Engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, Queens Award winner, athlete…
Just a few words to describe William (‘Bill’) Laws - our Mechanical Engineering alumnus from the class of 1961.
After graduating with a First Class Honours degree from what was then known as The Brunel College of Technology (later to become Brunel University London), Bill took up a position with the British Iron & Steel Research Association (BISRA) in Battersea and quickly rose to become head of department. But in 1977, with his colleague and fellow Brunel alumnus Geoff Reed, they left to form their own company - Encomech. For Bill and Geoff, a double Queens Award for Export and Technology was to come in 1989, making them one of only three companies in Britain to receive the prestigious honour at the time.
The Brunel years
As a young student at Emanuel School, Bill proved to be a “brilliant, but naughty student whose youthful pranks nearly blew up the physics department on more than one occasion!” Bill’s genuine passion for his subject led him to Wandsworth Technical College before starting his Engineering degree with Brunel in 1957.
During his studies, Bill was one of the early pioneers of what is now the Brunel placement, combining university study with industry experience; a signature scheme that Brunel - now in its 2019 formation - still takes great pride in. As a student apprentice sponsored by Napier Aero Engines Ltd. in Acton and described as “one of the leading lights in the group,” he was in one of the first ever groups of students to graduate from Brunel in the early 1960s, making his way into the world of work with a first class degree under his belt.
Described as “an outstanding student” in his final year report, Gordon Halcrow - a former Brunel academic in The Department of Mechanical Engineering - recalls Bill’s success as a Brunel student: “I was Bill’s personal tutor and lecturer in his third and fourth year of Applied Thermodynamics. In my long career in Higher Education, I think he was the most talented student that I had encountered” adding that “[Bill] was the very best student in my long career at Brunel” - a relationship that developed into a lifelong friendship.
Bill met his future wife, June, during his apprenticeship with Napier and they married in 1961 - Gordon recalls: “When he asked me to be best man at his wedding, over fifty years ago, I felt privileged.”
Following his graduation in 1961, Bill went on to become Assistant Lecturer in A2Ec Materials here at Brunel until the end of the academic year before starting what was to be a long and successful career in engineering.
The career years
During his apprenticeship with Napier - and with a passion for fast cars and aeroplanes - Bill was proud to have worked on an engine rebuild on the Napier Railton; an aero-engined race car built in 1933 that is now displayed at the Brooklands Museum. After graduating from Brunel, Bill became a chartered engineer in his early 20’s and took up a position with the British Iron & Steel Research Association (BISRA) in Battersea.
It was at BISRA in 1968 that Bill was joined by a fellow Brunel Engineering alumnus, Geoff Reed, and from here that their own company - Encomech - was to launch some years later. Bill and Geoff proved to be a powerful combination as consultants and inventors, frequently bringing novel schemes to fruition and on to full scale production and use worldwide. Their most successful product idea - Encopanels - became accepted as the industry standard for heat retention panels used in the hot rolling of steel strip and was sold throughout the world.
Geoff recalls “I had resolved as a young engineer that if ever I got the chance to start a business I would jump at it. So when Bill asked me in 1977 to join him in the venture he was planning, I grabbed the chance. I reasoned that if anyone could make it, Bill could”
Geoff described Bill as a “truly great engineer and innovator with an international reputation.” Bill had his name on over 200 patents and had technical articles published in most of the world’s technical and scientific journals.
The Encomech journey
The Encomech journey is best described as ‘back room to top of the world’ - very literally starting life in the back room of Bill’s home. Geoff recalls: “When we set up, we had several ideas of problems we wanted to find solutions for. Quite a few came to nothing as we were as green as grass [in the beginning]”. Speaking in 1989, Bill said: “We thought we were commercially astute, but we soon realised there is a lot more to this business than meets the eye.”
Looking back on Encomech’s rise to success, Geoff explained how they chose a specialist field, came up with an idea, developed it and then moved into production. This is when they developed the Encopanel system; a revolutionary process to keep steel strip hot when it is being rolled into wide strip, therefore dramatically cutting production costs. It took several years of testing and refinement before convincing a very conservative steel industry to buy it. The eventual success of this product led them to be named as the recipients of two Queens Award in 1989; one for exports and the other for technology.
As an inventor, Bill’s name can be found on hundreds of patents. Encopanels alone - developed with his business partner, Geoff Reed - gave rise to over fifty. The protection these patents afforded enabled a small company like Encomech to do deals with big corporations without the fear of being exploited. The current tally of these multi-million pound Encopanel installations around the world is now over 25 and counting. Ownership has since passed to Siemens who continue to market the product worldwide. Encopanels are what Geoff calls “our main claim to fame!”
Their Queens Awards for Export and Technological achievement made them one of only three companies in Britain to receive the prestigious honour in 1989 and made them the smallest company ever to be so honoured. The duo were invited to a Reception given at Buckingham Palace by The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh for their awards ceremony; a memory they both treasured.
