Wolseley, from Sheep shearing machines and Cars to Heating Products

Private equity giant, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice has taken over heating and plumbing distribution business Wolseley UK for £308m, sources confirmed.


One of the oldest private equity investment firms in the world, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CD&R) took over the builder’s merchants chain from it’s parent company Ferguson. This was few months after CD&R invested 25% stake in SIG (Previously known as Sheffield Insulation Group) which reflects their growing interest on Building Materials sector in the UK. Wolseley employs nearly 4,500 people in the UK across 485 branches. It has been a name well known to builders and plumbers up and down the country. 


Wolseley’s roots date back to 1887 when the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company was founded by Frederick York Wolseley. Sheep Shearing Machine was developed over a period of two decades.


Before then, sheep had to be sheared using hand or blade shears, but Wolseley’s invention enabled more sheeps to be sheared more quicker than a hundred-a-day shearer and any man may learn to work it in a week. It also praised the fact that eight ounces more wool could be extracted from every sheep with the new machine.

One of Wolseley’s engineers, Herbert Austin, who realized that selling sheep shearing machines was a seasonal business and had begun looking for other products to manufacture all year round.

One of these were Motor car engines and Austin studied the then-new internal combustion engine closely. Austin convinced Wolseley to let him develop a three-wheeler two horse-power vehicle in 1895. Four years later in 1899, Wolseley launched a four-wheeled horseless carriage, ‘ Wolseley Horseless Carriage’.


Few months later, Frederick York Wolseley died of cancer, while the company’s board failed to share his enthusiasm for automobiles. Herbert Austin, meanwhile, set up on his own in 1905 to become one of the UK’s most famous carmakers while the company he founded, Austin, merged first with Morris and then eventually evolved into British Leyland. The factory where Austin set up, Longbridge in Birmingham, became British Leyland’s biggest production site.

The original Wolseley, meanwhile, had expanded into agricultural equipment and electric fencing before, in 1958, it merged with another Birmingham manufacturer, Geo H Hughes, which made wheels. Wolseley eventually moved into selling heating and oil burning products and parts for burners, boilers and radiators. This was the origin of the business as it is today.



The company came out of manufacturing altogether in 1979 to concentrate on distribution and, in 1986, founded the Plumb Center and Builder Centre chains. By then, under its inspirational chairman Jeremy Lancaster, it had bought the US distributor Ferguson – the platform for the business to become the world’s biggest distributor of building products.



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