Lignacite Ltd was set up over 70 years ago to produce an innovative construction product called Lignacite, a revolutionary mix of cement, sand and recycled wood shavings, in an engine shed. Today a thriving family business, Lignacite Ltd, offer over 14 ranges of different sustainable masonry and their blocks are in many iconic UK buildings. While the product has evolved over the years, Giles De Lotbiniere, Chairman of Lignacite, shares how their commitment to supplying bespoke concrete and masonry designed, sourced and manufactured in the UK has endured.
"It’s in everything, from a football stadium to NHS sheltered accommodation, to this amazing crematorium, all beautifully designed and looking incredible. It makes a big difference."
When Giles’s grandfather, a retired engineer, was approached by an inventor with a new mixed design for concrete blocks which included wood, sand, cement, and a magic ingredient, an admixture, he agreed to set up production. He soon discovered the admixture was a fraud, yet Giles’s grandfather took a risk and continued production. He had realised it was the addition of wood that made his product so special. Giles explains, ‘wood makes blocks light, smooth, warm, and surprisingly good in a fire. Another thing that wood does in a block is it absorbs moisture when it is very humid, and it releases moisture when it’s very dry. So, you get a very even environment. It’s a very good general all-round, all-purpose block and that stood us in very good stead for 45-50 years.’
As technology, buildings and society’s expectations have evolved so has the product, ‘the magic in the block is the wood and the latest iteration of that is that growing wood and trees lock up a lot of CO2 through photosynthesis. If you put wood into blocks you are permanently locking up CO2.’ To further reduce the environmental impact, ‘we now add a pellet which is an aggregate converted from heavy lime waste. The combination of the waste wood and pellet locks up more CO2 than is released in its manufacture, or its transport. We can then move that block up to 100 miles and it’s still carbon neutral.’
Lignacite Ltd is still very much a family business with Giles’s sons, sister and cousins all working for the business. Family extends beyond direct family. Giles proudly explains they have, ‘a low churn of employees, we have a lot of fathers and sons, we have a lot of brothers working in the business. We know them and we know their families. This impacts the culture and values of the organisation.’
Giles believes those values played a positive role during the recent recession, ‘we continued to invest in our business. A lot of the bigger companies sold off sites, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve done so well in the last four or five years.’ It is also reflected in their conduct towards their workforce, ‘we talked to our people, probably more than a big company would. The directors took a 50% pay cut, the workforce took a 10% pay cut. We hung on to as many people as we possibly could, and they worked with us, and when things got better, they benefitted.’
There are other benefits, Giles explains, ‘being a certain size is a big advantage. Our structure is pretty flat and people can make a decision or get a decision very quickly, and that’s good for them, and very good for the customer. I think people like to feel that they are dealing with the business owner or as high up as they can be, and being a family business helps.’
"There is a feeling that because it’s a family business, you care more about your people and you care more about your business. I don’t know if it is true, but if people think it’s true, that’s great."
While they may not have direct competition for their product, Giles and his team continue to innovate to meet the needs of a challenging industry. This has meant attitudes have had to change, ‘I think we used to be rather non-customer facing, and go, “this is how many blocks we can make, so you better buy them,” and we’ve changed that in recent times to saying, “what is it that you want, yes okay, we will do that,” because we’ve got to.’
Recruiting the next generation is also a priority, ‘you can’t go on running a business, where everybody who makes decisions is 60, it just doesn’t work, and you need young people. So, we’ve started that process of bringing them in.’ As Giles points out that is not always easy, ‘I think the biggest challenge we face is recruiting decent people and persuading them that making concrete blocks in Suffolk is a sexy thing to do.’
Lignacite Ltd has moved a long way from hand polishing blocks in an engine shed, yet their belief in their product and passion for innovation continues, building a better future for both the company and the planet.