Memories of Stoke-on-Trent people - Ken Green


Ken Green


A Life in the Ceramic Tile Industry 
section 14

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PODMORE AND SONS LTD.  1971 to 1978


Podmore and Sons Ltd. was located in Shelton, Stoke–on-Trent on land bounded by Shelton New Road, Bedford Road, Bedford Street and the Cauldon Canal.  (Ridgway Pottery had previously occupied the site.  My mother had worked for Ridgway and it was there that I first saw tiles made.)  Podmore produced frits (a component of glazes), complete glazes and zirconium silicate opacifiers.  The company was privately owned by Henry Podmore and family and with a very small holding by one other director and later by me.  I joined the company in 1971, at the suggestion of Denis Fahey of William Boulton Ltd., and remained there until 1978 when Henry Podmore sacked me.  In the meantime I became the production director, and later joint managing director with Henry Podmore.  Such titles meant little.


My industrial experience had been with financially sound and orderly companies.  I was soon to learn that I had previously enjoyed a very sheltered commercial existence.  My new experiences were, very often, not to my liking and friction arose, at times, between my senior colleagues and me.  The company’s commercial director, of many years standing, was Colin Maitland.  I reckon that he had held the company together through difficult times.  He certainly made a major contribution during my period at Podmore and, I believe, did so afterwards, until the company was bought out.


The Zircon Opacifier World in 1971

The “raw material” was, in fact, zirconium silicate sand (zircon) extracted and processed from deposits in the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia and areas to the south of Perth, Australia.  Deposits were also to be found in Florida but the processed materials remained mainly in the USA.  Less pure deposits were to be found, notably in Kerala (India), China, Russia and various other locations.  These were not good enough for use in ceramic tile.  Zircon was usually transported from Australia to UK as minimum shipments of eight thousand tonnes of loose sand and stored in silos at factory.  Podmore was never able to finance, or store, such shipments.  Zircon was bought as 20kg.bags from UK merchants.  The company was, therefore, at an immediate disadvantage against competitors buying zircon direct from the Australian mines.  I reckoned that the UK merchants were making more per tonne of zircon, as intermediaries, than we were as processors.

The manufacturers of zircon opacifier were limited: Ultrox (very big) in North America, Bitossi (medium) in Italy, Kreutz (small) in Germany, Le Moulin des Pres (small) in France), ALM (large, to be known later as Cookson) of UK and Italy and Podmore (small) of UK.  Others arose during the next few years and I became involved in setting up four of them.

The first was a plant for my previous company, H & R Johnson, which Podmore installed in 1972 at Johnson’s Eastwood factory.  Podmore personnel involved were Geoff Lander, Graham Cope, Reg Latimer and Bill Challinor.  H&RJ soon made savings with this plant because the charge for “know-how” was tiny and because the wet-ground product was transported around the Potteries in slurry form, so saving the cost of drying and bagging.  Richard Bossuns and Eric Grund of H & R J improved the plant by introducing special grinding media purchased from Bitossi of Italy.  They were, later, also able to further reduce costs because H & R J’s purchasing power enabled them to contract economically for zircon sand.

The second plant was installed in1973 at San Felice sul Panaro, about 25Km north east of Modena, Italy.  It was a 50/50 joint enterprise, between La Generale of Italy and Podmore of UK, to make zircon opacifier.  The company was named Podmore-Generale.  I had, during the 1960’s, done business with an Italian company called CIBEC and got to know the owner: Comm. R. Benassi and his colleagues.  I approached them with the offer of a joint venture, which they took up through their interest in La Generale.  The rapidly expanding tile industries of Italy, Spain and Brazil influenced their decision.  The Podmore personnel responsible for installation and commissioning were Geoff Lander, Reg Latimer and Graham Cope.  Shortly after commissioning, La Generale installed a CIBEC spray dryer to replace the “traditional” drying process installed by Podmore.


The other two plants were installed and commissioned in 1979 after my departure from Podmore. 


From the 1950’s, the extraction of mineral sands (zircon) has been subject to environmental controls by the Australian authorities.  Extraction sometimes had to stop, but care was always taken by the Australian authorities that stocks and extraction matched world requirements.  That did not always prevented panic-buying and intermediate merchants raising their prices for speculative or panicky customers.  At such times, the possibility of using less pure zircon sand would arise.  One such time was in 1974.  I accepted an invitation to visit the zircon areas south of Cochin, Kerala, India with a view to upgrading the zircon and processing to opacifier stage.  It was not viable because, of course, the price of zircon came tumbling down (as expected) during my stay in Cochin.  I traveled on in November 1974 to visit the mineral sands (zircon) areas around Bunberry, West Australia and the Gold Coast, Queensland.  I became much better acquainted with people in the Australian zircon world.  The tour was rounded off with visits to our agents’ offices in Toronto and Montreal, Canada and to their customers in that country.


During 1978, Denis Fahey of William Boulton told me that the specialist grinding equipment, of the type we used for zircon processing, had been ordered supposedly for another purpose by a newly formed Spanish company.  He suspected, however, that they really intended to produce zircon opacifiers.  Our agents in Spain claimed not to have any knowledge of the matter.     

The China Connection.  The Peoples Republic of China had closed itself off from the rest of the world following the defeat of the Nationalists in 1949.  China began to “open” in 1978.  
An invitation was received to send a delegation, representing UK equipment and material suppliers, to visit Chinese ceramic factories.  
Included in the delegation were friends: 

Philip Dovey of William Boulton, 
Graham Gould of English China Clays, 
Les Gunn of Gibbons Kilns (Les and I were to later become colleagues in Interkiln, an American company.) 
and several other business associates.  

A return delegation from China came to the UK in October 1978.  At the request of William Boulton, I received them at Podmore.  I also accompanied them on other factory visits arranged by Graham Gould of English China Clays.  Thus began the “Guan Xi”.




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