(Photo: Receiving their Queens Award certificates at a later celebration to mark their achievements; left-right - Bill Laws, the Lord
High Sheriff of Surrey, the Mayor of Epsom and Geoff Reed)
However, their success was a far cry from where they started, demonstrating their true entrepreneurial spirit. “We struggled. For the first few years we made little profit because we ploughed everything back into the business,” recalled Geoff. Both Bill and Geoff agreed that their staff - particularly their chief designer, Steve Tiffin, and their loyal secretary, Sue Powell, were instrumental in the firm’s success, both agreeing that the Queens Awards were a reflection of Encomech’s team effort.
They also achieved success as the winners of the Dowding Medal and Prize for personal achievement, awarded for their contribution to, and in recognition of, hot rolling science.
An engineer through and through, Bill was made a Fellow of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in 1975, later going on to achieve 50 years of membership.
In life, Bill was the type of character who embraced everything, with his daughter Jo affirming that “his many interests kept him active and young” and that “even though he was 80 years old, I didn’t think of him as old!”
Apart from his business, running, his family and the Belgrave Harriers, Bill was also a passionate gardener. At home he relaxed with his family but also worked hard physically, mastering the Churchillian hobby of brick-laying, not to mention bridge and hot-house building, and looking after the numerous animals that shared the family domain and paddocks.
Bill’s daughter Tina recalls: “Dad lived life to the full, encouraging us to ‘work hard and play hard.’ He was always happy in his garden at home, starting new projects, building a wall or a bridge - he loved the great outdoors.”
Bill was also incredibly passionate about his career, and enjoyed sharing tales of his work exploits, recalling the many ‘unusual’ situations he often found himself in. During a business trip to Hong Kong he was asked to present a Police award in place of the dignitary no longer able to attend, something Bill very much enjoyed, particularly as they thought he was a member of the British Government! Always a fan of a challenge, a business trip to Korea saw Bill challenged by his hosts to a karaoke competition - something he said he won with a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way!’
Bill also had a passion for athletics, and the Belgrave Harriers in particular, and put a great deal into supporting the club and its members.
The Belgrave Harriers
As a fourteen-year-old Bill was drawn to athletics, joining Belgrave Harriers in 1953 and declaring an interest in “cross-country” - which is where his longstanding association with the club began. “Bill was like a stick of rock that said ‘athletics’ all the way through” said Jodie Albrow, Club president for the Belgrave Harriers.
(Photo: The Belgrave Harriers)
Competing on the road at all distances up to 20 miles, the urge to take part didn’t leave Bill when he became a veteran, and continued with him until his fifties. Bill was a true supporter of the Belgrave Harriers, involved in taking on leading roles for the club; he was at the forefront of clubhouse redevelopments, was instrumental in forming the Belgrave Coaching Foundation - subsequently known as the London Coaching Foundation - and was key to setting up the South London Athletics Network. Bill leaves a legacy of encouraging the pursuit of excellence in young athletes, bringing the Belgrave Harriers Association to be known internationally.
“He combined his commercial acumen, self-belief and drive for achievement with his passion for athletics to achieve extraordinary things” said Alaster Stewart of the Harriers. “His clear love of the sport was contagious.”
Belgrave sprinter Greg Cackett represented Team GB at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang as a brakeman in the 4-man bobsleigh. He said: “Bill was an integral part of my career and a huge reason I sit here with these [Olympic] rings on my arm. He guided me, supported me and facilitated the biggest change in my career.”
Bill was made President of the Belgrave Harriers from 1989-1990 and again from 2016-2017. He was one of only five people to be elected President on two separate occasions, and was delighted to later be elected as a life member of the club.
(Photo: Bill Laws - The Belgrave Harriers)
Bill sadly passed away on 8 January 2019 at the age of 80 after a battle with Prostate Cancer, leaving behind a legacy from the contributions made to engineering and athletics. A fighter until the end, Bill was a man who embodied the true Brunelian spirit demonstrating his creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial gumption throughout his life with modesty and a genuine respect and passion for others.
In addition to these qualities, Bill’s beloved Belgrave Harriers also marked Bill as a ‘dreamer’ saying that “throughout his life he managed to turn many of his visions into reality; and he dreamed big dreams.”
This quality in him summoned the belief and determination to make things happen… something that Bill had by the bucket-full, both in his career and personal life.
Bill’s family’s wish is to raise more awareness of Prostate Cancer and to encourage men to get checked sooner. For more information, please visit the Prostate Cancer NHS webpages. To help raise awareness and lend a hand to support fundraising for ground-breaking research, please visit Prostate Cancer UK.
Special thanks go to the Laws family, Geoff Reed and Gordon Halcrow for sharing their stories and the Belgrave Harriers for allowing us to use their tributes and biography of Bill.