HAPPY 30TH, BETA
Beta celebrates its 30th birthday this May – and it’s been something of a ride for the quartet behind it all
Just 30 years ago four men started the engine company from their back bedroom
Watching Andrew Growcoot and Laurance Talbot poring over a dusty, hand-written sales ledger is a fascinating sight – or perhaps insight is a better word as they reminisce about some of their very early engine deals, places they went to, people they’d known.
It’s understandable, really, because turning 30 is always a time for reflection, looking back at times past and, perhaps, wondering what the future holds. But for Beta Marine, as it celebrates its 30th birthday, there’s little wondering about the future, the trajectory is already set.
The Beta story actually started further back than 30 years ago, in the late Sixties, when Andrew, Laurance and colleagues Ted Spash, and Paul Grigg were working for engine manufacturer Lister in Dursley, Gloucestershire, part of the Hawker- Siddeley group. By 1986 HS had merged Lister with Petter, another engine manufacturer it owned, to form Lister Petter Ltd, and it was around this time the quartet felt that the company they had originally joined was becoming impersonal – plus they reckoned they could do a better job.
Beta finally opened its doors officially in 1987 from the traditional ‘back-bedroom’, but the trouble with any start-up is that you need customers and for the first four months not a lot happened.
“We didn’t have an order and the bank balance was heading south at a rate of knots,” says Laurance. Then came the breakthrough, the make-or-break contract all fledgling companies hope for; they received a contract from India for 12 Lister-based generator sets.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with their former employers and they were banned from buying equipment from Lister so there had to be some fairly smart work in the background to fulfil the order.
Oddly, Lister unwittingly put Beta on the map. Jim Lister sent a letter to his clients saying that they shouldn’t have any dealings with the new upstart Beta Marine. “Unfortunately for him,” says
“I couldn’t believe it when I first went there. I was walking towards the headquarters in Osaka and there were two Union Jacks flying outside, I thought they must be for someone else. ‘I said who are the flags for?’ and they said ‘for you’.”
Andrew with something of a mischievous smile, “it had the opposite effect to what he had hoped and introduced us to the wider market.” The company still has a copy of that type-written letter.
With their name now out and about, it wasn’t long before other companies came calling for Beta’s engineering skills. Isuzu was one of the first and for a few years Beta offered three marinised models of the Japanese company’s engines and sold around 50 a year. For larger boats, Ford engines were used as base units. This was a useful period because Beta had to make some parts to ‘marinise’ the engines, and obtain others, such as manifolds, which needed casting.
From the ‘back-bedroom’ the company soon moved to a small industrial unit, ironically backing onto their former employer, eventually growing to occupy five sites in Nailsworth before moving to the current site at Quedgeley in Gloucester ten years ago.
Ask who Beta’s first canal boat engine went to and the details are there in the old ledger. For the record, it was a three-cylinder, 32hp Isuzu sold in December 1987 to Brummagen Boats which operated out of what is now Sherbourne Street Wharf on the Oozells Street loop of the BCN Main Line.
The relationship with Isuzu didn’t last long, though, and in 1991 Japanese engine manufacturer Kubota, which already had its engines marinised in the U.S. by Universal and in France by Nanni, approached Beta, Cummins and Thornycroft for a similar deal for the UK. In the event, Beta and Cummins won the day.
Given that Beta engines are still Kubota-based today, you could say that really was the making of the company as we now know it. Mind you, in keeping with Far Eastern efficiency Beta didn’t have long to get on with the marinisation to prove itself to Kubota, and the first marinisation castings were completed six weeks after the deal was sealed so that Kubota could start to test the new marine engines.
As seems to be the way with Beta, a stroke of luck (and being quick on their feet) helped launch the new ‘Beta’ engine on the inland waterways; Boat-builder Ron Tinker appeared on the 1991 Birmingham Boat Show stand with a very specific need, Andrew Growcoot promised him the solution which was why the very first marinised Kubota based Beta engine was installed in a ‘Chadwick’ narrowboat in 1992
Curiously, as this article was being written, a 1992, 47ft, four-berth Ron Tinker-built ‘Chadwick’ called Rebecca
Jayne (formerly Rosalie Kate) with a 37hp Beta engine came up for sale. We spoke to the seller who told us it was, amazingly, the same boat, still with its original engine and now with 3,000 hours on it.
Since those early days the relationship with Kubota has gone from strength to strength to strength and Beta now has 1,850-2,000 engines produced specifically for it every year. “Although Kubota is a big company, its not one that will ignore a smaller company the likes of us,” says Andrew Growcoot.
“I couldn’t believe it when I first went there. I was walking down the road towards the headquarters in Osaka and there were two Union Jacks flying outside, I thought they must be for someone else. I said ‘who are the flags for?’ and they said ‘for you’.”
With its relationship with Kubota sealed, Beta has grown and developed. Since 1987 the original quartet has become a workforce of 38 and the company has sold 36,275 engines in the last 30 years. Turnover for last year (2016) was £10,100,000.
The product ranges of inland waterways and seagoing engines, marine generating sets have expanded to include Perkins, Sabre, Scania, Cummins and Volvo base engines. It has dealers in some 50 countries and half of its products now go to the U.S.
It’s this latter aspect, and changes in European law, which brings the company to looking forward, because there certainly are challenges ahead – the largest of which is emissions controls. They were tightened in America in 2010 and now Europe has followed suit with the introduction of RCD II, the new version of the European Recreational Craft Directive, which puts strict limits on emissions from new engines.
“It’s a challenge,” says Technical Director Laurance, “you’re only as good now as meeting the emissions standards.” Proof of that comes with the fact that Beta had to drop its ‘Tug’ engine, a slow revving John Deere-based unit that mimicked older style narrowboat engines, in January because its emissions couldn’t meet the tight new regulations.
Fortunately, the company has had its own CAD-equipped research and development unit for quite a while, a department that’s becoming ever-more important to help find solutions to the tightening engine and emission laws.
By 2025, Laurance Talbot thinks that, like cars, we’ll be seeing a lot more smaller, turbocharged engines out on the cut. It makes you wonder what will be the shape of things in 30 years’ time.
Gang of four... Laurance Talbot, Andrew Growcoot, Ted Spash and Paul Grigg
CAD design in research and development
Those were the days – the original ledger
Turbos look to be the way ahead