“I didn’t seek out manufacturing, I was into art.” So says Stu Wilkinson, (above) a director at William Say, one of central London’s biggest factories. But that’s families for you.

Wilkinson’s great-grandfather became involved with the company before WW2, meaning Stu is fourth-generation. At 34, he’s a member of that niche group: young guys helping to steer oldschool businesses into the future (see Ed Whitby at ice-cream-van makers Whitby Morrison, Furnace 03). Also at the helm are his father, Peter, as chairman, and his older brother Garth, who is finance and operations director.

Wilkinson was only in his mid-20s when he joined William Say. Why would a young creative mind choose to spend his days with heavy machinery, churning out 7m tin cans a year?

Sandwiches helped him see the light. After a short stint at university, he worked at a firm making 90m carton sandwich packs a year for supermarkets. A great place to learn some of the ropes. It also gave him a perspective on his family’s business.

“I started to realise that it was madness to have the opportunity that’s there and not take it.”

Because William Say and its sister companies have a total turnover of £7.5m.

Since 1970, the company has been based at its three-acre site off the Old Kent Road – an unassuming red-brick building. Here, 45 staff make tins that get filled with products including Farrow & Ball’s paint samples, Claridge’s Christmas cakes, Fortnum and Mason’s Turkish delight, and aircraft fuel.

Until the 1960s, central London boasted 50 can makers, then many went under and the rest consolidated and moved out of town. William Say is the last, and faces plenty of competition from the Far East. But importing this type of packaging is inefficient, says Wilkinson. They can’t be stacked, so that means needlessly importing air. In fact, William Say is seeing British brands coming back – Bill’s restaurant chain as well as F&M and Claridge’s – who now want to big up their British packaging credentials. To reinforce this, Wilkinson is starting to stamp tin bases with messaging about being made in London using the site’s solar power, and being 100% recyclable. A classy alternative to the sorry saga of plastics.

Wilkinson has aspirations far beyond the world of cans

Now eight years in, Wilkinson is responsible for new business development and recruitment, and is keen to push the firm to be as innovative as possible. “The culture of the business had been a declining product portfolio, declining skills and a stagnant mindset of ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘it can’t be done’,” he admits. “Now we are pushing the machines and the people to try new things. And that opens the buyers’ eyes to what’s possible.”

To this end, he’s revived the engineers’ workshop, a treasure trove of traditional machinery – some dating back to the 1940s – which allows the newly-employed tool maker to make the company’s own tooling. “We’re trying to get back to self-sufficiency,” says Wilkinson, an unusual step for a can-maker. Few still manufacture the components but instead buy in and assemble lids, bottoms and drums. Hence William Say’s purchase four years ago of a stateof-the-art, high-speed welder, which takes a flat sheet and turns it into a top-quality cylinder.

Having the tooling “gives us a huge amount of flexibility, if we want to experiment. That’s very important for us in the future.”

One of the first innovations was that Turkish Delight tin for F&M (pictured on previous page), which recreates the style of solid silver embossed bowls traditionally used to serve the sweets.

But Wilkinson has aspirations far beyond the world of cans. “Any material that’s pressed or embossed, we could do it.” That could be jewelry, badges, car components, such as a metal button or a speaker grille, parts for aircraft, and even high-end mobile phone cases. “The sky’s the limit on press work.”

Despite his keenness to move the company on, he acknowledges its debt to earlier generations. “There are big shoes to fill from my grandparents’ day. Garth and I want to pass down to the next generation more than was passed down to us. In terms of performance, I would like to put back into the pot twice as much as we have had.”

He lingers over what will become the development area – just off the main factory. Here, he’s amassed some early-to-mid-20th century manual machines that he’s recovered from around the site and had restored. “This is where we can hone our own skills and run workshops for staff, customers, schools and colleges, teaching them to handmake tins.” He even floats the idea of artists’ residences. This sort of experimentation and boundarypushing is an important part of his vision for the business’s future.