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In advance of Birmingham Chamber entering its third century in 2013, CHAMBERLINK is celebrating companies that have been members for 50 year or more. PHILIP PARKIN visits JOHN KEATLEY METALS

Instinct for survival O

ne of the oldest members of Birmingham Chamber is John Keatley Metals, which joined the organisation while there was a war going on, in 1944. Perhaps that is not as odd as it might appear, as it would seem that when it comes to wars, it’s been a case of

‘business as usual’ for the firm, a supplier of non-ferrous metals. In fact, according to managing director Richard Mason, grandson of

founder John Keatley, when the latter’s sons joined the army in World War I, it was left to his mother and his aunt, Lil, to run the business, which they did. And if wars are no problem, neither are recessions, although Mr Mason admits that the current economic situation was the worst he had known. “We’re not exactly thriving – but we’re still here,” he said. “It’s a struggle

now to what it used to be – it’s the worst recession I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.” John Keatley Metals began life in 1896, when Mr Mason’s grandfather was

employed by one Samuel Walker in Snow Hill, who was a metal merchant. Walker went bankrupt, and as Mr Mason recalls: “Grandfather was left with two or three children and no job, so he had to start out and do something.” The result was John Keatley Metals, based initially at 97 Snow Hill, and

from 1906 a few doors away at 100 Snow Hill, a site rented from the old Great Western Railway and used until 1961, when the firm had to relocate due to the construction of the inner ring road.

‘Amazingly, 100 Snow Hill is still there, having

remained vacant ever since’


50 Amazingly, 100 Snow Hill is still there, having remained vacant ever since.

John Keatley wasn’t around to see any of this, as he died in 1952, with the business passing to his sons, Ernie and Charles, who were both deceased themselves within a decade. Mr Mason joined the firm in 1961, and eventually oversaw the company’s final milestone, a move to nearby Shadwell Street, to a 150 year old building that had started life as a church, and variously saw service as a school and a paper warehouse. It also used to be on the main A38 route out of the city to Lichfield. Mr Mason says: “I have been in the business for 50 years and I have seen a lot of changes, both in the material that we stock and business in general. The biggest change is the availability of material. When we started, you got all the material within 20 miles of Birmingham – now, 90 per cent of it is from abroad. “When we first started, we were supplying case brass tubes for the

bedstead industry and rolled metals and rivets for the fireside industry – the challenge after that was to do more for the engineering industry.” Today, John Keatley Metals still supplies sheets, tubes, rods and wires, and the type of customer they have is still largely the same as it was, although the actual customer base is certainly not. Mr Mason noted that the demise of major manufacturers over the years

has resulted in the ‘closed’ signs going up at countless small engineering businesses in the city, many of whom would have been Keatley customers. “We used to be surrounded by all kinds of metal bashers, many of which

have gone,” he said. “If someone comes in today and wants something pressed, brazed or welded, it is a struggle to tell them where to go to get it done.” Despite this, whereas when Mr Mason first joined the company and became one of only two employees, today there are eight staff at the company, which is continuing to outlast many of its peers. As Mr Mason puts it: “So many firms have gone. For us, every day is a bonus, but at the moment we are still here serving industry and our customers. And as long as the customers are here, I expect we will be too.”

A lifetime in the metals trade: Richard Mason


100 Snow Hill: pictured during John Keatley’s tenancy

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