In Rochdale in the early 1900’s, a young Frank Wilson was dismissed from his job as salesman to a paper wholesaler for lateness. His role had involved dealing with the sales of imported lever arch files and box files from Germany. Using his contacts he went alone and soon realised that instead of importing the office files he could use the local knowledge of spindle manufacture (from the Rochdale mills) to make binders himself. To put the business on a legitimate footing he formed the company WH Hilton in 1908.
Germany led the world in office filing at the time, and Frank made regular trips to Germany to get new ideas. This was put on hold by the First World War, which claimed the life of Frank’s friend and salesman Alfred Davies.
The 1920’s were a time of prosperity and growth for WH Hilton. Over one hundred staff were employed at the Verotax works in John St, Rochdale, and Frank was able to buy a second home in Southport. In 1932 Frank borrowed from the banks to invest in machinery to meet a colossal contract for record sleeves; however the record company reneged on the order and despite the overall profitability, the banks foreclosed and WH Hilton went out of business.
Frank restarted the business from scratch in his own name and re-employed some of his loyal employees. The business was gradually rebuilt and in 1939 he moved to Southport, opening a factory in Cross Street, whilst maintaining production in Rochdale.
During the Second World War, Frank’s eldest sons Kenneth and Bryan were called up for duty, leaving him running the business with his youngest son Frank. After the war Kenneth worked with his father in Southport, whilst Bryan headed south to London to set up a Sales Office in the Capital.
At the British Industrial Trade Fair of 1947, the company exhibited its latest innovation the Railex 221 Lateral Suspension File System, which had been designed by Alan Davies. Lateral suspension files had not been seen in the UK before and the interest was almost more than the company could cope with. The system was called 221 as it could condense two “four drawer filing cabinets” into one “lateral suspension cabinet”.
The brand name and later company name of “Railex” was introduced to reflect the company’s offering of rails and suspension files, and also to give a modern post-war feel to the brand.
During the 1950’s and 60’s the company continued to move forward. Kenneth took his father’s position as Chairman after Frank’s death in 1956, whilst Bryan continued to develop the London market. The third generation of the Wilson family started to enter the business with Kenneth’s sons Kenneth and Alan working alongside their father in Southport and Howard working with his father Bryan in London.
The company continually designed new products to meet new markets. Of these the most successful were the Easifile and Polifile that are still exceptional products today. Both gave an excellent alternative to the more common spring transfer file, with the Easifile perfectly dealing with low capacity situations and the Polifile looking after clients’ thick and bulky contents.
From a business perspective, the 1970’s and the 1980’s were excellent times for Railex. The company used its prosperity wisely and invested for future strength. Firstly, the company purchased an engineering company in Essex called Elite Manufacturing, who had a reputation for producing high quality filing cabinets. This allowed Railex to offer a complete office system solution that ranged from files to cabinets and was within the quality control of the Wilson family. From this, a range of specialist high-capacity cabinets to store Lloyd George wallets were developed for the medical market.
Secondly, the company had the foresight to invest in export.
Through a chance meeting at a trade fair in 1982, Railex started to develop an export market for Graphic Arts files in Germany. The files were designed to hold the printing plates needed by the German Print Trade. This link with Herman Lappe Hamburg, provided Railex with stable business that was not available to its competitors.
During the 1990’s trading conditions worsened due to an increase in buying consortiums and the associated focus on price over quality among other things. The prudence of the company over the previous decades allowed the company to ride the storm better than many of its competitors.
At the end of the century, along with the difficulties in the market, the Wilson family had to cope with a combination of ill health and the deaths of Kenneth Snr (1985), Alan (1996) and Bryan (1997) over a relatively short period of time. With the departure of the then Chairman, Kenneth Wilson in 1999 through ill health, by 2002 Howard was the only member of the Wilson family in direct management of the company.
The new millennium has brought a fresh breath to Railex. In order to create a strong more focussed management structure, the company split into two parts. Railex Systems Ltd is based in Essex and produces a wide-range of filing cabinets, mobile storage and bespoke storage solutions. Railex (Filing) Ltd are based in Southport and produce the range of files for which Railex became renowned. In both companies the mantra of “Quality and Service” are unchanged from the earliest days of WH Hilton.
In 2006 Debbie Jones and David Windsor, (both non family) became joint Managing Directors of Railex (Filing) Ltd. and Railex Systems was run by Howard Wilson as Chairman and Maurice Prager-Macholl (non family) as Managing Director. During this time Pat McDade (Kenneth Wilson's sister) became Group Company Secretary, and has been very involved in dealing with the complex problems of our final salary pension schemes.
In 2010 the fourth generation of the family, Rosalind Fornasier, became Managing Director of Railex Storage Ltd (formerly Railex Systems Ltd) and Director of Railex Ltd. the holding company after joining the business in 2003. Her husband, John Fornasier, is now Operation Manager of Railex Storage Ltd. To date Howard Wilson is the Group Chairman. We would like to thank all the non family Directors for their hard work and achievements.