companies to concentrate all efforts on distribution. Wolseley made its first foreign acquisition in 1982 with Ferguson Enterprises Inc. A bold move into the USA for a British company and even more unusually, a successful one. Carolina Builders Corporation joined in 1986, further strengthening the group’s US presence. These acquisitions, together with an aggressive policy of branch openings at home, led to an increase in sales from £27m in 1974 to over £739m in 1986.

In March 1986, Wolseley acquired Grovewood Securities, an industrial group employing some 6,000 people. Grovewood brought a whole raft of manufacturing companies and, most importantly, MA Ray and MP Harris. These mixed merchant operations were almost exclusively based in the South East region and together added some 25 outlets to the existing network.


All these acquisitions had led to a proliferation of identities and liveries. There was a need to rationalise the multiplicity of liveries into specialist divisions, and this was accomplished in 1986 with the establishment of Plumb Center, Builder Center, Pipeline Center, Controls Center and Crangrove. Further acquisitions in the USA soon followed with the Familian Corporation in 1987 and Familian NW in 1988. Wolseley’s first venture into mainland Europe came with the acquisition of Brossette in 1992. HRPC joined the group in 1993 and OAG in 1994.

In the UK, Wolseley acquired a variety of businesses including Needwood, Ferguson & Harvey, Willison, Brown & Tawse, Excel, Wrights, Wash-Vac, JF Lord, High Cool, Broughtons, British Fittings, Hastings Catering Spares, Firstbase Timber, Greenhow & Welch, JT Atkinson, Hall & Co., Encon, William Wilson, AC Electrical and Brandon Hire. Other overseas acquisitions include Manzardo in Italy.

In recent years, Wolseley UK has grown steadily both organically and by become the largest provider of materials and associated services to the UK construction sector