Michael Dalrymple: He Can Fix It!
Published: 7th August 2015
I was born in London in 1932. My father fought in The Great War, and later worked on the continent as a chauffeur for a German toy manufacturer. He was a tall man – 6' 4" – whilst my mother was only 4' 11".
My father returned to England when the Second World War started and became an electric welder. He was a very practical man. He had met my mother in Paris, where she was a governess. Her father had been the captain of a ship lost at sea. She had gone to live in France and forgot how to speak English.
I grew up in Twickenham, near the rugby ground. As a child, I suffered with bronchitis and pneumonia. I never sat an exam, let alone passed one, and wasn't academic at all. I was lucky if I managed nine months of education in any given year.
I was 15 when I started working for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. I remember speaking to the manager, a man called W. E. Duggan from Ohio, and he asked: 'What are you going to do at this company?" I replied "I want your job, sir!" I worked in just about every department you could think of before leaving for National Service.
Whilst in the Army, I was laid up in hospital with bronchitis for two days. During that time, the rest of my brigade were sent out to Korea. I was the only man who didn't go. I was so upset at the time, because my friends had all gone. Half of those men never came back. At the time, that was our Vietnam.
I didn't want to be a soldier. No National Serviceman did really, it was just seen as serving the Queen. I was pleased to go back to Firestone where I became their youngest manager at the age of 22.
I left Firestone to work for a small rubber merchant called RTR Tyres. I hadn't been there long when one of the partners, Mr Reynolds, called me into his office to say that the other two partners had been fired, and that once I had finished selling all the stock, I could leave too! As it turned out, the two of us at that little company made a small fortune.
I knuckled down, selling the tyres, which we exported to many countries. After the war, rubber was in short supply so you could make a good living from second-hand tyres.
Someone working at a big haulage company needed a wheel repair service. I told him we could do it, although we didn't actually offer a repair service. I knew that, in our stock of wheels, we had one exactly the same! So we buffed it up and sent it to this chap, and he was delighted! Word spread and gradually we developed a wheel repair arm to the business. We built a successful business, dealing with every tyre distributor and big haulage
company from Kingston to Gravesend.
Waste rubber merchants were certainly never considered as businessmen, but the two of us were different, as we always wore suits. We had visiting cards and proper invoices and by being professional we created a successful business. That makes a huge difference.
One day, wearing my suit, I went to Jack Barclay in Berkeley Square, which sold and still does sell Rolls-Royce and Bentleys. I saw the sales manager and told him I was a scrap rubber dealer and he literally grabbed me and took me to the cellar. There were hundreds of tyres and he said 'Get rid of them!" I said "These are finished! I can only buy them at scrap value, sixpence each."
Really, I knew that Rolls-Royce owners never wore out their tyres. The next day, I returned in my overalls with a lorry and the same salesmen said "Your governor was here yesterday," not knowing it was me. I took the tyres away, and we sold every one of them for a white fiver just days later. We made over £5,000 in one week!
I was always very interested in horticulture so I started my own tree surgery business, Michael Dalrymple of Esher Ltd, in 1956. I would do whatever needed to be done. I would clean gutters, prune trees, sell logs - everything. There was so much work as we looked after all the London boroughs.
We looked after the trees at the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital for 30 years and we won a huge contract at Hampton Court Palace to fell 100 lime trees. It was a high pressure job. There was concern that the newly-planted trees would bend in high wind, so we designed a bracing system underground to hold the trees steady without being seen. That was just before the 1987 hurricane and not one of those trees fell.
At the request of Merrist Wood College, I taught students basic tree surgery, machinery maintenance and plant identification. But what happens is that you train somebody for a year, pass on knowledge and then of course they would start their own company!
When I started my business, there were 12 tree surgery companies in England. I could name them all! We all knew each other and we all had a lot of work. I ran a team of 20 tree surgeons and at times our contracts would keep them all busy for over a year. At one time, I owned three Porsches in succession, but people thought I must be overpricing, so I bought a Renault pick-up truck instead!
Gradually we expanded, and started making machines that turned cuttings and garden waste in compost. Councils across the country were investing in green waste recycling and started using our mulchers. Our machines differed from our German rivals in that they shredded rather than pulverised organic material. These mulchers were engineered under the Dalrymple name in Chelwood.
We were the first company making brushwood chippers and we led the way in making recycling equipment. That arm of the business was very successful as we exported to Spain, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Israel, Nigeria, and Australia. In our machinery company, we had six or seven people and supplied spares too.
It was always difficult to fend off competition. At exhibitions, people would be photographing your equipment. A
Chinese trade delegation would come down, wanting to know what you do and taking lots of photographs, and we realised that they were basically copying our ideas.
The advancement of other countries and economies meant it was impossible to fund the operation all by ourselves. I visited Italy and saw huge machinery being used at tiny operations, and I didn't understand how they could afford it. I discovered they were being aided by their government. So I returned home and wrote to John Major and Michael Heseltine to ask for similar support for British engineers, so we could compete with rivals on the continent. I did receive a reply, along the lines of "Very interested to hear what you are doing, just keep at it - you're doing fine!" In other words, the government wouldn't help.
