History of the Bird Group
The Early Years
The Bird Group, founded in 1912 by W T (Tom) Bird, has a long, interesting and impressive history. When the Prime Minister James Callaghan opened the Bird Group’s new fragmentation installation in Cardiff in 1978, it marked another major development by Europe’s largest privately-owned reclamation enterprise. At that time the Bird Group also had subsidiaries in the US. The success story of this family within the reclamation industry starts with one man.
There may still be many senior citizens in Birmingham who remember “The Old Firm”. Tom Bird was the name, a man who might have struggled through a life of infirmity and still won the admiration of his neighbours. But he did better than that.
At the age of no more than three he underwent an operation for the removal of one lung, and that was in the days way before the first world war. He remained in hospital until he was over 10and out of sheer concern for the fate of this poor boy, the doctors and nurses at the hospital clubbed together to buy him a handcart. At least, they thought, he should be able to scratch a living by selling firewood from door to door but they warned him that he should never drink or smoke of he would not live more than 20 years. He should also not have any children as they would have serious health problems. He abided by the former advice but ignored the latter and was the father of five children.
But Tom Bird had other ideas. He decided that fruit and vegetables were a better proposition than firewood and at an age when other boys were still running errands he tried for a pitch in Birmingham’s Bull Ring market. The traders hardly welcomed this upstart but Tom Bird persisted. He established his stall, gained the confidence of his fellow traders and by the age of eighteen was head of a small trading empire, owning a score of pitches and engaging a team of Birmingham barrow boys.
Tom Bird now had 50 men working for him, but the fruit and vegetable trade tended to be something of a summer business. During the winter fewer men were required to man the stalls and so Tom Bird looked around for something to bring in revenue. The motor vehicle was the wonder of the age and as he used a diesel truck to collect fruit and vegetables from Covent Garden, therefore commercial vehicles struck the young man as an area that could be rewarding diversification. And so it proved. Eventually Birds Commercial Motors achieved national leadership in selling second hand buses purchased from municipal bus companies such as Birmingham, London and Manchester and ex-military trucks, tanks and transporters from the Ministry of Defence and large transport companies.
It was in the early days of his diversification into the motor business that Tom Bird identified the course that was later to bring his company to pre-eminence in scrap processing. Back in the 1930s in the time of the great depression, not being able to sell commercial vehicles, he cut them up for spares and scrapped the remaining carcasses. He quickly appreciated that profits were to be made from dismantling for spares and scrap from the more elderly products of the motor industry.
He was in the reclamation business at a time when vehicle dismantling had hardly been thought about. Dismantling of vehicles soon led to demolition of somewhat larger structures. In 1938Tom Bird won a contract to dismantle the tramway system of Weston-super-Mare. Equipped with one of those celebrated bull-nosed Morris cars with the roof cut off to accommodate his two gas bottles, sledge hammer and a set of jacks, he completed the job so efficiently that the following year he was engaged to demolish the town’s gasworks.
Although Tom Bird had amazed a number of medical practitioners by his dogged victory over ill-health, no doctor would pass him fit for service in the second world war with only one lung. So he set about clearing up the mess created by Hitler’s bombers and under Government contract removed rubble he cleared bomb sites of twisted steel in the cities of Coventry and Birmingham, helping to get the factories back into production. He also owned and operated a brick works at that time.
When the war ended, he expanded into marketing ex-Government surplus supplies, processing scrap and trading in second hand buses.
The Company Mechanises
In the late 1950s, all three brothers were now in the company with their father and, in order to find niches for themselves, they gradually steered the company into the reclamation sector in a serious manner. They travelled to the United States where the American scrap industry was just starting to modernize where ground breaking ideas in scrap processing machinery, some large enough to crush a whole car or shear a railway truck into small pieces.
Fairly early in life, as mentioned earlier, Tom Bird had been solemnly warned that he should forget any ideas about having a family. Characteristically he ignored those warnings – a fact of fundamental significance to the future of the enterprise he created.
When he died in 1973 of pneumonia while on a business trip to America at the age of 72, none of the doctors who tended him as a child would have believed it possible that he had brought up with his very astute wife May, five children, two girls and three boys and ensured that they had a good education, so much so that he had three well trained co-directors in his sons able and ready to carry on the business.
The Company Takes Off
In the first ten years after their father’s death, the company grew from £2 million turnover to over £100 million by the early 1980s.
At the time of the founder’s death, Tommy Bird became Group Chairman and took on Birds development in the USA. Tony and Brian Bird are Joint Group Managing Directors, responsibility for UK operations on a widening reclamation front divided between them. Not surprisingly, various subsidiary interests have grown up over the years and these were operated by the group as profit centres in their own right. Each brother had his own part of the Group to control and develop according to his own designs and expertise.
