GKN marks its 250th anniversary in 2009, celebrating a heritage that reaches back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Today’s GKN, which covers a huge spectrum of industries and technologies, has its roots in an iron works that was set up in the small Welsh community of Dowlais in 1759. Thanks to the pioneering vision and spirit of invention of the people who led the company in its early years, in particular Thomas Guest, the Dowlais Ironworks went from strength to strength, gaining worldwide recognition for excellence. In the mid-19th century the introduction of the Bessemer process paved the way for steel production and once again Dowlais was in the forefront of innovation, forging international business links and, in 1857, opening the world’s most powerful mill.
At the beginning of 1900 Guest, Arthur Keen’s nut and bolt company and the world’s premier screw maker Nettlefolds combined to create GKN. The company was now the world leader in nuts, bolts, screws and fasteners.
From mining to manufacturing, the company had interests in every aspect of the production process. Its market position was strengthened between early 1920s and late 1930s by a series of business acquisitions. These were mainly within the UK, but in 1920 the company continued its overseas expansion with the take-over of John Lysaght, a company with steel-making operations in Australia. This was followed four years later by a move into Asia to take control of Guest Keen, William Ltd, one of India’s leading engineering businesses.
In the 1950s there was a period of expansion that saw GKN identify and invest in many different areas of industry, manufacturing and services. Its global interests increased at the same time, with acquisitions and new business launches giving it a strategic base on every continent.
One of the principal areas of growth was in automotive products. Following the breakthrough innovation of the front-wheel drive Mini in 1959, GKN was able to take advantage of the fast-growing market for constant velocity joints for the new generation of front-wheel drive cars. In 1966 GKN acquires Birfield, a widely diverse group. The acquisition included a Uni-Cardan and further important patents for constant velocity joints. Since then GKN has remained at the forefront of automotive component and driveline system production, successfully designing and marketing new products that meet the changing needs of the global market.
GKN’s 20th century growth has also seen it extend operations into aerospace, offhighway and production and application of powder metals. In 1986 the company’s name was changed to GKN plc, a move that was symbolic of the move away from the steel and steel products businesses that were historically associated with the company.
As GKN celebrates its landmark anniversary, the company is very much a 21st century business, operating around the world to serve established and emerging markets with leading-edge products, technologies and services. At the same time GKN sustains the spirit of innovation and forward-thinking business planning that powered the success of the founding in the 18th century.