Eventually, we couldn't afford to compete, so we now deal with two Italian companies who supply us with parts. Whilst the business is still successful, we are not involved in the manufacturing side anymore. It is a case that reflects a lack of support for British engineering at that time. It's a shame - we were very proud to have the Union Jack on our machines.
I ran a medical company too. I was in Italy collecting machinery parts and I suffered a bad asthma attack. My wife, Susie, went out and came back with a nebuliser. I tried it and it was amazing. So I formed a company selling them in the UK. I made arrangements with the Italians and sold nebulisers to hospitals and emergency services all over the country.
Great Ormond Street Hospital used one of our machines because it was ultrasonic and produced no noise, so was ideal for children. Previously, nebulisers in this country had been very expensive, and we kept costs down as we ran that business as a charity, not making any profit. Even today, we have people asking about our nebulisers but unfortunately we couldn't carry it on.
The Italians always want you to buy from them in person, so we had to travel over there and bring it all back on trailers. But when an Italian says 'It will be ready tomorrow" they really mean at least the day after that! You have to change your transportation and accommodation plans. I met people in hotels from all over Europe waiting for spares from the Italians! I used to say "Please, send them by post!" but they wanted to do it in person. It reached a point where I couldn't afford it.
I retired when I was 65 and I'm 82 now. We moved from Newdigate to Slinfold about 20 years ago. I was for a time a Lib Dem councillor sitting on Horsham District Council.
The councillor here before me called and said 'Michael, I would like you to stand alongside me.' I agreed and we both worked very hard, but in the end I was elected, and he wasn't. That wasn't what I wanted to happen. Anyway, I enjoyed being a councillor. It was a chance to help people who had problems.
Somebody came to the house with a letter, saying he was going to lose his house. I wrote a letter on his behalf, to try and help, and two weeks later he said 'Mike, you got me a flat!' An elderly woman was going to the post box in the village and tripped over bolts covered by grass around the post box. She suffered a broken nose and other injuries, and I was able to help her claim compensation to help aid her recovery. I was always ready for anybody who needed my help.
Most people on the council are good people who want to do the right thing. Sometimes, people accuse councillors of bribery, but that was something I never once encountered. Most councillors would never stand for
anything like that. I stood again at the next election. Our T-shirts pledged 'We will never let you down.' But we lost! I stood for the Lib Dems again but perhaps I was really a Conservative. I don't think it really matters. I only felt I was representing the people who voted for me.
Ten years ago, the vicar at St Peter's Church in Slinfold announced 'I'm going to give you £10 and I want you to turn it in to lots of money for the church!' A friend of mine decided to paint watercolours of local homes, someone ran a taxi service and another person baked jam tarts. I thought about what I was good at.
I used to ride when I was in the Army and they called me 'Spanner Fingers' because I could change tyres quickly. So I decided to raise money by repairing and selling bicycles.
A woman in Cobham heard about this, called me and said, "I have some bicycles for you." She collected dozens of bikes, from an American College. I collected them, and repaired them here. Gradually, word spread, and we started repairing bikes for people!
Sussex Police used to send us about 60 recovered bikes a month, but they were told they had to send them to auction and we can't buy bikes. We only take them free of charge.
We usually have dozens of bikes of all sizes in the driveway, available for the public to buy, and we've sold thousands over the years. All of the money goes to charity. I raised about £40,000 for the church, £1,000 for chairs for the village hall, we donated money so the Scouts and Guides could buy new flags, and now we raise money for the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance. So far, we've collected about £7,000.
It is hard work, but it is good fun too. I've also helped out the village school. When the children do their cycling proficiency, I test the bicycles free of charge and put bells on if they need them.
My son Jason helps me now, as I have problems with my knee. He is twice as fast as me and twice as good! I have installed an electric winch to lift the bikes in my workshop as I can't lift the bikes myself, but still I take a lot of pleasure from seeing kids coming here looking at the bikes.
We have so many bikes that come in that we can't actually sell them all. So we work with a charity to send a vast number out to Africa. They visit us, take the pedals and wheels off the bikes and strap the frames together, so they can pack in lots for each trip. We've sent thousands of bikes to Africa, mainly Uganda, and of course each bike could help a child ride to school and gain a good education.
We do something similar with elbow crutches. The NHS can't supply crutches to somebody if they've been used by another patient. It's a very wasteful system, so we take the crutches and send them out to Africa as well.
I have six children –four daughters and two boys. I do enjoy seeing my children taking on the work that I started, but it has nothing to do with me anymore! My daughter Lucy runs the machinery side of the business. She is a canny girl and knows exactly what she has in stock and how much each bar costs. It is harder for my eldest son, Jason, to run a successful tree surgery business than it was for me, as there are so many competitors.
I have a son in Texas, who has set up a small business of his own. He has asked me 'How do you know if an idea you have is a good one?' But I always say that, if an idea is the right one, you will know it instinctively.
Interview: Ben Morris
New Images: Toby Phillips
For more details about the bikes on sale for charity call Michael on 01403 791309