When Robert Wheat returned home from the Second World War after serving as a captain in the Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (REME) he was determined to pick up the threads of a promising career as a chartered electrical engineer. He used the experience he had gained in the REME to start up in business selling electrical heating, lighting and motors from home. Then in 1947, he approached the Leeds engineering company, WM Don and Partners and became one of the partners. Within a short space of time Robert bought out the two founding partners, William and Don and incorporated the firm of William Don Ltd with a base at Crown Point Works in Hunslet, Leeds.
This embryonic company dealt in electric motors and electronically controlled variable speed drives which gave the company sole selling rights for the North of England. They flew off the shelves! Robert Wheat and his sales engineers travelled round the mills and other industrial centres demonstrating how the fingertip speed control given by the electronic valves could increase output and improve quality control. Once the benefits had been illustrated orders were placed and demand for control systems invariably exceeded supply.
The solution was for William Don Ltd to move into manufacturing. The company already had a sizeable staff of customer support engineers and technicians who were accustomed to dealing with clients’ demands and expectations, so the in-house expertise was already in place. What the company didn’t have was the room to develop a full-scale control system manufacturing operation, so relocation was necessary and in 1962 it moved from Hunslet to Kerry Hill, Horsforth.
While the site wasn’t ideal, the company enjoyed many successful years there. It branched out into the design and manufacture of its own range of low-cost electronic sensing devices for industry and had built a two-storey extension to Kerry Hill Works to accommodate the additional work. It was around this time that Robert’s two sons, Robert and Norman, joined the business. Each in turn had graduated in electrical engineering from Sheffield University. Robert took a graduate apprenticeship while Norman went to America to gain experience at Westinghouse in Ohio.
On completion of his apprenticeship, Robert joined the outside technical sales team at William Don but three years later his career was tragically cut short in a road accident. It fell to Norman to guide the company through the silicon chip revolution.
Don Controls (which formally changed its business name in 1960 to better suit the modern engineering environment), expanded rapidly and landed its first large export contract worth in excess of £100,000. It went on to secure a prestigious contract as systems builders to leading US manufacturer Texas Instruments. The business’s hi-tech team and some office staff moved to a modern building in Low Lane, Horsforth, in 1975 while the Kerry Hill centre was retained for some aspects of production.
The electronics side of Don Controls continued to grow and in particular a joint venture between Norman Wheat and Nicholas Braime in a microprocessor-based control monitoring system for the grain industry meant it was time to concentrate on both the control panel manufacture as well as the microprocessor based electronic controllers and sensors. To ensure each company was allowed to flourish the electronics side to Don Controls was moved from Low Lane in Leeds to Harrogate under the name of Wheat Electronics, a partnership between Norman and his wife, Patricia.
Norman’s three sons were now ready to join the business. Jonathan Wheat joined the company after successfully completing his Bachelor of Engineering Honours Degree at Sheffield and introduced the company’s first quality system under the BS5750 standard. Richard Wheat joined in 1985 and worked his way through every aspect of the business from warehouse management to panel wiring to purchase control and with David Wheat joining from a six-year stint in the NHS as an accountant, this gave Norman the opportunity to concentrate on the electronics side, ever expanding the range of electronic controllers and sensors.
To help build up the electronics capability of the US company selling the electronic products, Jonathan was sent to America to help expand the business which he did very successfully – so much so that he is still working for and running the entire US organisation for Don Electronics’ main customer. This increase in turnover led towards converting the Wheat Electronics partnership between Norman and Patricia into a limited company in 1998.
The new millennium saw two notable successes for Don Controls, firstly it won the prestigious Panel Builder of the Year award and secondly secured its largest ever contract worth £1.5 million from the Leeds based organisation, Schneider Electric. This contract was to build 500 single bay control panels in just eight weeks. In order to achieve this the company lent to the batch manufacturing experience of its sister company and designed a very rapid manufacturing process for the panels including automated testing.
As the electronics arm of the business continued to grow and Don Controls continued its success, it soon became apparent that the current premises in Harrogate were rapidly being outgrown. With this in mind, the family made plans to bring back together the two businesses under the one banner, although both keeping their names – The DonElec Group was formed.
The other long-term plan was to locate to a suitable building to house both businesses. Unfortunately, finding a suitable building proved difficult, especially as the family wanted to keep its roots in the North Leeds areas. However, a suitable piece of land was found at the end of the Westfield Industrial Estate, off Kirk Lane in Yeadon and plans were drawn up to build a 40,000 sq ft unit.
The new facility was started in June 2008, with the plan to build just half the entire building, leaving the second half for phase two. However, as the order book was growing rapidly, the decision was made to build the whole facility in one go which was completed in April 2009. The decision proved to be a very sound one, although initially the second half of the factory was used to house over 50 years of paraphernalia that had been collected, demand required for more floor space, which fortunately was readily available.
In December 2014, The DonElec Group completed the purchase of Synatel Instrumentation Limited, a manufacturer of controllers and sensors specialising in speed and proximity detection. The company had worked alongside Synatel for many years with both companies supplying the same customer for over 20 years with complimentary electronic equipment. Synatel is being run as an independent business unit for the group but early signs show that both Synatel and Don Electronics will benefit greatly from economies of scales and sharing of good practice.
The group has recently raised a toast to the first employee to reach the 50-year service mark. Ian Hanlon, who started working for Don Controls aged 15 as an apprentice at Kerry Hill before moving to Harrogate to run the electronics manufacturing side of the business and was now running the electronics production in Yeadon, made this achievement without having a single day off for sickness – a truly remarkable achievement.
Norman is now taking a backseat in the running of the companies but is still working on new electronic designs and concepts. The running of the business is now down to Richard and David (with support from their wives) who are continuing the family pattern of successfully building on previous generations work to the extent that Don Controls, Don Electronics and Synatel Instrumentation continued to prosper and grow.