The group’s founder had never needed any encouragement to support his sons’ new ideas and his philosophy of introducing technology into an industry which had previously existed on manual labour was magnified in the approach of his sons.
Mechanisation on a large scale began for Bird Group in the late 1960s when the self-appointed pundits in the UK steel industry and government departments were denouncing the American designed heavy guillotine shears installed in Bird’s yards as thoroughly inappropriate for Britain. Birds thought otherwise and continued to invest in pioneering heavy machinery. They copied and improved some of the American technology, refining and redesigning it and having much of the manufacturing carried out mainly by Lindemann in Dusseldorf who became the world’s leading manufacturer of scrap processing plant. This early mechanisation was the beginning which eventually gave Birds a lead in the UK scrap processing industry.
This intensive specialisation in processing has brought many rewards for the group but perhaps the most impressive is the way in which steelworks themselves have contracted Birds to carry out in-plant processing of scrap. No other recycling company enjoyed the privilege of operating within a steel mill complex. The breakthrough came in the early 1960s when a joint venture with the American based Heckett company brought Birds into the Spencer Works of what was then Richard, Thomas & Baldwins to process all arisings of scrap and even deliver scrap-charging units to the furnaces.
Subsequently, Birds gained further contracts to process scrap inside other British steel mills, followed by private sector mills after the de-nationalisation of the industry. This sphere of activity now represented an important aspect of the Group’s business.
The Bird brothers learned the scrap industry from the ground floor up, for their father was hardly a man to allow his sons to slide comfortably into the top of the company. They were required to prove themselves in every aspect of the business and their progress to the group board was by no means pre-ordained.
They have maintained an open minded attitude to the development of the scrap industry, seeking out and assessing technological development where and when it occurs.
It was after technical search visits to the USA that Birds introduced the mobile car crusher to Britain on the principle that it could be both more efficient and more economic to take processing equipment to scrap rather than to cart scrap to the processing plant. They redesigned the crushers and made them into mobile car crushers which were towed behind Leyland diesel trucks.
Having been featured somewhat dramatically in the film version of Ian Flemming’s ‘Goldfinger’, these machines were naturally christened Goldfinger crushers and a fleet toured local authority car dumps turning thousands of cars a week into large bales as a raw material for the steel industry. The baled cars were then transported to the nearest dock and shipped mainly to the Spanish steel mills. Bird Goldfingers even worked in France long before Britain joined the Common Market.
The Goldfinger balers which Birds had manufactured for them in Bridgend, South Wales, were joined by Lubird mobile shears, built especially for Birds by Lindemann. These 550 ton mobile shears are operated on exactly the same principle as the Goldfingers but add extra versatility as they were able to cut up heavy demolition steel work into furnace feed for the UK steel mills.
The baled cars produced by the Goldfinger car crushers included the whole car, engine, upholstery and even the tyres but they were low quality scrap which had to be diluted by the steelmakers with a much purer quality material and when a low cycle in the steel industry occurred, they became difficult to sell. So Birds came up with the answer with technology they knew was being developed in the USA.
In Texas, the Newell family from San Antonio was working on a machine it called a ‘shredder’ or ‘fragmentiser’. It could shred a car in just three minutes into thousands of fist size pieces which were passed over conveyors where rotary magnets removed all the steel from the shredded tyres, glass and upholstery. In collaboration with Lindemann of Dusseldorf and the Newell designers, Birds installed Europe’s first fully operational fragmentiser. There was one installed in Paris at about the same time but it was rarely used. This was the first of over 20 fragmentisers installed across the UK making Birds the largest shredder operator in Europe.
The Bird Group finally ended up with 30 scrap processing plants in the UK and by 1985 became the UK’s largest processor of ferrous scrap.
The brothers had much confidence in the future of the recycling industry. They argued that Europe would face scrap shortages from time to time if the low end of the market metal bearing products such as cars, white goods etc were not recovered from the waste stream by the recycling industry. Recognising also that steel is a cyclical industry, they understood that the scrap processor must diversify sufficiently to provide a sound business base during periods of low demand from the steel makers.
For Birds this began in a serious manner by developing their non-ferrous processing division using techniques such as metal flotation which used a heavy media process employed in ore recovery in gold mines. Some technology they developed themselves such as the eddy current separator and electronic scrap recovery plant. Other diversifications were demolition and transport, nuclear decommissioning, North Sea platform decommissioning and property development.
It was in 1980 when Birds designed and built the UK’s first fully integrated heavy media non-ferrous separation plant to process to process the non-ferrous and non-metallic waste from the shredding of motor cars.
