Made in Crewe

The sound of an ice cream van chime is something that excites children and adults alike. So growing up around the world’s leading manufacturer of such bespoke vehicles must have been a dream come true. Ed Whitby helps manage Crewe firm Whitby Morrison, although joining the family business wasn’t always the plan…

a Ed Whitby 6x6, September 09 s“I grew up in Haslington, and then moved into Crewe to live with my father in my teens. The whole ice cream thing was an ongoing joke with friends. However, there was always a good selection in the freezer – and they didn’t complain about that! The factory was a fascinating place, and I’d always admired my father and grandfather for their achievements, as both were proper engineers. In fact, my grandfather, Bryan, invented a new Direct Drive System that allowed cooling equipment to be powered from the engine. It removed the need to incorporate bulky generators, and set the company apart from similar manufacturers of ice cream mobiles. It is now an industry standard around the world.” 

Despite Ed’s admiration for the family firm’s outstanding achievements, his working life started elsewhere. “I wanted to succeed in my own right, so after finishing university I went to work for a wine company in Leeds. About a year later, although I had done well I’d never settled, so I met my dad, Stuart, for a chat. We talked more that night than we had in years, and he revealed that they needed someone in sales. Working with my father hadn’t crossed my mind before, and I wasn’t really a salesman. Still, he spoke with such passion about the business, and it sounded like the opportunity I had been looking for. My grandfather was delighted when he heard that I was taking the job, while the rest of the family were a little surprised. I had little product knowledge, so I shadowed the main sales guy for several months before joining the shop floor for additional training. That was essential, as I needed to learn every aspect of the business. In a way, I had to prove myself to the people who had worked hard for the firm across many years. There was an incredible pool of valuable expertise to draw upon, so I was able to cover each area of manufacturing. I starting with the fibreglass body, moved on to the refrigeration unit, welding and finalising the van – all real coach building skills. I just got stuck in and gained a sound understanding of the basics, the processes and how the product was made. It also gave people a chance to learn about me.”

In late 2007, the factory’s production manager decided to move on and another interesting opportunity cropped up. “I’d only been with the business for a few years, so this was a big step. However, while I’d been learning, I had also identified a number of areas that I felt could be improved – for the good of the factory and the employees. This had to be a two-way process, so I was delighted that the workforce embraced some of my suggestions and trusted me. I wasn’t trying to make a name for myself; I just wanted things to be more efficient. That acceptance was a huge relief and I knew then that being associated with the family business had been the right decision.”

c Whitby-Morrison factory, March 09 (36) sFamily connections have played a significant role in the factory’s life since the early days when Ed’s father made a bold decision himself. “He was an apprentice at Rolls-Royce and became a successful engineer. Then one day he told my grandfather that he wanted to work for the family business. That must have taken guts, leaving a prestigious firm like Royce’s, and yet I don’t think that our firm would have progressed as it has without him. In a way, that’s what I have hoped to achieve – to offer something new and to compliment what was already in place. We all want the same thing; to be successful and professional, but to run a relaxed and friendly company. That, thankfully, is something that has happened across the decades. We now have about fifty people working at the factory, and nearly all of them live in and around the town. There are also three father-son teams around the shop floor. Then there’s Dave, our refrigeration engineer and longest serving employee, who started working with my grandfather in 1967.  Even the apprentices have stayed loyal. All seven who have joined the business over the last three years are still with us. They even socialise together, so there must be something about the place that helps to create strong bonds.”

Increasingly important to the firm is its relationship with the town and other Crewe organisations. “We have a unique product and only sell the occasional vehicle in this area. In reality, we’re a global brand, selling all over the world. However, we have had sponsorship packages at Crewe Alexandra since I was a kid, and two employees joined the firm because of adverts they saw in the matchday programme. Then there is the Crewe Heritage Centre, somewhere we can show off some of our vehicles. Our business has been here for a long time and we believe that the end product – the mobiles – should be celebrated, just as locomotives and cars have been at other museums. There’s pride in what we do, and we’d like people from the town to share that. The ITV Heartbeat series used one of our vans, as did the Boddington’s brewery in one of their adverts. Recently, Nokia approached us wanting to promote their handsets with one of our vehicles. When you’re on holiday, people always ask where you come from. We think it would be great if people said Crewe – the place they make ice cream vans.” 

d Stuart Whitby, Eddie Izzard and Ed Whitby s

Media exposure is increasingly important to any company, and Whitby Morrison recently enjoyed the attention of a well-known comedian. “We often get calls about our vans, usually for weddings or surprise birthday parties. So a call from Eddie Izzard’s agent was a surprise. I was a little sceptical at first, but it turned out that Eddie was going to run 1000 miles around the UK, for the Sport Relief charity. He wanted an ice cream van instead of a conventional support bus! I thought about it, ran it past my father and talked to a few other people. Dad wasn’t sure, but I thought it was a superb opportunity for our company, and also a chance to help a national charity. Eddie’s management team clinched it for me when they came to our factory and showed a real interest in our work. They were also happy for us to design the van’s colour scheme. So Eddie got a top-of-the-range mobile that would give out free ice cream to people he met around the UK during his epic journey. We all teamed up on the Wirral leg of his tour, and my dad ran with him for a few miles. The challenge ended in Trafalgar Square to incredible media attention. In the background of many interviews was our van. That made me very proud. Our unique product, made in Crewe, by our fantastic team of people on Weston Road.” 

e Whitby Morrison, October 09 s

With such an excellent profile already established, everyone at the factory is hungry for more. “There is new film being made in Crewe in 2010, about a local man starting an American Football team here in the 1980s. That’s perfect for us, being able to back a quirky production about the town and see one of our vans in an international movie. The American angle and subsequent distribution in the United States will ensure that a Crewe business is seen around the world. That will link well with our plans to expand sales around the globe. This town has a lot to be proud of, and I hope that we can encourage more people to be positive about Crewe.”

Ed’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; all forty stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.

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