Employee Ownership: A View From The (Cutting) Edge

Last year we celebrated our 80th anniversary as Sheffield’s premier blade manufacturers.

Founded in July 1932 by Mr WR Swann and Mr JA Morton to manufacture and sell razor blades, even before they began trading the founders drew up a philosophy based on four principles to guide them in their entry into the capitalist world:

  • Claims of individuals producing in an industry came first, before anything else, and must always remain first. They are the human beings on which everything is built.
  • If the industry cannot pay the rightful reward of labour (while they are producing for profit for the owners) then a new policy is required on the part of the management to make it do so.
  • If the management can’t do the job, then a new management is required, as well as a new policy.
  • Individuals in any industry have a perfect right to demand and see that this objective is reached, because they produce the goods.

Indeed, the original four statements, written in Walter R Swann’s handwriting, are still displayed at Swann-Morton’s head office and remain the principles that guide the business today.

After many years of research and development the emphasis was changed from razor blades to surgical blades. With the market for surgical blades growing considerably. By 1957 Swann-Morton was manufacturing over 38 million blades each year. In the mid 60’s mindful of the future security of the company, the workforce and its founding principles a trust was formed to administer the company within which the employees had a 50% share and the remaining 50% placed in a charitable trust. It is this unique culture that inspires quality and commitment, and Swann-Morton’s staff are very proud to be a part of this.

In the 1960’s demand for sterilised surgical blades increased and Swann-Morton developed, with the expertise of UKAE at Wantage, a sterilisation process using Cobalt 60 gamma radiation. It was one of the first commercial plants of its kind in the world and enabled Swann-Morton to be completely self-sufficient for all its sterilisation requirements. The irradiation and microbiological facilities are now offered under contract to other healthcare manufacturers from Swann-Morton (Services) Limited and Swann-Morton (Microbiological Laboratory Services) Limited.

Times change, and now Swann-Morton doesn’t only sell its surgical blades to the health care sector. Markets in many countries cover chiropody, arts & crafts, veterinary, jewellery, electrical, dentistry and other industrial applications. Product development within our internal R&D department means that the company can constantly develop our product range bringing new products to market meeting the changing requirements of our customers.

In such an extremely competitive market Swann-Morton prides itself on its quality and service with each blade receiving a 200% final inspection before being packed, this along with short lead times helps maintain the company’s competitive edge.

Today we employ over 350 people and use 600 tonnes of steel each year to make around 1.5 million surgical blades daily, sold in virtually every country in the world. Over two thirds of production is exported with a turnover of around £20 million a year. Yet Swann-Morton’s founding principles still apply. The company still has an extraordinary low turnover of employees who enjoy unique working conditions that include ten weeks holiday a year, a thirty-five hour week, profit-related pay, private health care and a contributory pension scheme.

There can be few businesses founded on a Utopian dream that have lasted beyond the lifetime of their founders, or which have continued to follow their original values despite becoming major undertakings. The legacy of Walter Swann and Doris Fairweather, one of the company’s first employees who subsequently became Director of the company, provides an extraordinary testimonial to their values – and a continuing example to others of what can be achieved through applying genuine moral principles in business.

Those principles continue to help make Swann-Morton the triumph it is today. The desire for on-going improvement, the hard work ethic of its employees and a policy of promotion from within help us maintain our reputation as a world leader in blade design and manufacturing, and will undoubtedly ensure that Swann-Morton remains at the cutting edge throughout our next 80 years in business.