This was followed in 1981 by the world’s first on-line eddy current separator to extract the shredded aluminium from the non-ferrous waste recovered in the heavy media process. The eddy current separator, for which the Bird Group won the Prince of Wales’ Award for Technology and Innovation and the Tomorrow’s World Award to Technological Development and Innovation, was not patented sufficiently and this technology is currently used worldwide in nearly every metal recycling plant and many other applications in non-ferrous metal recovery and recycling.
In 1983 the Bird Group research laboratory developed a robotic system for size reduction of equipment used in the nuclear bomb making process which had radioactive contamination. In 1984 they joined the George Wimpey Group and Gilbert International as equal partners in a nuclear decommissioning joint venture company and later went onto own the whole company by buying out their partners.
In 1985 they constructed the UK’s first large scale electronic scrap processing plant to recover precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium and, of course, copper and aluminium from telephone exchanges, computers, radar installation scrap and many other sources including motor cars and white goods.
Birds also had a special role in advising the government and oil companies and subsequently produced decommissioning procedures for North Sea platforms which became a statutory requirement.
The Group were advisors to the nuclear industry on decommissioning nuclear installations and they decommissioned the Power House Building at Windscale Nuclear Power Station but this did not involve the reactor.
Machinery investment in the group’s US operation began with a multi million dollar deal with American Hoist to provide all the equipment for a Bird in-plant project at the Lynchberg works of the world’s largest independent foundry group.
It was at that time that Birds view was that Europe was overloaded with scrap companies. Free trade was restricted to EEC member countries, but America did not have controls on the export of scrap.
The United States offered the world’s biggest domestic market with a giant scrap surplus and numerous well-defined export trading outlets. This transatlantic stance has enabled Birds to trade internationally which would probably have been outside the scope of a company based in Britain.
Birds carried on as one of Europe’s leaders in technological development in recycling of principally metals and before they sold most of their company in 1993 to Allied Steel. In the late eighties, they designed a refrigerator recycling system and proposed to the government a plan to build ten refrigerator recycling plants across the UK to recover the CFC gases which were destroying the ozone layer. They asked the government to ban the dumping of refrigerators in landfill in order to get the scheme off the ground. It took the government twelve years to do this and Bird’s successors then implemented the scheme. They also designed and had plans in place to build a power station using automobile shredder waste as a fuel.
In 1993, after the sale to Allied Steel of the majority of their scrap processing company, roughly 1 million tonnes per annum, the eldest brother retired and Tony and Brian took over. Not wanting to give up the recycling industry completely, they decided to operate four yards which Allied were not interested in purchasing and in just three years, with these four yards, they two brothers had built up a business approaching the tonnage of the major company they had sold.
Transition to Property
In 1989 they became involved in their first large property development venture by building the Maybird Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon which was named after the brothers’ mother, May Bird.
In 1995 they sold half their business to Sims Metal of Australia, selling the remaining half to them two years later.
In 2000, they developed land on the River Thames which they had retained in the deal with Sims Metal and obtained a development of 250 apartments adjacent to the Thames Barrier.
In 2000 – 2012, they built several shopping centres (Safeway, Tesco, Waitrose), a health spa, hotels, business parks, apartments, scrap metal processing facilities and developed a large dry dock, Birdport in Newport, Gwent.
They were front runners in the last government’s eco town plans and would have built a 5000 house new town with St Modwen if the labour government had won the election. The eco town would have been a world leader with three bedroom houses only requiring £100 worth of energy a year for heating. All waste would have been transported underground in one meter diameter vacuum pipes with plastics, glass and metals in one tube, cardboard and paper in the second and sloppy waste in the third.
All of these three giant transport systems, powered by vacuum, would have carried the waste for one mile underground to the recycling plant where the glass, plastics and metals would be recovered. The cardboard and paper would also be delivered by vacuum tube straight into a baling plant and then pressed into a container for delivery to paper mills. The sloppy kitchen waste would be fed by the system into a plasma arc convertor and converted into a high grade methane gas which would power an electricity generator. The sewage, after de-watering, would have also been fed into the plasma arc and converted into electricity. This underground vacuum system would have saved thousands of lorry journeys, collecting and then carrying waste long distances to landfill.
The eco town would have been the proving ground for efficient energy saving technology on a large scale and provided the UK with new technology which could have been retro fitted into existing homes. It would have been a model for future housing development.
Now the industry is building new developments which, although improving slightly on the environmental front, are still years behind the standards which the eco town would have achieved.
Birds now continue in property development as explained in this website with the younger generation of the family also very much involved.