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Three Score and Ten for Kelston Sparkes

L-R: Kelston Stark, grandson of the company's founder, and Alan Sparkes, director, now taking a back seat L-R: Kelston Stark, grandson of the company's founder, and Alan Sparkes, director, now taking a back seat

First published in the January 2023 issue of Quarry Management

Having celebrated their 70th anniversary in business in 2022, Kelston Sparkes are now looking forward to the next 70 years

South-West based Kelston Sparkes are a well-known name in the earthworks, earthmoving, crushing and screening, quarrying, and training sectors. The company’s familiar branding can be found on machinery in construction projects and in quarries throughout the UK. Founded in 1952 by company namesake Kelston Sparkes, the family-run business celebrated its 70th year in business in 2022 along with the more than 200 direct and sub-contracted employees who all contribute to its ongoing success.

The last seven decades have paid witness not only to the interesting history of the company, but also to its exceptional growth from humble beginnings when the then 20-year-old Kelston Sparkes borrowed money from a farmer to buy a Massey Ferguson tractor and mower and became an agricultural contractor. His first employee, recruited in the same year, spent his whole career with the company. John Withey is now 93 years of age and still helps current director Alan Sparkes, son of the founder, every week at his steam engine yard.

The duo worked relentlessly in agricultural contracting, affording Kelston the chance to buy a Massey Ferguson 2203 backhoe loader in 1960 – the start of his successful foray into owner-operated plant hire. In 1964 the company relocated to its current premises in Stanton Drew having bought more machines, employed more people, and outgrown the original premises.

By the early 1970s the agricultural side of the business was phased out. An exciting new opportunity presented itself which heralded a new era for the company. A contract to clear the bed of the river in nearby Bitton was won and to enable completion of the job, Kelston Sparkes agreed to a demonstration of a Volvo articulated dumptruck (ADT). Impressed, he bought two – which were among the very first units sold in the UK. By 1978 the company owned the largest fleet of ADTs in the UK and in 1980 the company further extended its capabilities with the purchase of large excavators and motor scrapers to support contracts for motorway and bypass road schemes. To ensure the supply of the best-quality stone and materials for highway projects, the company bought its first crusher and screener in 1981 and also started to produce aggregates for other companies.

This fast growth and the effect of recession in the 1980s meant times became very tough for companies in the sector, including Kelston Sparkes, but the resilience of the company, along with its machine fleet, helped secure two large jobs, one to replenish sand bays and build sea defences in Sand Bay, Weston-Super-Mare, and the other to undertake river flood-defence works in Huntworth, Bridgwater. Huntworth had originally been awarded to another company who were unable to fulfil the contract, but Kelston Sparkes stepped in following a call on a Saturday. Machines were moved to site the following day for the contract to commence on the Monday. Offering the business much needed cashflow at the time, it was also the start of another new opportunity in flood defence.

In the mid 1980s the company landed its biggest job to date – the earthworks contract for the A303 Ilminster bypass for Balfour Beatty. The job was not straightforward, with incorrect materials delivered to site, shortages, and supply chain issues. However, the Kelston Sparkes team worked harder than ever to complete the job and scored a huge win by delivering it on time, delivering success in the face of adversity.

Throughout this period and into the 1990s the company built on successes in the roadworks, flood-defence and quarrying sectors, enabling it to invest in new plant and depot improvements. Confident in the abilities of his son Alan, who joined the business from the age of 16, and long-serving financial director Rob Stark, Kelston Sparkes stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business, handing over stewardship to his trusted successors.

In 2002, the company added operator training to its list of competences and today the training centre is one of the leading providers in the UK. By 2007 the company bought the yard and premises and built its impressive commercial offices on site. This careful expansion of the business meant the company was able to weather the financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, during this period a leading figure in the quarrying sector was recruited. Phil Oddy now manages all quarry contracts and has presided over great success; he is, in Alan Sparkes’ words, ‘a huge asset to the business’.

Over the last decade, more faces, including Kelston Stark, grandson of the founder, and David Swann, son-in-law of Alan, have joined the business and – with other members of the team – have embraced technology to modernize and streamline processes. In doing so, they are making sure the company is fighting fit for the next 70 years.

As with his father before him, Alan Sparkes has now taken a back seat: ‘I am very happy to relinquish control to the next generation,’ he said. ‘They are a formidable team and are quickly turning the company in to a dynamic force for the 21st century. Retaining a personal sense of ‘old school’ service, but with a superior level of professionalism, I am completely confident of the success of the business going forwards.’

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