Firework manufacturer Black Cat is gearing up for its biggest night of the year. Get it right and the results are spectacular; get it wrong and bonfire night could be a damp squib. Malory Davies reports.
It is more than 2,000 years since the Chinese discovered that mixing together saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur creates a potentially explosive powder – and at least 800 years since the formula for gunpowder was brought to Europe.
Today there is a huge and growing trade in fireworks with products being manufactured in China and shipped over to the UK.
But the trade has all the hallmarks of a logistician’s nightmare. Almost all the fireworks sold in the UK are set off over a few hours on the evening of 5 November. Miss a delivery and it will be a year before you get a second bite at the cherry.
And you can’t just pile them up in an ordinary warehouse or even hold a substantial amount of stock in a shop. Fireworks are dangerous explosives and there are very strict rules about how and where they are stored and in what volume.
Huddersfield-based Black Cat & Standard Fireworks, the UK’s largest fireworks company, started preparing in earnest for bonfire night back in April when product packaging designs were first sent out to China.
Fireworks started arriving at Felixstowe from Hong Kong in July. By mid-September the port had received some 251 container loads – each one containing about 1,200 cartons (depending on the size of the cartons).
Logistics manager Roger Swithinbank, who is responsible for the movement of the fireworks, points out that, because they are explosives, they have to be moved off the dock at Felixstowe within 24 hours of arrival. The company can be fined £250 a day for failing to move the goods.
Then company tracks the progress of its containers but, even so, it only gets a few hours notice that the containers are ready to collect so the operation has to be extremely slick with its haulier’s fleet of vehicles ready to go at short notice.
Even with the best planning, things can go wrong. Swithinbank points to the high winds at Felixstowe in early September which halted activities at the port and containers of fireworks could not be moved out. “That throws your plans out of the window,” he says.
Because of the dangerous nature of the products, all the drivers have to be ADR Class 1 licensed.
Storing fireworks is not straightforward. Operations manager John Williams, who is responsible for the fireworks when they reach the 44 acre Huddersfield site, points out that they must be stored in a series of magazines. There are different magazines for different fireworks depending on the gunpowder content. The layout of the buildings has been carefully planned so that the magazines are far enough from each that they couldn’t set each other off if there were to be an explosion in one of them. The buildings are individually licensed and can only hold a certain amount of product.
Staff at the company go onto its “long hours” regime in early September when deliveries of product to stores start. From that point deliveries carry on right up until the eve of bonfire night. Safety is key in the delivery process as well. Delivery drivers must be ADR licensed and, while products can be delivered by the pallet to the major multiples, small local stores need a multi-drop delivery service.
Safety rules dictate that each shop has a limit on the weight of fireworks it can hold at any one time so it will receive a number of deliveries in the run up to 5 November.
Williams says the aim is to deliver about 70 per cent of a shop’s total requirement on the first drop and then top up later as required. Any product left in the shops on 6 November has become unsaleable (literally overnight) and must be collected and put back into a magazine. There is also a lot of work to do in handling the returns of display cabinets and so on. There is a small market for fireworks around New Year but once that is out of the way it is back to preparing for bonfire night next year.
Black Cat and Standard Fireworks sells more than seven million fireworks a year in the UK. It was launched by Yorkshire draper James Greenhalgh in 1891 and moved to its Crosland Hill site in Huddersfield in 1910. During both the First and Second World Wars production switched to munitions and became an essential part of the war effort.
The company was floated on the Stock Market in 1959 and in 1988 it bought the old established Scottish based Brocks. 1998 saw the purchase of Standard by the Chinese company Black Cat Fireworks. As the largest manufacturer of fireworks in the world, Black Cat switched production to China.
The Huddersfield site is now the UK headquarters for Black Cat and acts as the sales, marketing and distribution centre for both the Black Cat and Standard product ranges.