In the midst of Sutton Tools planning its centenary celebrations, the latest awards from Business Victoria are the ‘icing on the cake’ for this manufacturing icon.

As one of Australia’s longest-established manufacturing businesses, Sutton Tools is no stranger to being recognised for its achievements. The latest of these are the company’s induction to the prestigious 2017 Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame, and the 2017 “Manufacturer of The Year: Large Business” award.

The awards were presented recently at the Manufacturing Hall of Fame 2017 Gala Dinner and Awards Ceremony, held in Melbourne on 9 May by Business Victoria. The theme of ‘Growing Advanced Manufacturing’ recognised outstanding achievements by Victorian businesses and individuals who uphold a high standard of excellence in Victorian manufacturing.

“The awards were unexpected,” said Sutton Tools’ Managing Director Peter Sutton. “We were incredibly proud and honoured to receive them on behalf of every Sutton Tools staff member who has contributed so much to our successes of today.”

A century of manufacturing achievement

William Henry Sutton’s journey of entrepreneurial enterprise is typical of many skilled early Australian immigrants. Moreover, he achieved success while maintaining family management of a business that has grown and prospered throughout its first 100 years. The Sutton Tools story starts with William’s arrival in Australia, having left England in 1911, accompanied by his wife and three children.

Already recognised as a leading tool engineer who had worked on the development and production of the Wolseley car, his intention was to establish a new business in the US. Abandoning his plans for America, William decided to settle in Victoria, and at the mature age of 48, he opened a toolroom at Thompson’s Foundry at Castlemaine, more than 128kms north-west of Melbourne.

His new employment was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. The British government had need of his technical skills and unique talents, and he was asked to return to England to help establish the many munitions plants in support of the war effort.

Towards the end of the war in 1917, William returned to Melbourne and established the Sutton Tools and Gauge Manufacturing Company in a converted stable at Westgarth in suburban Melbourne. Initial capital investments included a lathe and a small grinder with a milling attachment, while the family bath provided the quenching facility.

Rapid expansion

By 1925 the original factory had quadrupled in size to satisfy a market demand that had been fuelled by an immediate and enthusiastic customer acceptance of the Sutton products. By 1930 the flood of orders made it necessary to move to larger premises.

Around this time, William’s two sons: Henry George and Leslie, joined the business, their early experiences enriched by serving an apprenticeship training program and working diligently, often 10 to 15 hours a day, happily taking on tasks that included sweeping the factory floors. They were quickly introduced to William’s philosophy of perfectionism and personal pride in one’s work – core values that without doubt contributed significantly to the production of a range of tools that were quickly recognised as being of equal or better quality than those sourced from overseas.

Apart from being a master craftsman, William was gifted with business acumen and guided by sound and prudent management principles. He recognised that a successful and growing business depended on being a market leader and firmly believed in the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’. He clearly understood the value of profitability to business growth and took pride in the fact that no month ever reflected a trading deficit.

Innovation key to growth

Similarly to many companies of today, William firmly believed that updating to the latest techniques and materials technology would keep his flourishing business ahead of the competition. As a result, he was always keenly attuned to the latest developments in new manufacturing techniques. New ideas and techniques were actively explored, and better, more efficient processes supported the production of better tools. Innovation and technology continue to drive the company’s growth and development as it commences its second century.

By 1940 Henry George and Leslie became joint Managing Directors, continuing the focus on core values and strategy that resulted in ever-increasing sales. While originally the company had begun by manufacturing threads and gauges, it progressively expanded its expertise into a broader portfolio of cutting tools, addressing the needs of diverse industrial applications.

By 1959, the company had outgrown its location and expanded into a 4,180 sqm factory in the northern suburb of Thomastown.

Sutton’s investment in quality, research, technology and product development has enabled 100 years of innovation with a number of industry-first solutions. Typical of this approach was a worldwide investigation undertaken in 1960 to adopt the best method of producing the finest drill in the world. Henry George’s son Bill was assigned the task and headed overseas, returning to Australia armed with a “ground-from-solid” manufacturing process that would become best practice globally for premium drill production. The result of adopting this process was a new-generation drill that was marketed under the name “Silver Bullet”, which remains one of Sutton’s flagship products to this day.

By 1970 it was time for the third generation of Suttons: Bill and Jim, to consolidate and extend Sutton Tools’ position as market leader by following the business’ core commitment to quality, innovation and persistence.

Growth through innovation and acquisitions

Until 1989, physical vapour deposition (PVD)-coated tools sold in Australia had to be imported. That year, Sutton Tools established its Surface Technology Coatings business, enabling the company to offer a high-quality Australian product at a competitive price.

The fourth Sutton generation: Peter and Robert, joined the family business in the 1990s, where their combined experience and passion in cutting tools continued the tradition of positioning the company as an Australian champion in manufacturing.

The company began to focus on strategic expansion into export markets, which resulted in the acquisition in 1994 of Patience & Nicholson in New Zealand, followed in 2001 by the acquisition of Patience & Nicholson Australia. By 2006 the company’s export drive had gathered pace, and in that year Sutton Tools sold its five-millionth drill bit to Germany. So successful was the company’s export initiative into key European markets that in 2009, Sutton Tools Europe was established with an office and warehouse base in the Netherlands.

The family-owned company has always been a champion of Australian manufacturing. In 2008 Sutton Tools received official accreditation by the Australian Made campaign, and in 2009 Bill and Jim Sutton were inducted into the Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame Honour Roll.

The last 23 years has seen production of Sutton Tools’ products audited and certified under ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems, which demands the highest level of systems excellence and quality control. These strict manufacturing processes are paired with the finest high-speed steel, which is imported from Austria, France and Japan, and far exceeds the quality of imported cutting tools.

A commitment to catering for specific and often unmet industry needs is one of the foundations for Sutton Tools’ commitment to excellence. Its engineering department operates on a platform of class-leading design and measuring technology that simulates, tests and retests tools in the actual conditions in which they will be used, to optimise design, benchmark performance and produce a product that exceeds market standards.

Global partnerships

Employing 350 people globally, the company produces 15,000 product lines and exports its tools to Europe and Asia through its own European and New Zealand offices. Its customer industries span precision engineering, automotive, aviation, energy, medical, mining and more, which are supplied with blades, drills, threading taps and end mills.

Alignment with global industrial cutting solutions organisations that have an equivalent commitment to quality and service has been recognised as critical to the success of the company. These include Tapmatic, a 75-year-old firm that is a world leader in the design and development of tapping products.

Sutton Tools has also established a partnership with Ceratizit, the 1921-founded carbide cutting solutions specialist. This joint venture enabled Sutton Tools the ability to offer its Australasian customers a complete range of cutting tools and services that includes carbide inserts and tooling. With the product portfolio of both companies complementing each other in designated cutting tool applications, the partnership leverages the strengths of their respective product lines to offer a broad range of high-performance carbide cutting solutions to the Australian industry.

Another important partner is with the 75-year-old Allied Machine and Engineering (AMEC), a manufacturer of metal-cutting tooling. Serving all facets of manufacturing industries such as aerospace, defence, agriculture, automotive and mining, Allied’s precision engineering and expert applications make it the supplier of choice for complex metal-cutting challenges. This alliance expands Sutton Tools’ cutting tool portfolio with the inclusion of replaceable-tip drilling systems.

Building on the knowledge and skills of previous generations Sutton Tools is well poised to continue its command of the tool industry into its second century.