Stonemasons : APS Masonry

Luke Conlon (left), one of the new owners of APS Masonry, with Project Manager Steve Byrne.

APS Masonry is one of the best known and most respected names in stonemasonry – too good to be allowed to close. That was why Paul and Luke Conlon decided to take it over rather than see the business disappear at the start of this year.

The name of Axtell Perry Symm (or APS Masonry) has been synonymous with fine stonemasonry for 200 years. And thanks to Paul and Luke Conlon it continues to be. But at the end of last year it looked as if the name was about to disappear.

To mark its bicentenary last summer the company was visited at its Osney Mead, Oxfordshire, headquarters by HRH The Duke of York. But by the end of the year the Symm Group had decided to close its stonemasonry department.

It was not the first time. It had announced in 2010, in the face of another prolonged economic downturn, that working stone could no longer be justified. But at that time it was persuaded to change its mind by an industry and its customers who said they relied on the work being produced by APS Masonry.

The Chief Executive of the Symm Group, Aidan Mortimer, said: “It surprised me, the depth of feeling about the quality of what APS do, the longevity of the business and the loss it would represent to what isn’t a large sector.”

Most of Symm Group’s work was then in building, joinery and heating & plumbing, although the joinery business has also left Osney Mead and joined with another workshop in Pershore. That was a year or so before the masonry business closure was announced.

In 2010 Aidan said stone was only needed on a select number of projects and as a result had extreme peaks and troughs that were difficult to predict and control. “Tusmore Parks are not regular,” he said, referring to the 3,800m2 award-winning neo-classical new build mansion for which APS supplied and installed the Massangis limestone in 2003/4.

The stonemasonry business, which had been run as a separate entity within the Symm Group, was shrunk down and absorbed into the main group to reduce its management costs. Managing Director Jonathan Grayburn was among those who left at that time.

But by the end of last year Symm decided that not enough had changed to warrant continuing in stonemasonry. This time the shareholders had less sympathy for the unquestionable skills in the masonry workshops and were not about to change their collective mind.

Then, at the 11th hour, Paul and Luke Conlon stepped in. They own Cotswold Natural Stone Ltd in Shilton, Oxfordshire, and believe APS Masonry can work comfortably in a complementary role alongside their Cotswold Natural Stone business, which operates building stone quarries and masonry works.

Steve Byrne, who was the Axtell Perry Symm Project Manager under Symm, continues to manage the business. He has worked for APS for 35 years, starting as a 16-year-old apprentice on the banker. “In those days, when you went on site everyone would make way for the masons. They were the kings of the trades. You’re not that top-of-the-tree contractor any more. Whether that’s a good thing or not I don’t know.”

He says when the 14 people working on the masonry side were told about the closure it took a couple of weeks for it to sink in. As word spread in the industry there were a fair number of offers coming in from other companies who wanted to employ the APS people. Two of them left straight away.

Eventually, there were also offers to buy the business – five altogether, two considered more seriously than the others.

The successful bid was from Paul and Luke Conlon. “We looked at the business and thought it was a shame to see it close down,” says Luke. “We believed we could push it forward.

“At Cotswold Natural Stone we have our own works but without the level of equipment they have here [at APS]. We thought adding that equipment and the knowledge of the guys here to what we already had would make the business even more successful. It would enable us to provide services to the higher end client. There’s the capacity here, so all you need then is the drive.”

And the growth of Cotswold Natural Stone (CNS) since Paul and Luke took on the business from their late Father, Patrick Honlon, the founder of CNS who was a successful businessman in construction and oil, shows they have undoubtedly inherited his drive and creativity.

As Steve says, although there are advantages to having been at APS as long as he has, there was a danger he might have become blinkered. He welcomed new pairs of eyes looking at the business. “They can see what we do well and what we do poorly.”

Paul and Luke were keen to retain the skills at Axtell Perry Symm and very much wanted Steve Byrne and Production Manager Dean Fitzgerald to continue to manage the business.

“We had worked hard to make a go of it,” says Steve. “Everyone in the factory had been heads down, busting a gut for 12 months. It was not through a lack of effort in the factory that Symm decided to close us down.”

It was only the day before redundancies were due to be finalised that those working there were told the assets of the business had been sold and they were not going to be made redundant after all.

The Conlon brothers formed a new company, APS Masonry Ltd, to run the business, which continues to operate from the same premises in Osney Mead as before, renting the factory from Symm Group. It bought the machinery, stock and order book, so production for on-going projects continued seamlessly, although Symm had always intended to close down gradually in order to meet its commitments to existing clients.

The projects that the new company has inherited include a large house being built in the Cotswolds and a new music school in Oxford, as well as several smaller jobs, some on the heritage side that has always been an important part of the APS Masonry mix, especially maintaining the dreaming spires of Oxford colleges. Steve Byrne says the payroll and accounts are now done from a different office with slightly different requirements on him, but essentially the business is continuing much as before.

And although that is very much in the traditional stonemasonry side of the business, making any and just about all interior and exterior architectural limestone masonry for the finest construction and heritage work, APS Masonry has never been shy of combining hand skills with the latest machining technology. It was one of the first companies of its kind to invest in a sophisticated five axes CNC workcentre when it bought its Brembana G-Rex 12 years ago.